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• 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)


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• Winds of Change in Security Council Dynamics?     
• Fishy Business Continues
• Vienna nuclear talks in limbo until new Iranian President takes over 
• Many gain UNESCO recognition, one loses it
• Sneak Peek of India’s Presidency of the Security Council

In July, the Security Council, which returned to the practice of “in person” diplomacy under the French Presidency, scored a rare success by consensually agreeing upon the contentious issues relating to humanitarian assistance to Syria. The World Trade Organization in Geneva continued to struggle with the issues of Fishery subsidies and no progress was made on the India-South Africa “waiver proposal” The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization’s  World Heritage Committee which met virtually in China added several new sites to its list while also taking the rare decision to delist a site. Finally, the nuclear talks in Vienna remained in limbo as Iran sought time until the transition to the new Presidency in early August.

Winds of Change in Security Council Dynamics?

The festering issue of access routes for humanitarian supplies to besieged populations in Syria’s  northwest and northeast, had for quite sometime been viewed as a touchstone of whether the Security Council would be able to surmount well-known divergences  and work out a modus vivendi before the authorization lapsed on 10 July. Since the Security Council renewed the cross-border mechanism with the adoption of resolution 2533 in July 2020 after acrimonious negotiations and four failed draft resolutions, speculation was rife about its future.

The Bab al-Hawa crossing, which runs between Turkey and Syria is the last international border crossing administered by the United Nations. It is estimated that it is used by 1,000 trucks a month to deliver necessary humanitarian assistance to roughly 1.4 million Syrians. Coming into July, Russia had been arguing for its closure following the closure of the other crossing last year after Russian and Chinese vetoes. The argument was that “cross-line” deliveries (referring to aid that traverses a domestic frontline from Syrian government-held areas into areas outside government control in northwest or northeast Syria) were adequate and “cross-border” delivery from another country to Syrian territory held by rebels was an affront to Syrian sovereignty and needed to end. 

On the other hand, Ireland and Norway, the co-penholders on Syria’s humanitarian file, were promoting a draft that called for renewing the mandate of Resolution 2533 (2020), and provided for the authorisation of two crossings: the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border and the Al-Yarubiyah crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border to prevent Syria’s dire humanitarian situation from worsening. This also had the support of the UN Secretary General and the humanitarian community, but was opposed by Russia and China.

To counter this Russia, floated its own resolution seeking a six month extension of just the single existing border crossing with the “anticipation of renewal subject to the Secretary General’s report on transparency in operations and progress on cross-line access”, seemingly conditioning future renewal of the cross-border mechanism upon the evolution of cross-line deliveries.

While the exact processes remain unclear, it was high level bilateral contacts between Washington and Moscow that broke the impasse and a compromise was worked out. The agreement was the continuance of the single Bab-al-Hawa crossing for six months with an extension of an additional six months, “subject to the issuance of the Secretary General’s substantive report, with particular focus on transparency in operations, and progress on cross-line access in meeting humanitarian needs”.  The bilateral deal garnered the support of the other permanent members, with perhaps some degree of concern at being left out of the final deal-making. The elected members had little role  but to agree to an outcome  once the permanent members were on board. Thus came about a consensual outcome resulting in the adoption of Resolution 2585 (2021). Issues about whether the ambiguous language means an extension of the mandate by 12 months or for six months plus an additional six months subject to meeting of conditions remain. Nevertheless, the collective sigh of relief about an outcome overshadowed the concerns that continue.

Comment: The Security Council’s unanimous adoption of a resolution on provision of humanitarian assistance to Syria is being seen as a rare display of unity on a subject which has not seen unanimity since 2016. Last year’s resolution 2533 (2020) was reached at the fifth attempt after four other resolutions failed to get adopted, while this year only one resolution was put to a vote. Whether this signals a change in course of Council dynamics or merely is indicative of limited cooperation on some issues following big power agreement remains to be seen.

Fishy Business Continues

In a bid to the rejuvenate the negotiations to eliminate subsidies contributing to over-fishing globally, the new Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of the Geneva-based World Trade Organisation (WTO) convened an ad-hoc virtual ministerial meeting on 15 July. It was attended by more than 100 Ministers and senior officials.  The WTO has spent a long time on this issue. Talks on reducing trade-distorting fisheries subsidies started in 2001. They were supposed to be concluded by end-2020, but that deadline passed without agreement.

It is estimated that Governments provide approximately $35 billion in fisheries subsidies annually, with the vast majority going to large-scale, industrial fishing fleets. Subsidies for inputs like fuel and larger boats allow fleets to expand and intensify their operations. Countries that have depleted their own fish stocks are using these subsidies to allow their fleets to travel vast distances to exploit fisheries resources in distant waters. By some estimates, more than half of all fishing activity in the high seas would not exist without subsidies.

China, for instance, has the world’s largest and furthest-ranging industrial fishing fleet and is now the world’s largest fisheries subsidizer. China spends more than twice what the next largest subsidizer — the E.U. — spends on fisheries subsides. With Chinese fish stocks depleted due to overfishing, subsidies have enabled Chinese fleets to expand across the world’s oceans. China alone now accounts for an astonishing 42% of global fishing activity — outstripping the next 10 biggest countries combined.

9351015470?profile=RESIZE_710xThe imperative to conserve fish stocks is enshrined in the UN sustainable development goals (specifically target 14.6 ). Yet, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) located in Rome, says that 90% of global fish stock are fully exploited and about a third of global fish stocks are now at biologically unsustainable levels, up from 10 per cent in 1970. In short, global fisheries are in a perilous state. Notwithstanding this, the meeting did little to change established positions. Astute observers have noted that the statements at the meeting indicated three different narratives.

The first group could be said to be constituted of about two dozen countries led by New Zealand and other members of the so-called Group of Friends of Fish saw the draft text that was provided by Amb. Santiago Wills, the Colombian ambassador who chairs the talks, was a basis for concluding the agreement. They also seemed to concur with the treatment accorded to poor and vulnerable artisanal fishers and fishing communities with several conditions. The European Union too supported the current text as a basis and sought more stringent conditions for availing of special and differential treatment by developing countries, opposed inclusion of non-specific fuel subsidies even while also calling for special treatment to protect its access agreements, which act like food aid in agriculture.

The second narrative came from the large majority of developing and least developed countries, including India, South Africa, Jamaica on behalf of the ACP (Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific) group, Mauritius on behalf of the African Group, and the least-developed countries among others. The trade ministers/officials from these countries called for targeting harmful subsidies without providing any specific carve-outs.

The third narrative came from the United States, which had been missing at the WTO under the Trump administration now calling for including the issue of forced labour,  (targeted towards China). However, China and others pointed out,that there are other agreements addressing labour rights, and bringing in new issues at this stage was not the action conducive towards arriving at a quick win. The US however feels substantially more work is needed to make the text palatable.

In short, the meeting exposed the fault-lines that have remained difficult to bridge between in the negotiating positions of key groups and states. While the meeting may have attracted strong participation, it did not provide the way forward.

Comment: The fisheries talks are simultaneously a test of WTO’s traditional consensus negotiating model; a trial of whether rich and poor nations can overcome divisions about rights and responsibilities; a challenge about whether the institution can properly address environmental concerns; and an experiment by Director General Okonjo-Iweala (still with less than four months in the job) about leading from the front rather than waiting for unanimity to emerge as was the usual practice. The fisheries talks are quite unlike most negotiations at the WTO. Their goal isn’t just undistorted trade but delivering a global public good, in this case protecting the ecosystems of the world’s oceans. Meeting that objective still does not seem in sight.

Vienna nuclear talks in limbo until new Iranian President takes over

Iran has formally notified the European Union that it will not be ready to return to negotiations in Vienna, on possibly restoring full compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal until after Mr. Ebrahim Raisi is inaugurated as the next President in early August. The United States has responded that it understands that Iran is undergoing a transition after its June 18 presidential elections and that the U.S. negotiating team will be prepared to return to Vienna when Iran says it has completed its internal consultations. However, it has also started to caution that the process will not be open indefinitely.

