H I G H L I G H T S
• Security Council addresses evolving situation in Afghanistan
• Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying
• UN Human Rights Council’s Emergency session on Afghanistan
• India’s Presidency of the Security Council
• Fear of 76th UN General Assembly being a possible ‘super spreader’ event
August is ‘lean’ season for the UN system. However, with various global issues ‘hotting up’ metaphorically and literally, the month was busier for most UN institutions than usual.
Security Council addresses evolving situation in Afghanistan
The fast-moving changes in the ‘ground realities’ of Afghanistan were reflected in the Security Council’s consideration of the subject during August. The shifting nuances of outcomes manifested the evolving situation. The Council responded to the developments through press statements issued on 3rd August, 16th August and 27th August. The month ended with the adoption of resolution 2593(2021).
On 3rd August, the members of the Security Council declared that “they do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate.” With swift advances made by the Taliban and the breakdown of state authority, this assertion was never reiterated in any other product issued by the Council during the month. Instead, on 16th August, the focus was on “institutional continuity and adherence to Afghanistan’s international obligations.” Also, while emphasising that the territory of Afghanistan should not be used to threaten or attack any country, a formulation was added that “neither the Taliban nor any other Afghan group or individual” should support terrorists operating on the territory of any other country. This reference to the Taliban was excised from the following statement on 27th August condemning the Kabul attack due to Chinese objections.
With the imminent departure of the US forces on 30th August, the Council adopted a resolution with 13 affirmative votes and two abstentions (China and Russia). The resolution proposed by UK, France and the USA was initiated on 27th August and swiftly voted upon. It primarily emphasized on the humanitarian aspects. It calls for unimpeded access to humanitarian assistance. The Taliban’s adherence to its commitments about safe departure of those Afghans and foreign nationals who may want to leave Afghanistan is the principal focus. However there are no implementing mechanisms to ensure actualization of this goal on account of Chinese and Russian objections. Chinese objections to reverting to language of the 16th August statement with reference to Taliban not supporting terrorists meant that instead Taliban’s commitments in this context are referred to.
Comment: The Security Council traversed quite a distance in its approach to addressing issues relating to Afghanistan. The initial approach was to address the matter through press statements. These are fairly low in the hierarchy of outcomes. The resort to a resolution on humanitarian aspects is primarily a P/3 initiative aimed to flag continuing concern with the situation in Afghanistan even as US troops departed from Kabul. It fell short of the initial ambition and was viewed as a ‘watered down’ version. More importantly, the resolution was replete with references to Taliban in a manner that tacitly acknowledges the entity deemed as a ‘terrorist’ organisation in many Security Council decisions is now the primary actor in Afghanistan. In September, this focus on Afghanistan at the UN is likely to continue. The decisions relating to renewal of the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA); extension of the travel ban on exemptions of various Taliban leaders; and the matter of credentials of the Afghan delegation at the next General Assembly session are issues that need to be addressed. Consequently, Afghanistan will likely remain high on the UN agenda. As in August, it will be ground level developments in Afghanistan that will influence diplomatic decision-making at the UN in September.
Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying
Climate change concerns persistently highlighted by the UN system (See UNcovered September 2020 & December 2020) were ratcheted up several notches on 9th August. The findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) starkly projected that over the next 20 years, the global temperature is expected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming. The report is the sixth in the series initiated 31 years ago but the first since 2013. It is unequivocal that the changes are human-induced. Many of the changes are unprecedented in thousands of years. They are affecting every region. Some changes already set in motion—such as continued sea-level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.
A few of the graphic examples cited are:
- In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years, and concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide were higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.
- The global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over a least the last 2,000 years. For example, temperatures during the most recent decade (2011–2020) exceed those of the most recent multi-century warm period, around 6,500 years ago.
- Global mean sea level has risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in at least the last 3,000 years.
The report, which represents mainstream scientific opinion, warns that climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying. Hence, it argues that unless rapid and deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades, achieving the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement “will be beyond reach”.
The reactions came in fast. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres termed the report as "a code red for humanity “. US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry said the findings underscored “the overwhelming urgency of this moment”. The UK’s Alok Sharma, who will preside at the November COP 26, said that “If ever there was going to be a wake-up call for the world when it comes to climate, then it is this report.”