There is no certainty if Mr. Raisi will retain the existing Iranian negotiating team or replace it with his own loyalists. There is also no clarity about the negotiating brief that the Iranian team will have. Experts are divided on whether they will be determined to show they can drive a harder bargain, getting more sanctions relief in return for temporary limits on Iran’s nuclear activities or they will continue with the same approach that Iranian negotiators have adopted in the six previous rounds and warp up the discussions quickly.

While the talks have paused, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors have very little idea of what is happening in the underground Natanz plant and other facilities where they had previously visited regularly. An agreement to keep IAEA cameras and sensors running lapsed in June (See  UNCovered June 2021). The Iranians indicate that access to the equipment will be restored when an accord is reached. However, there is concern in the IAEA that their inspectors will not be provided access to the footage after the understanding lapsed in June.

Comment: The hiatus in talks was not expected. According to western reports, the Iranian team seems to have indicated that they had the authority to wrap the outcome before Mr Raisi was inaugurated. That seems not to have been correct. This change in mid-course or rather just before the end game, opens up  a host of uncertainties. Both sides have much to lose if the delicate negotiation over their return to the 2015 nuclear accord fails to materialise, either on account of miscalculation by one side or the other that more concessions are possible or because each side mistrusts the other to a degree that it feels that the other would not be able to fulfill the agreement they have arrived at. Clarity on all this will only emerge after the new Iranian President settles into his role. Thus the optimism of a deal by August has given way to a pessimistic outlook that has made the date of resumption of the next round itself uncertain.

Many gain UNESCO recognition, one loses it

Since the Paris-based United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) began compiling its World Heritage sites list in 1972, additions often make news. The inclusion in this select group is seen as a form of global recognition, adds to prestige, opens up further prospects of tourism and consequential benefits. The label provides sites access to UN conservation funding and protection under the Geneva conventions in the event of war, as well as featuring in tourist guidebooks across the world. Therefore, understandably, the addition of the Harappan site of Dholavira in Gujarat and the Kakatiya Rudreshwara (Ramappa) Temple from Telangana  amongst 34 new inclusions at the online session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee hosted in Fuzhou (China) during 16-31 July was welcomed all over India. 40 sites from India are among the 1154 now in the UNESCO list.

In July, what perhaps made as much news was the deletion of the Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City in Liverpool from the world heritage list. This follows concerns raised since 2012 about the development of Liverpool waters dockland near the city centre, along with other developments both inside the site and in its buffer zone which the UNESCO decided were “detrimental to the site’s authenticity and integrity” and an “irreversible loss of attributes”. The site had been added to World Heritage List in 2004 in recognition of its role as one of the world’s major trading centres in the 18th and 19th centuries – and its pioneering dock technology, transport systems and port management. The delisting meant that it joins a small list of three sites which have been deleted. The other two being the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, in 2007, after concerns over poaching and habitat degradation and the Elbe Valley in Dresden, Germany, after the construction of the Waldschlosschen road bridge across the Elbe river.

Comment: The outcome relating to Liverpool reflects the tensions that arise, sometimes, in choices made between maintaining heritage and commercial regeneration that brings in jobs and other benefits. The intention to build the football club Everton’s new riverside stadium at Bramley-Moore dock was a factor  that “added to the ascertained threat of further deterioration and loss” of the heritage site’s historic value.

Sneak Peek of India’s Presidency of the Security Council

India has assumed the rotating Presidency of the Security Council for the month of August. This has garnered some media interest as it is the first time that India takes over this role in its current term. The next time will be in December 2022, the last month of India’s present term as a non-permanent member. In various statements, Indian diplomats have outlined Maritime Security, Peacekeeping Technology and Counter Terrorism as key priorities.  Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to preside over the signature meeting on Maritime Security. It will be a High-Level Open Debate held via videoconference (VTC) format on 9 August. While this is India’s 8th term as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, it will be the first time ever that an Indian Prime Minister will preside over a Security Council meeting, in any format, since India joined the UN as a founding member in 1945. An outcome in the form of adoption of a Presidential Statement is possible. External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla will  travel to New York in the third week of August to preside over other signature events.

Comment: August is lean season in New York. Many diplomats are usually away. However, the agenda of the Council maintains its own rhythm. Issues of the Middle-East and Africa, including renewal of peacekeeping mandates in Lebanon and Somalia,  as well as the  consideration of the Secretary General’s report on the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or Da’esh)  are major items on the agenda. It is expected that following the example of France in July, in August too “in person” meetings will be the norm in the Security Council.

The previous issues of UNcovered are available here: LINK


(The views expressed are personal)


Read more…


• Security Council remains mute while UNGA adopts Myanmar vote    
• Uncertainty about IAEA-Iran nuclear monitoring hovers over Vienna talks
• Cyber Security makes a formal entry in the Security Council 
• Revised waiver proposal meandering at WTO  
• Elections, re-elections, appointments and re-appointments  

In June, there was a return of regular  “in person” diplomacy at UN headquarters in New York. The Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) met throughout the month, more often than at anytime since March 2020. However, outcomes in the “new normal” at the UN seem similar to pre-covid times. The differences that ensured lack of action on such issues as Myanmar remained as entrenched as they were earlier, even though the ground situation has worsened. Interminable discussions at the WTO on the “waiver proposal” continued in Geneva. The shenanigans over the UN’s $6.378 billion annual peacekeeping budget in New York delayed adoption till the last day of the financial deadline on 30 June. On the other hand, back room agreements ensured that elections and appointments sailed through without serious differences. An incremental forward-looking effort was the initiative of Estonia as President of the Security Council convening the first-ever formal Security Council discussion on cyber security, signaling the evolving importance of the issue in the global security firmament.   

Security Council remains mute while UNGA adopts symbolic Myanmar vote

For the second month in succession the UNGA articulated a desire for greater international action on a matter of global concern, even while the Security Council remained unable to act. If in May the UNGA discussed the most significant resurgence of violent clashes between Israel and Palestinians in years (see see UNCovered May 2021), in June it was the developments in Myanmar that rose in prominence.

In an unusual gesture, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that condemned the coup; demanded an end to the five-month-old military takeover; called for the stopping of  the killing of civilians; and sought the freeing of imprisoned civilian leaders. Though it was non-binding, the resolution called upon all Member States “to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar” symbolizing the desire for an arms embargo. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 118 in favour and 1 against (Belarus) with 36 abstentions and 37 states not participating at all. Those supporting the move said that it was, “the broadest and most universal condemnation of the situation in Myanmar to date”. The outcome also had the strong support of UN Secretary General Guterres who remarked, “We cannot live in a world where military coups become a norm”.

However, the vote revealed that the ASEAN, which was touted as being in the vanguard of efforts towards a diplomatic outcome in Myanmar, was a divided house. Four ASEAN states abstained (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Brunei). The other six (including Myanmar whose representative supports the National Unity Government even though no country has formally recognized it) voted in favour. Finally, the outcome reflected the split in the approach to addressing the situation in Myanmar. Key Security Council members including Russia, China, and India abstained at the UNGA. This also meant that the month ended with the Security Council unable to move beyond what was expressed in their 10 March presidential statement, the 4 February press statement and 30 April press elements, despite the Council’s consideration of the matter during the month was for the sixth time since the military takeover in February.

Comment: The General Assembly's action which came just after the Security Council had held a 'private' meeting without any outcome is a reflection that despite this month the Council meeting often "in person", it is unable to act. Symbolic decisions  as at the UNGA do little to impact developments on the ground in Myanmar. In effect, they reinforce the thinking that the UN is often stifled by divergences on issues of geopolitical sensitivity. 

Uncertainty about IAEA-Iran nuclear monitoring hovers over Vienna talks

The saga of  the ongoing  “indirect talks”, in Vienna, to restore compliance of the US and Iran as signatories of the 2015 ‘Iran nuclear deal’ known as the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) continued. Despite the widespread belief that the sixth round of talks may be the last as the Biden administration and Iran both wanted to conclude a deal, the round ended with differences in four broad areas:

  1. Specific  sanctions the Iranians wanted lifted and the U.S. wants to keep in place;
  2. Measures US wants Iran to undertake to ensure nuclear advances Iran made are fully reversed;
  3. Iran’s demand for guarantees that the U.S. won’t quit the JCPOA again:
  4. The U.S. demand for follow-on talks

Meanwhile, the election of head of the judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, as the next President of the Islamic Republic of Iran has spurred talk that the negotiations need to be brought to a conclusion before he takes over six weeks after the election. A much more immediate concern arose on account of the unwillingness of Iran to immediately confirm extension of  the “temporary bilateral technical understanding” arrived with the  International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in February 2021 for a three month period, and extended by a further period of a month, i.e., until June 24, 2021. (for background see UNCovered February & May 2021)

The extension is a safeguard  to  assuage concerns that the IAEA is continuing the monitoring of  Iran’s nuclear activities during the ongoing talks. The lapse of the arrangement on June 24 has added to the uncertainty about the fate of the talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. The IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has been voicing concerns that the temporary arrangement by themselves have restricted IAEA access and has termed them as tantamount to the monitoring arrangements being on a “ventilator”. The delay in Iran extending even these arrangements has added to the IAEA’s discomfort. It has also prompted the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to warn that the day when the Biden administration may walk away from the nuclear talks is “getting closer”. On the other hand, the Speaker of the Iranian parliament  Mohammad Bagher GhalibafIran, though not the final authority on such matters, reportedly said that Iran would never share with the IAEA recorded footage of activity at some of its nuclear sites since the arrangement had lapsed.

Comment: The brinkmanship between USA and Iran has increased as the Vienna talks head towards their final denouement. This is at variance with both sides in the past trying to avoid distractions and make strides towards a return towards compliance with the JCPOA. Despite these discordant developments, both do not have a “Plan B” should the current effort collapse. Hence despite both sides sharpening their rhetoric, they will not easily give up on efforts to arrive at an agreement in Vienna.

Cyber Security makes a formal entry in the Security Council

At the initiative of Estonia, the President of the Security Council in June and a pioneer in the use of digital technologies, the  UN Security Council held its first-ever formal public meeting on cybersecurity on 29 June. Coinciding with the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) release of the global cybersecurity index the virtual meeting was presided over by  Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Estonia, with the participation of senior officials from various capitals.  

Previous formal discussions on cybersecurity and issues related to information and communication technologies (ICT) had taken place under UN General Assembly mandated processes. These have been in the format of a limited Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Advancing responsible State behaviour in cyberspace in the context of international security, and an Open-Ended Working Group on Developments in the Field of ICTs in the context of international Security (OEWG).  Earlier this year the OEWG had unanimously adopted its  final report and the Chair's summary (See UNCovered March 2021). The Council debate follows several other discussions by Council members of the subject in various  formats and comes at a time when the issue is garnering global interest in light of growing number of cyber attacks and even featured on the agenda of the Biden-Putin summit meeting in Geneva earlier in the month.

Comment: The Security Council has sought to address what it considers to be “emerging threats” to international peace and security. These include issues such as climate and security, pandemics, and food insecurity, among others. The Council has considered these, at times, at the thematic level while also integrating some of them into country and region-specific outcomes. In light of the growing instances of malicious incidents targeting ICT, cyber security discussions too fit into this broader pattern. However, as yet, there has not been any formal outcome from the Council’s deliberations on this issue.

Revised waiver proposal meandering at WTO

The tortuous course of the India - South Africa  “waiver proposal”  from certain  provisions of the TRIPS Agreement (see UNCovered November 2020 and May 2021) at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) continued. This was so even after the effort gained some steam following the statement of support by the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s  last month. In early June, the European Union put forth its own proposal with a different approach, focusing on compulsory licensing, to address shortages of vaccines and other requirements needed during the pandemic. As the number of global Covid-19 deaths in 2021 exceeded deaths in 2020 (see figure below), delegates are considering both the proposals separately.


However, since the EU proposal is fundamentally different from the India-South Africa proposal, many view it primarily as an attempt to stall the progress of the waiver proposal. Some feel that the EU proposal has a different legal basis and cannot be an alternative to the waiver proposal. They are therefore keen to move ahead expeditiously to negotiate the waiver proposal in July. The EU is keen to have its proposal considered on an “equal footing” with the waiver proposal, whereas those opposing it feel that it can’t be treated on par with the waiver proposal that has been on the table for discussions since October 2, 2020. They consider the EU initiative as disingenuous and nothing more than window dressing on a system that is already in place  and has proved during this pandemic to be insufficient when it comes to improving access to COVID-19 medical tools. The US view is that the most expeditious pathway toward consensus would be to focus efforts on actions needed to address specifically the supply and distribution of vaccines , rather than the broader approach of pandemic-related “health products and technologies,” contained in the India-South Africa proposal. All this has meant that while there have been many “small group” consultations and discussions have clarified positions, “text-based negotiations” are yet to begin.

Comment:  The consensus-based nature of the WTO and the complexity of the issues involved mean that the negotiations as and when they begin will remain a time-consuming process, even as the equitable availability of vaccines remains a pressing global concern.

Elections, re-elections, appointments and re-appointments

The UN witnessed a spate of elections and appointments.

  • On June 7, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted to elect the Maldives Foreign Minister  Abdulla Shahid as the President of the 76th UNGA succeeding the incumbent Volkan Bozgir of Turkey. In a rather one-sided outcome, he polled 143 of the 191 votes cast. The only other candidate in the fray, the former Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Zalmai Rassoul got 48 votes. In this contest amongst two friends, India had thrown its lot in favour of the Maldivian candidate who will assume office in September 2021 for a year.  
  • On June 11, the UNGA elected five non-permanent members of the Security Council for a two-year period. All new members were elected without a contest, having already been endorsed by their respective regional groups, but were required to demonstrate that they had the support of more than 2/3rd of the general membership (129 votes). The five elected were: Albania (elected for the 1st time) with 179 votes from East East Europe; Brazil (elected for the 11th time) with 181 votes from Latin America and the Caribbean; the United Arab Emirates (elected for the 2nd time) with 179 votes from the Asia-Pacific; Gabon ( elected for the 3rd time) with 183 votes and Ghana with 185 votes (elected for the 3rd time) for the two seats from Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo which had in May announced its intention to contest for the African seat withdrew ahead of the election. The new members will take their seats from January 1, 2022.
  • On June 11 the UNGA elected 22 members of the Economic and Social Council. 18 of these, including India, were elected for a 3 year term starting from 1 January 2022. Besides 4 were elected for a single year to fill vacancies of unfulfilled terms of states who chose relinquish their seats ahead of completion of normal terms. All these 22 candidates won without a contest, i.e., the number of candidates were equal to the number vacancies.
  • Also on June 11, the UNGA approved UN Secretary General Guterres’s nomination of Ms Rebeca Grynspan of Costa Rica as the new Secretary-General of the Geneva-based UNCTAD (UN Conference on Trade and development). Ms. Grynspan,  is the first woman and Central American to be appointed as Secretary-General of UNCTAD. A veteran international civil servant who had served with the UNDP. A former Vice-President of Costa Rica, she is an economist and the current Secretary-General of the Secretariat of the Ibero-American Conference. She will be the 8th Secretary General of UNCTAD.
  • On June 18 the UNGA by acclamation acted upon the recommendation of the Security Council (also by acclamation at a private meeting on June 8), to appoint incumbent UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for a further period of 5 years starting from 1 January 2022. In accordance with past practice, the process of re-appointment of an incumbent Secretary General was completed in June, as was the case with two of Guterres’s immediate predecessors - Ban ki-Moon and Kofi Annan (see UNCovered May 2021)

Comment: These smoothly conducted processes indicate that despite the contestation on so many different global issues, the continuity and changes in memberships of UN bodies are largely uncontested.