Comment: The report is the first part of the Sixth Assessment Report. It has the Working Group I contribution assessing the physical science basis of climate change. It represents the consensual view of 234 international scientists and conclusively settles the question of whether a climate emergency exists. The Working Group II report, assessing the impacts of and adaptation to climate change, is due to be released in 2022. The issue of whether the global will to address the climate crisis exists will be answered in some manner in November 2021 at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. How the transition to avoid the dire outcomes being predicted will be paid for remains the biggest challenge. For that there are no answers available.
UN Human Rights Council’s Emergency session on Afghanistan
Following the collapse of the Islamic Republic and the consolidation of the Taliban’s authority in most of Afghanistan, the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council held an emergency session on 24th August. UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet led calls for the Taliban to respect the rights of all Afghans and declared that the treatment of women and girls is a “fundamental red line” that should not be crossed. A resolution drafted by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was adopted. It did not once refer to the Taliban. It recommended the weakest possible response, just an oral update in September and a written report and a subsequent discussion on the report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in March 2022.
Comments: The contrast with the text adopted in the last special session on Syria is stark. That resolution had documented alleged crimes in detail, condemned perpetrators by name and mandated an investigation by Commission of Inquiry. No champion of human rights called for a vote on the Afghanistan resolution even while the chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission listed in vain before the Council, the documented instances of the Taliban’s summary executions, disappearances, restrictions on women, media & cultural life during their advance on Kabul. The politics of human rights were vividly on display.
India’s Presidency of the Security Council
In a deviation from the usual work load in August (which is a lean season at the UN) the Security Council agenda was heavier than usual. The mandates of peacekeeping operations in Lebanon, Somalia and the sanctions regime in Mali required adoption of resolutions for their extension. Issues relating to Myanmar and Ethiopia (Tigray) were considered, while the Afghan situation warranted repeated meetings. In addition, India had signature events on maritime security presided over, virtually, by Prime Minister resulting in a presidential statement; and a meeting presided over ‘in person’ by the External Affairs Minister lead to the adoption of a presidential statement on peacekeeping and technology. A resolution fostering accountability for crimes against peacekeepers was also adopted. This consensual effort garnered the sponsorship of all members of the Security Council. Such rare outcomes are referred to the UN Security Council parlance as ‘Presidential texts’. While it has no legal impact on the status of the text adopted it signifies politically the high level of support achieved by the Council for that resolution. Also, the report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security was discussed, after a Ministerial briefing. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla presided over adoption of a series of resolutions on 30th August.
Comments: All this signals engagement of India’s foreign policy decision-makers in Security Council matters in a manner that has not been pursued with such vigor in recent times. By all accounts the Indian presidency facilitated smooth conduct of issues. Also, India used the Presidency as a platform for public diplomacy that enhanced its visibility on the global platform. However, to project such a role as a stepping stone that enhances prospects of permanent membership would be a misreading. The two tasks are fundamentally of a different nature.
76th UN General Assembly - a possible super spreader event?
The annual UN General Debate of the 76th session of the General Assembly is planned from
21 September to 27 September 2021. The General Debate at the 75th session was reduced to being a video play back session ( See Uncovered September 2020). At the forthcoming session it has been agreed that representatives can either be physically present in the General Assembly Hall to deliver the statement, or like last year, submit a pre-recorded video statement.
Delegations will have to abide by strict social distancing and masking protocols on the premises and will be restricted to a maximum of 4 members (including the speaker at the General Debate). All persons entering the premises will be required to attest as a condition of entry that they have not had symptoms of or been diagnosed with COVID-19, or had close contact with someone who has symptoms of or has been diagnosed with COVID-19, in the previous 14 days.
While these arrangements are in the process of being implemented, the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is reported to have written to her counterparts suggesting that Heads of delegation should consider delivering their statements to the U.N. General Assembly's General Debate by video in order to prevent the General Debate from being a “super-spreader event”. It reflects the rising risks posed by the resurgence of the Delta variant in the US.
Comments: The General Debate is the busiest event at the United Nations headquarters, with heads of state and government converging in New York with their diplomatic entourages. Though the United States is the host country, it cannot dictate if foreign leaders can visit the United Nations to address the General Assembly during the General Debate. But the UN defers to the host government authorities on matters of health requirements. The US suggestion to scale back activities has thrown plans for various high-level events during the weeklong gathering into disarray. It is not even certain if President Biden will attend the session in person. Currently, Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to be the first speaker on Friday, 24th September. However, there has not been any official announcement if that will be made “in person” like in 2019 or through a video-recording as in 2020.
The previous issues of UNcovered are available here: LINK
(The views expressed are personal)