(The views expressed are personal)


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• Israel-Palestine issue figures in many UN fora     
• 74th World Health Assembly 
• New hope for WTO waiver proposal
• Extension of IAEA and Iran understanding gains more time for JCPOA negotiations   
• A sneak peek of what awaits multilateral fora in June 

During May, several multilateral platforms were more active than at anytime since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In New York, the conflict in Gaza brought forth a burst of activism at the Security Council and the General Assembly not witnessed in the recent past.  The Human Rights Council (HRC) based in Geneva joined in and was the only UN body that produced a substantive outcome. At the World Health Organisation (WHO), the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA) was underway with closer scrutiny than perhaps ever before in its history. At the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the India-South Africa IPR waiver effort got a boost with the US announcement of support for text-based negotiations. In Vienna, the IAEA and Iran agreed to extend their verification arrangements by a month, providing more time for negotiators to restore the US and Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA.

Israel-Palestine issue figures in many UN fora

The regular attention that the periodic resurgence of violent clashes between Israel and Palestinians attracts is a staple at multilateral fora. In May, on account of the most significant escalation of violence in the region since 2014, resulting in the death of 270 Palestinians and 10 Israelis, the issue figured in four UN system organs.

  • The Security Council charged with maintenance of international peace and security had two informal consultations and an open debate on the subject before a cease-fire brokered with behind the scenes assistance from Egypt ended 11 days of  hostilities. The Council’s deliberations did not lead to any outcome, with the US repeatedly blocking several attempts at a press statement (which figures very low in the pantheon of responses) and also opposing a draft resolution proposed by France. All this was ostensibly on grounds that it would not help diplomatic efforts to end the conflict between Israel and Hamas. This enabled China to pose as a defender of multilateral action and portray the US at odds with the rest of the Council membership. It was only after the ceasefire came into effect on May 21 that the Council adopted a rather anodyne press statement on May 22 welcoming it and mourning the loss of lives, while also stressing the importance of comprehensive peace. If at all reiteration was required that the Security Council’s role is limited in such crises with geopolitical implications, recent events provided that.
  • Meanwhile, the General Assembly which has been inert during the pandemic sprung to life and held its first high level “in person” session on May 20, to address the issue. Representatives of more than 100 states, including many Foreign Ministers from members of the  Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) participated. Given the emphasis on process rather than product, the conduct of the meeting itself was viewed as a success as it provided a forum for articulating the sentiments of the international community.
  • On May 27, the Human Rights Council convened a special session, at the request of OIC members on the human rights situation in occupied Palestine territory.  The HRC delivered what was perhaps the only product from the UN system on the recent events. By a majority vote (Yes 24, No-9 and Abstain-14) the 47 member Council adopted a resolution to  establish an ongoing independent commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international humanitarian law and all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law leading up to and since 13 April 2021, and all underlying root causes of recurrent tensions. Russia and China who usually have misgivings about such investigations voted in support of the resolution. Conversely, Europeans who usually support such initiatives either voted against or abstained. In keeping with usual practice, India abstained. Israel, expectedly, denounced the decision as “shameful”.  The US which is not a member of the HRC did not even speak as an Observer. Later, it dismissed the vote as a “distraction”, which contributes nothing to humanitarian and diplomatic efforts and instead “threatens to imperil” the recent progress.
  • Sharpened Israeli-Arab differences, on account of the recent hostilities, spilled over to the WHA where nearly the  whole of May 26 was devoted to addressing an annual resolution on the health conditions in the Israeli-occupied Arab Territories.  Ultimately the resolution  was adopted by a painstaking virtual roll call vote with 83 votes in favour, 14 against and 39 abstentions.

Comment: Despite this hardy perennial item of multilateral discussion surfacing in many ways at UN fora during the month, these deliberations did not add much to the issue. The exception was the decision of the HRC to establish an independent commission of inquiry with an ongoing mandate. It is not the first time that the HRC voted for a panel on this agenda item. However, this time it is “ongoing”, giving it a salience similar to such panels set up for Syria and Myanmar and distinctive from the past panels on Israel/Palestine. The progress and outputs of the panel, therefore, are likely to be recurrent themes in future multilateral debates on the subject.                                                                                                                

74th World Health Assembly

The WHA  - the annual decision making body of the WHO - while formally hosted in Geneva, took place online (May 24 - 1 June) for the second year in succession. On top of the agenda are issues of how to end the COVID-19 pandemic and avert future health crises. The priorities include taking stock of the inadequacies of the current system that led to the biggest health disaster of our lifetime with devastating impact on our economies and societies. The focus therefore was on how to fix the Covid-ridden health system and step up global response to future crises. Also what was distinctive this year was the USA’s return to active engagement at the WHA.

Three committees commissioned by the WHO to study the pandemic response  – the International Health Regulations Review Committee (IRC), the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IOAC) and the independent panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR) – presented their findings and recommendations.

The inputs of these reports, in various ways, pointed to the need for a new “Pandemic Treaty”. The common narrative in the reports was that a lack of authority and resources available to the WHO led to glaring shortcomings in pandemic preparedness, thereby also preventing an effective international response to the pandemic. Building on this, a group of 26 countries led by the EU but consisting of representatives from diverse regions  was keen that the WHA approve the launch of negotiations on a legal instrument strengthening the WHO’s toolkit similar to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The votaries had hoped to begin negotiations before the end of the year, with the goal of completing them by March 2022. The USA, Russia and Brazil argued in various ways against even considering whether a new instrument was necessary at this stage. Faced with such objections, it was felt that a divisive debate should be avoided at the current WHA. Instead, it was agreed that a special WHA session would be held in November 2021 “dedicated to considering the benefits of developing a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response”.

The debate about the origins of COVID-19 virus which has been reignited since the inconclusive report of the WHO-led Mission to Wuhan ( see UNCovered March 2021)  gathered further steam during the WHA. Following President Biden’s decision to seek a further investigation of the origins, it has became an important aspect of the negotiations still underway on the resolution on Strengthening WHO preparedness and response to health emergencies. How to proceed further in unveiling the origin of the pandemic remained extremely contentious. Attempts to include an explicit reference to an “investigation” of the virus origins as part of the “missions” and “studies” that the WHA had approved in a resolution last year were consistently opposed by China and its supporters. Even efforts to highlight international obligations to adhere to WHO’s International Health Regulations that mandate transparency have been caveated with provisos about taking into account national laws. These are a euphemism that China has used not to provide data to the WHO team on grounds that they would violate national privacy laws. Notwithstanding the media focus on the issue the outcome did not build on the last WHA effort on the subject.  Thus, the WHA ends today by throwing the ball back in the court of WHO Director General on how to proceed further with the expert-led, evidence-based study of the origins of the pandemic.

Vaccine equity remained a prominent rhetorical theme at the WHA, with the WHO estimating the difference in the number of doses administered per 100 people between high-income and low-income countries being more than 75-fold. However, as the focus on this subject has shifted to the WTO on account of the Indian-South African initiative submitted there, a rather general resolution to stimulate local production of medicines and health technologies was the only outcome on this at the WHA. Nevertheless, the hope was repeatedly expressed that the sentiments  for greater equity expressed at the WHA would also have an influence on the thinking at the nearby WTO.

Making pandemic responses a higher political priority backed by a stronger legal mandate, changes to international health regulations and enhancing the political independence of the WHO were amongst the recommendations of the IPPR report as also that of the IRC. The WHA outcome documents have elements that launch processes which will lead to discussion and adoption of several of these recommendation. 

Amidst the focus on health issues, some thorny “political” issues were sidestepped.

  • Taiwan, which was keen to regain observer status which it had at the WHA from 2009 to 2016, was stalled for the fifth consecutive year. Buoyed by the expression of support by the G-7, Taiwan made the argument that its efforts in fighting the pandemic required international cooperation. However, China mustering written support from 80 countries and with the tacit understanding of numerous others won the legal argument that UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 and WHA Resolution 25.1 provided the legal basis for the WHO to abide by the one-China principle, and recognize Taiwan as part of China.
  • A possible WHA debate over whether to credential Myanmar’s deposed civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, or the new military rulers who seized power in February, was deftly buried by the WHA credentials committee. The decision was to defer consideration on who would represent Myanmar to a later date, pending guidance from the UN General Assembly.  Myanmar’s seat, therefore, was left vacant.

Comment: The 74th WHA was the first opportunity for members to outline their approaches to the WHO’s long-term strategy, following the cataclysmic impact of the pandemic. Irrespective of the specifics outcomes, it is likely to have incubated several elements that  may emerge as tangible  decisions in the future.                                                                                             

New hope for WTO waiver proposal

After being balked by several developing countries for over six months, the India - South Africa proposal for temporary waiver from provisions of the TRIPS Agreement (see UNCovered November 2020 and April 2021) gained a new lease of life on May 5. This followed the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s statement announcing the Biden Administration’s support for waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

While the US indicated a willingness to waive patents on vaccines, the India-South Africa proposal included much more. It related to pandemic-related “health products and technologies,” including vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and personal protective equipment (PPE). Countries such as, New Zealand and Ukraine have shifted to support the US as has the Gates Foundation. The EU, though willing to “discuss” proposals remains skeptical as influential European leaders remain opposed to a waiver. Some others such as Norway, Singapore and Taiwan seem to have remain unconvinced. Since the Biden expressed support for a waiver proposal there are reports of pharmaceutical industry trade groups seeking support of Germany, Japan, Australia  and other countries that expressed opposition.

Also, during May vaccine makers have made announcements about greater willingness to supply doses through the Covax initiative to developing countries. Moderna announced that it would supply up to 500 million doses of its vaccine to Covax, including an initial 34 million later this year.  Subsequently, Pfizer and partner BioNTech SE announced that they would deliver 2 billion doses to developing countries over the next 18 months. Building on the momentum gained following expression of US support, on May 25, India and South Africa submitted a revised waiver proposal that  outlines a temporary reprieve for a three year period and thereafter to be subject to review of the WTO Council. The scope however remains as in the initial proposal.

Comment: The arguments for and against the waiver are well known, yet no quick resolution of this matter is foreseen, given the commercial stakes involved for all stakeholders. At the informal WTO meeting on May 31, several countries made general statements as if sizing each other up before the formal discussions set for later in June. The US shift has been a ‘game changer’, not in terms of decisive movement for the waiver, but in jolting those opposing it to look at serious alternatives to the inflexible approach they have adopted thus far. 

Extension of IAEA and Iran understanding gains more time for JCPOA negotiations

The  International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and the head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran  (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi agreed to extend the “temporary bilateral technical understanding” arrived at in February 2021 for a three month period, by a further period of a month, i.e., until June 24, 2021.  The extension provides more time for negotiators who are engaged in  “indirect talks”, in Vienna, to try and come to an agreement on restoring compliance of the US and Iran with the JCPOA. (For background see UNCovered February 2021 & April 2021). Following the extension, a fifth round of talks on the JCPOA got underway on May 25 to address key outstanding issues, amidst expressions of hope that it might be the final series of negotiations.

Comment: The extension of the IAEA-Iran arrangement avoided the derailing of the JCPOA negotiations, which have by all accounts made progress. It also indicated that Iran remains interested in seeking revival of the 2015 agreement, despite the pulls of domestic politics in view of the impending Presidential elections to be held on 18 June 2021. The start of the current phase of negotiations has engendered cautious optimism about resolution of  outstanding issues.   

A sneak peek of what awaits multilateral fora in June

In Vienna, the ongoing JCPOA negotiations will perhaps move to a decisive phase in June. In Geneva, the WHA will conclude its most significant session in recent times and greater clarity will be provided about where the waiver proposal is headed at the TRIPS Council of the WTO. In New York, a series of important elections are scheduled.

  • On June 7, the UN General Assembly will choose its next President to succeed the incumbent Volkan Bozgir of Turkey. In the fray are the Maldives Foreign Minister  Abdulla Shahid and the former Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Zalmai Rassoul. In this contest amongst two friends, India has thrown its lot in favour of the Maldivian candidate. 
  • On June 11, the General Assembly will elect five non-permanent members. As is customary now, most members will be elected without a contest, having already been endorsed by their respective regional groups. From East Europe, Albania is the sole candidate to replace of Estonia. From the Latin America and the Caribbean,  Brazil is the only candidate to replace St. Vincent and the Grenadines. From the Asia-Pacific, the United Arab Emirates is the only candidate to replace Vietnam. All of them will be elected, without a contest. However, three African states - Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and Ghana will contest for the two seats to be vacated by Niger and Tunisia. The new members will take their seats from January 1, 2022.
  • Finally, if one goes by past precedent, the process of the uncontested re-election of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres may also be completed in June, as was the case with two of his immediate predecessors - Ban ki-Moon and Kofi Annan.


(The views expressed are personal)


Read more…


• TRIPS waiver proposal gains outside support but remains stalled at the 
• OPCW suspends rights and privileges of Syria 
• Leaders summit sets tone for higher climate ambition at CoP 26 
• Roadmap for return to compliance with JCPOA under preparation  
• UNSG unable to find common ground to revive Cyprus talks
• ICJ observes quiet 75th anniversary

TRIPS waiver proposal gains outside support but remains stalled at the WTO  

The proposal submitted by India & South Africa to the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council of the World Trade Organization (WTO) for waiver from provisions of the TRIPS Agreement last October (see UNCovered November 2020 ) received a boost with support from civil society in April. A group of 175 former heads of state and government and Nobel prize winners signed an open letter to US President Biden in support of the WTO waiver. They called on the US President to support the waiver as, “a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic.” Also, several prominent Democrats, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren expressed support for the waiver.

Even as Covid-19 claimed more than three million victims globally, the discussions during April in various formats at the WTO remained deadlocked. The waiver proposal has gained the co-sponsorship of sixty states and is assessed to have the support of more than a hundred states. Yet differences remain. The group of  states who have opposed the proposal - primarily the EU, UK, Japan, Switzerland and Canada - have stuck to their positions in  consultations held during the month, arguing that the waiver would undermine intellectual property rights and innovation, hence was a "no-go" area for them. The Biden Administration has been more nuanced, in comparison with the Trump Administration. It acknowledges that "in cases of national emergency or extreme urgency, when cases of public non-commercial use, members may waive the requirement to seek prior authorization from the patent holder," but adds that it is also hearing about the hurdles in this process and hence is "evaluating the proposal from the perspective of its true potential to saving lives". The WTO consultations are chaired by Ambassador Dagfinn Sorli from Norway (which had objected to the proposal when it was submitted last year). He proposes to have further consultations to explore whether a “possible landing zone” could be found for the TRIPS waiver proposal and will report to the TRIPS Council in early May.
Comment: The Biden Administration holds the key to any progress on the waiver proposal. Given the importance of the issue, Prime Minister Modi also raised the matter in a recent telephonic conversation with the US President.  The new US Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai is reported to have discussed the issue with pharma companies, trade unions, advocacy groups and the UN-backed vaccine alliance Gavi. As part of the policy debate in the US concerns have been raised that the waiver of intellectual property rights could allow China and Russia to exploit platforms such as mRNA, which could be used for other vaccines or even therapeutics for conditions such as cancer and heart problems in the future. The USTR emphasizes that the US was “working with global partners to explore pragmatic and effective steps to surge the production and equitable distribution of vaccines”. What form that will take will determine the fate of the waiver proposal that has long meandered at the WTO.

OPCW suspends rights and privileges of Syria

In an unprecedented move, the twenty-fifth session of the Conference of the States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) meeting at The Hague adopted a Decision to suspend the rights and privileges of the Syrian Arab Republic under the Convention. These included: a) to vote in the Conference and the Council; b) to stand for election to the Council; and c) to hold any office of the Conference, the Council, or any subsidiary organs. 87 states voted in favor of suspending Syria’s rights and 15 voted against. Including India, 34 states abstained. The restrictions will remain in place until the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director General reports that Syria has resolved all of the outstanding issues regarding its  declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile and programme.

The move initiated by 46 states, follows the publication of the second report of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) earlier in the month,  concluding that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the Syrian Air Force dropped a chlorine cylinder on a part of the city of  Saraqib, on 4 February 2018. A similar conclusion was earlier reached in April 2020 in the first report of the IIT that the Syrian Air Force had used chemical weapons including chlorine and the nerve agent sarin on the town of Ltamenah, three times in March 2017. Syria then did not comply with a 90-day deadline by the OPCW's Executive Council to declare the weapons used in the attacks and reveal its remaining stocks.
Comment: This rather symbolic decision is the latest round in the ongoing tussle between Syria and western states who contend that Syria has continued to use chemical weapons years after it renounced the use of chemical weapons and surrendered its  past stockpiles for destruction after joining the OPCW in 2013. Syria dismisses these as false-flag chemical attacks on the country’s soil, staged by foreign-backed elements bidding to pressure the government amid army advances. It views the IIT as a “propaganda tool” and argues that IIT reports cannot be considered scientific as they do not adopt rigorous standards for collecting evidence. In this it is backed by Russia and China. In short, the geo- political divide that plagued the issue at the Security Council also plays out at the OPCW.

Leaders summit sets tone for higher climate ambition at CoP 26

US President Biden’s Leaders Summit which brought together 40 Heads of State and Government (including all the G-20 members) virtually on 22-23 April, set the tone for new and enhanced nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to be submitted under the Paris Agreement. NDCs are to be provided in time for the 26th Conference of Parties (CoP 26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to be held in Glasgow in November 2021.

The significant announcements were:

  • United States submitted a new NDC target of a 50-52% reduction below 2005 levels in 2030 which is a significant advance on the commitment made by Barack Obama.
  • Japan announced a cut of emissions to 46-50% below 2013 levels by 2030, with strong efforts toward achieving a 50% reduction, a significant acceleration from its existing 26% reduction goal.
  • Canada committed to strengthen its NDC to a 40-45% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, a significant increase over its previous target to reduce emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.
  • Brazil committed to achieve net zero by 2050 an improvement of the target date of 2060 set a few months ago, and promised to end illegal deforestation by 2030.
  • South Africa announced intention to strengthen its NDC and shift its intended emissions peak year ten years earlier to 2025.
  • Republic of Korea committed to terminating public overseas coal financing and strengthening of its NDC to be consistent with its 2050 net zero goal.
  • India announced the launch of the “U.S.-India 2030 Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership” to mobilize finance and speed clean energy innovation and deployment this decade.
  • China expressed intention to strictly control coal-fired power generation projects, and phase down coal consumption.

According to an initial assessment by the independent think tank, Climate Action Tracker, the impact of the Leaders Summit along with all the new climate targets announced since last September, is that the emissions gap in meeting the 1.5 C goal has closed  by 12-14% (2.6-3.7 2.6-3.7 GtCO2e). The major contributions thus far come from the US, the EU+UK, China and Japan.

8887579699?profile=RESIZE_710xComment: The leaders Summit showcased the return of US leadership and commitment to combating Climate Change multilaterally, that had been absent under the previous Administration. The emission commitments at the Leaders Summit are a serious step forward on the path to CoP 26. If acted upon, these cumulative  pledges can collectively help bring the world closer to the 45%  fall in emissions that scientists say is needed by 2030 to avoid the 1.5C of warming the Paris agreement is supposed to prevent. Closer, but by no means close enough. They also seem to underline an emerging global understanding that meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement requires urgent action this decade, not by 2100 or even 2050. However, the focus primarily on mitigation and the lack of tangible commitments to meeting financing requirements promised under the Paris Agreement was glaring and will remain an issue of contention at CoP 26.

Roadmap for return to compliance with JCPOA under preparation

The effort to put the three month diplomatic space made available by the “temporary bilateral technical understanding” between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (See UNCovered February 2020) to good use began in the first week of April in Vienna, with talks amongst the signatories of the 2015 ‘Iran nuclear deal’ known as the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA). The objective is to create a road map for a synchronized return of the USA and Iran to compliance with the 2015 deal, before the presently available diplomatic space ends in the latter half of May.

The indirect talks, whereby the rest of the JCPOA signatories (EU, France, Germany, UK, China and Russia)  engage with the US and Iran separately (on account of Iran’s unwillingness to engage with the US directly), have made some progress. Following high level discussions, working groups have been set up to address issues relating to US sanctions, Iranian compliance and ‘possible sequencing’ of US return to the JCPOA.

According to a reliable media report, it is understood that the US is willing to remove sanctions which it deems are inconsistent with the nuclear deal or that deny Iran the relief it would be entitled to should it return to compliance with the accord. However, the US and Iran differ on which sanctions should be removed. It is estimated that there are more than 1500 sanctions imposed by the US against Iran and that the US could end about 800 US sanctions. There is also said to have been progress on Iran’s path toward compliance with the 2015 agreement. It has narrowed to what to do with Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, and what happens to the advanced centrifuges Iran has installed to generate nuclear fuel more quickly. Negotiators are said to have begun drafting texts of potential agreements for further discussion in forthcoming meetings.

The ongoing talks have, during the course of the month, survived several adverse developments. These include an attack at the Iranian nuclear site of Natanz suspected to have been carried out by Israel, Iran’s retaliatory measure of enriching a small amount of uranium up to 60%, the highest ever by it, and the damaging revelations that undermine the standing of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the key Iranian interlocutor of the JCPOA.
Comment: This engagement of the JCPOA signatories reflects  willingness of all of them to seek a diplomatic outcome on this issue by working “in concert” despite their differences on other matters. The continuance of the talks despite many distractions is a good augury. Reports refer to the progress made in the negotiations but there is still a long way to go and the compulsions of domestic politics in US and Iran add to the uncertainties of the outcome. If satisfactory outcomes are reached, only then will this “concert of states” approach international organizations to come into the picture as platforms for legal validation and for verification of the implementation of agreed outcomes.

UNSG unable to find common ground to revive Cyprus talks

The United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres convened an   informal meeting on 27-29 April in Geneva to determine whether common ground exists for the parties to the dispute to negotiate a lasting solution to the Cyprus issue. The talks were attended by the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders along with the Foreign Ministers of Greece, Turkey and the UK – all guarantor powers of Cyprus that agreed to the island’s independence in 1960 and  have historically featured in discussions over next steps.

In a media briefing following the so called “5+1” (parties to the dispute, guarantor powers and UN) talks, the UNSG acknowledged “we have not yet found enough common ground to allow for the resumption of formal negotiations in relation to the settlement of the Cyprus problem” but added that he hoped to convene another meeting in two to three months.

UN engagement with Cyprus dates back to 1964, when the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) was established to prevent further fighting between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities and bring about a return to normal conditions. The mandate was further expanded in 1974, following a coup d’etat by elements favouring union with Greece and subsequent military intervention by Turkey, whose troops established control over the northern part of the island.  Cyprus remains on the active agenda of the Security Council with regular consideration and extensions of peacekeeping mandates at six monthly intervals, the last of which was in January 2021.

The UN bid to revive the Cyprus negotiations failed to make headway as the newly elected Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar insisted on a fully sovereign Turkish Cypriot state loosely associated with the internationally recognized government of Cyprus as the basis for formal negotiations. Supported by Turkey he emphasized that talks on the future of Cyprus were “meaningless” without the recognition of sovereign equality of both sides. His view was that the Turkish Cypriots would not accept minority status in a Greek Cypriot-ruled federation. The talks could only resume if the Greek Cypriots agreed to these terms. This was fundamentally different from the two zone federation that had been agreed in principle by both sides in the past and that underpins the UNSG’s mandate as approved by the Security Council. President Anastasiades of the internationally recognized Cyprus government who led the Greek Cypriot side was of the view that negotiations should resume from where they left off four years ago and “aim to achieve a settlement based on a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation.” The gulf between the two positions was too far to bridge.
Comment: The Cyprus issue has for long been seen at the UN as one which is amenable to a UN-brokered solution. In the middle of the last decade,  it was viewed as “a low hanging fruit” ripe for a solution. When Antonio Guterres took over in 2017, he sought to mediate a solution to the Cyprus issue as part of his “surge for diplomacy” but did not meet with success. The inability of the current effort (which comes as he seeks re-election later this year) to make headway reflects the continued difficulties that the UN attempts to facilitate solutions to long-festering conflicts face.

ICJ observes quiet 75th anniversary

The principal judicial organ of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), located at the Peace Palace in The Hague observed its 75th anniversary without any fanfare. In view of the pandemic, the ICJ postponed the planned solemn sitting to mark its first sitting on 18th April 1946 until such time as it can be held in a safe and fitting manner. Instead, the President of the Court, Judge Joan E. Donoghue, made a  statement commemorating the occasion.

The ICJ with 15 judges (including Judge Dalveer Bhandari of India)  is governed  by its Statute which forms an integral part of the UN Charter. Judge Donoghue aptly described it as, ambitious in certain respects, but also circumspect. The Court’s jurisdiction depends on the consent of States. The Statute does not dictate the content of international law. Instead, it establishes a standing and permanent forum for the settlement of inter-State disputes. Thus far, 140 inter-state disputes have been pronounced upon by the ICJ. In addition, in a further 25 cases the ICJ offered its Advisory Opinion brought by UN organs and specialized agencies. There are 14 pending inter-state cases which have to be decided upon.
Comment: Despite the passage of 75 years, the ICJ remains in some aspects largely a “conventional” institution, with very few of the counsel appearing before it coming from developing countries and almost all, regardless of nationality, are men. Nevertheless, in terms of jurisprudence it has traversed new areas - including scientific and technical aspects of environmental disputes as well as interpretation of a number of human rights treaties. Aspects of outer space law and discussions about the legal framework applicable to many aspects of the cyber space are now seen as possible growth areas. These are issues that the drafters of the Court’s Statute did not envision 75 years ago. The ability of the ICJ to progressively address such matters reflects its adaptability and bodes well for its continuing relevance in matters of international law.


(The views expressed are personal)


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• Joint WHO-China report unable to provide conclusive answers 
• A small step at the UN on cyber security 
• Events in Myanmar remain on active UN agenda 
• Human Rights Council again adopts resolution on Sri Lanka 
• National ‘Ring fencing’ of key UN posts

Joint WHO-China report unable to provide conclusive answers

The eagerly awaited report of the visit of a 17 member WHO team of scientists to Wuhan, China earlier during the year (see UNCovered January 2021) to study the sources of the novel Corona virus was formally released on 30 March. The report stems from a consensual resolution adopted at the World Health Assembly in May 2020, “to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions.” The 120 page joint WHO-China report prepared by the 17 international scientists with an equal number of Chinese experts offers the most detailed look yet at what happened in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 and early 2020. However, it is unable to answer conclusively the critical questions of when, where and how the virus began spreading.

Addressing four possible hypothesis about the origin of the virus, the report considers the theory that the virus likely spilled over to humans in nature as a “possible to likely pathway’; an introduction from a bat through an intermediate animal host as a “likely to very likely pathway”; dismisses the possibility of a lab accident-related origin as an “extremely unlikely pathway”. Finally, addressing the theory that the virus spread via frozen food - an idea touted by Chinese officials eager to suggest the pandemic originated outside the country - the report calls for additional research on whether the cold chain may play a role in transmission but casts doubt on the idea that early cases were imported to Wuhan. “This would be extraordinary in 2019 where the virus was not circulating widely,” it reads. Still, the report ranks introduction through the cold chain as a “possible pathway,”

According to the report, genetic data indicates that the first cases could have come as early as September, though more likely between mid-November and early December. It mentions that all the published genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 isolated from human cases are very similar, suggesting that the start of the outbreak resulted from a single point introduction in the human population around the time that the virus was first reported in humans in Wuhan, China.

Among the report’s findings is that the Huanan market linked to early cases was not necessarily the source of the virus, as some once believed, but may have been the site of an early outbreak or an accelerator of the virus that was circulating in December 2019. It notes the earliest reported case, from Dec. 8, did not have any link to the market, but suggests that mild and asymptomatic cases may have gone undetected. The report, therefore, does not draw a firm conclusion and calls for additional research on the role of that and other markets and puts forth a long list of recommendations for additional research: more testing of wildlife and livestock in China and Southeast Asia, more studies on the earliest cases of Covid-19 and more tracing of pathways from farms to markets in Wuhan.

Even before the release of the report, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said that he had concerns about “the methodology and the process,” including “the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it.” Soon after the report’s release, in a measured response coordinated by the US, 14 countries issued a joint statement sharing concerns that the report  was “significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples” and called for a “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence.” Some members of the international team in media interviews have acknowledged that the level of access was suboptimal but stressed that they were able to obtain information the world did not have before. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General did some damage control by acknowledging, during the release of the report, that more research is needed across a range of areas. He emphasized that, “for now all hypotheses will be on the table and will need further study,” and promised to “follow the science.”

Comment: The findings of the report are far from conclusive and will be overshadowed by questions about China’s lack of transparency — and the WHO’s apparent inability to press and gain more. The report is unlikely to douse the several contentions about the where, when and how regarding the origins of the novel Corona virus. As the DG of WHO rightly put it, the report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. However, whether the further studies which will also need several actions, including by China, will happen in a global environment which remains fraught with a lack of trust remains uncertain.

A small step at the UN on cyber security

Generally, issues relating to the “challenges of modernity” tend to fall through the institutional cracks of  various UN platforms. Hence, rarely are matters requiring forging of the rules of the road for managing technological innovation - digital regulation and taxation, artificial intelligence, virtual currencies and cyber security - areas of substantive  consideration by UN bodies. One of the rare exceptions to this was the establishment, in 2018, of the United Nations Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security. All UN members were invited to participate in the OEWG which was mandated to  develop rules, norms, and principles of responsible behaviour of states, discuss ways for their implementation, and to study the possibility of establishing regular institutional dialogue with broad participation.

In March 2021, the OEWG after its third and final substantive session unanimously adopted its  final report and the Chair's summary. The final report did not tread any new ground. Rather, it reaffirmed many of the elements agreed to in previous reports of the UN Governmental Groups of Experts (small expert groups appointed by the Secretary General which had submitted reports in the past following closed door meetings). The final report based for the first time on meetings open to all states and consultations with civil society groups reaffirmed that international law, including the Charter of the UN, applies to cyberspace; agreed that norms provide guidance for State action in addition to international law; encouraged the further development of confidence building measures (CBMs) and further cooperation between States in order to implement them; and recommended the further development of capacity building measures. The report did not address issues such as espionage, internet governance, development and digital privacy. Also while the OEWG considered terrorism and crime as important topics, it felt that detailed discussion of these topics and the development of recommendations for them is best done in other UN bodies.

The chairman’s summary collated the various proposals that had been made but that did not garner consensus. It is annexed to the final report but does have the approval of the states. It captures the various contentious submissions such as the extent of applicability of international humanitarian law to cyberspace;  possibility of a legally binding instrument or legal framework on international cyber security; a possible cyber programme of action (PoA) as the way forward; consideration of a Global Initiative on Data Security, an outside, non-OEWG initiative.

Comment: Even before the first OEWG on ICT (information and communication technology) had completed its work, in November 2020 it was agreed that there would be another OEWG after the conclusion of this one. This next process is set to run from 2021-2025 though the way ahead is still to be agreed upon. Participants will have to start from the ground up as these processes do not build upon each other. The sharp differences that came to the fore on so many aspects of cyber space during the last OEWG discussions do not augur well for progress during the next OEWG. However, an inclusive process endeavoring to forge the rules of the road in this important area is well worth continuing.      

Events in Myanmar remain on active UN agenda

The  repeated resort to harsh crackdowns by the security forces of Myanmar against those demonstrating the removal of the civilian government, and the mounting toll of deaths of the protesters has ensured that the situation in Myanmar  continued to figure in UN bodies in New York and Geneva. Also, during the month, Secretary General Guterres has twice added his voice  calling for a “firm, unified international response” to “end violations of fundamental human rights and return to the path of democracy”, condemning the killing of civilians and subsequently also terming the crackdown as “unacceptable”.

The Security Council, building upon the press statement issued on 4 February, adopted a presidential statement (S/PRST/2021/5) on 10 March. It expressed support for the democratic process and strongly condemned the violence. This was the first formal outcome from the Council on the situation in Myanmar since a presidential statement in 2017, following widespread violence and displacement of people largely from the Rohingya community. It signaled the growing recognition of Council members about the gravity of the current crisis, but as in the case of the press statement of 4 February it does not make reference to the military takeover.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Council adopted without a vote a resolution continuing support for the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar – previously established by the Human Rights Council – “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011”. Predictably Myanmar dismissed the outcome and any possible future international prosecution based on the findings of the mechanism.

The crisis about the removal of the Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the UN Amb. Kyaw Moe Tun who had spoken out against the military takeover (see UNCovered February 2021) was tided over. Following the announcement of his removal, the government appointed his deputy Amb. Tin Maung Naing to replace him. However, he declined to do so and resigned. Myanmar's U.N. mission told the United Nations, in a note that Kyaw Moe Tun remained the country's envoy.

Comment: The continuing unrest in Myanmar means the situation will remain on the active agenda of UN bodies. However, China and Russia are not keen to have the Security Council play an active role, arguing against interference in what they consider internal matters. Also, both the elected members from the region - India and Vietnam - have been cautious about the Security Council’s involvement. Hence, unless there is a drastic deterioration of the situation, scope for substantive Security Council outcomes will remain limited.

Human Rights Council again adopts resolution on Sri Lanka

Following up on the concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka articulated in a report issued by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (see UNCovered January 2021) a core group consisting of UK, Canada, Germany, Montenegro, Malawi and North Macedonia co-sponsored a resolution titled ‘Promotion of Reconciliation Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’ at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Apart from the core group of co-sponsors the resolution was also supported by 35 other members of the UN, including several such as the USA who are currently not members of the  UNHRC and hence were ineligible to vote at the UNHRC.

The resolution was adopted with 22 votes in favour, 11 against and 14 (including India) abstaining. The resolution refers to the “persistent” lack of accountability for abuses committed through the years by “all parties” in Sri Lanka, and expresses a lack of confidence in the ability of the present government in Colombo to address the shortcomings. The resolution will “strengthen” the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) “to collect, consolidate, analyse, and preserve information and evidence and develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction”.

Sri Lanka categorically rejected the resolution to expand the role of the OHCHR, terming it as “intrusive”. It warned of the adverse effects that will lead to polarisation of Sri Lankan society, contrary to the insistence of its proponents that it will bring about reconciliation and felt that the amount of $ 2.8 million to be provided for strengthening the OHCHR can be better used to improve the lives of the people affected by the conflict.

Comment: As has been the case with all previous resolutions moved against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, it was evident that the resolution at this session too would be adopted. This was especially so in light of the Rajapaksa government withdrawing co-sponsorship of the earlier resolution 40/1 on Sri Lanka adopted in March 2019 without a vote and the sharp criticism in the High Commissioner’s  report of the changes in the human rights situation during the last year or so. The resolution providing for a further report with further options for advancing accountability ensures that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka will remain under close scrutiny at the Human Rights Council.

National ‘Ring fencing’ of key UN posts

Often US commentators refer to key appointments as indicative of the policy approach of an Administration by referring to the aphorism - “personnel is policy”. Transposing this to senior appointments at the UN highlights the predominance of the five permanent members of the Security Council. While the situation was long known to UN insiders it has resurfaced recently as part of the process to select the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC)/ the head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN’s most senior humanitarian official to succeed the UK’s Mark Hancock.

The UNA-UK (UN Association of UK) coordinated an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, signed by over 50 former diplomats, parliamentarians and civil society leaders calling on him to champion an open and inclusive appointment process rather than one which follows the practice of the UN Secretary General appointing the nominee from the UK. They highlighted that over the past decade 20% of roles at Under-Secretary-General or above have gone to nationals of the Permanent Members – nearly 10 times higher than is proportional.

Going against UN General Assembly Resolution 46/232 (adopted in 1992), that demands that no senior official ever succeed an official of the same nationality in the same role, national “ring fencing” has become a common practice for key appointments. 

For example:

  • The last five heads of UN peacekeeping have been French
  • The last four Emergency Relief Coordinators have been British
  • The last three heads of the UN Department of Political Affairs / Peacebuilding and Political Affairs, the last four heads of UNICEF (and all seven permanent heads of UNICEF) and the last five Executive Directors of the World Food Programme (WFP) have been American
  • The last three heads of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) have been Chinese
  • The head of either the UN Office in Geneva or the UN Office in Vienna since 1993 has been Russian, and Russia is expected to hold the recently created role of head of the UN Office of Counter Terrorism for the foreseeable future

Comment: Senior UN officials swear an oath to act as impartial international civil servants and to not take instructions from their home nation. However, national monopolies of key posts creates a perception of influence and partiality. It damages both the legitimacy of the UN as a global organisation with an independent international civil service, and also its performance through a failure to recruit for senior roles on merit. Yet, no early end is envisaged to this entrenched practice, especially ahead of the re-election bid of UN Secretary General Guterres.

(The views expressed are personal)


Read more…


• IAEA & Iran ‘understanding’ buys some time and space for diplomacy
• ICC ruling on jurisdiction for grave crimes in Palestinian Territories
• Myanmar in UN Fora
• A selection ends another begins
• Second time is easier for Covid-related resolution in Security Council


IAEA & Iran ‘understanding’ buys some time and space for diplomacy

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced on 21 February that it had come to a “temporary bilateral technical understanding” with the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran (AEOI) whereby the IAEA will continue its verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities for up to three months.

The understanding was worked out ahead of a 23 February deadline set by Iranian legislation to stop adherence to key parts of the 2015 ‘Iran nuclear deal’ formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), in case US sanctions were not lifted by then. The Iranian parliament had late last year approved a timeline for a series of nuclear-related steps to be undertaken by Iran as a graduated response to the Tump Administration’s opting out of the JCPOA and pursuit of the policy of “maximum pressure” through extremely onerous sanctions on Iran. These included the increase in the enrichment capacity and production at underground sites of enriched uranium beyond agreed limits of 3.67% to 20% purity, but far below the 90% needed for weapons grade fuel; storage of enriched uranium within Iran in excess of agreed amounts; stopping implementation of the IAEA’s verification and monitoring requirements such as daily access to IAEA personnel to nuclear sites, remote online surveillance, environment sampling and provision of advance information of future nuclear activities as specified under the IAEA’s Additional Protocol (AP) that Iran has signed but has not yet ratified for entry into force; and suspension of regulatory access specified in the JCPOA beyond the AP.

While Iran has implemented several of the decisions stipulated in the legislation, complete denial of access would have ended the last major components of the 2015 nuclear agreement that Iran has continued to abide by despite the Trump Administration opting out of the deal in 2018. It would have made the already enormously difficult task of getting the JCPOA back on track even more complicated.

The recent Iran-IAEA understanding provides much needed space to the participants of the JCPOA to try and re-engage with a view to working on a path to reviving the Obama-era accord in some form or the other. While the Biden Administration has professed willingness to rejoin the agreement, the array of regional geopolitical sensitivities and the complexities of domestic situations in Iran and the USA mean that time is required for the newly installed  Biden  Administration to diplomatically navigate the many pitfalls that make the revival of the deal extremely difficult.

The details of the new technical arrangements have not been made public. However, the Director General of the IAEA Rafael Grossi, following his return from Tehran acknowledged that under the understanding the IAEA inspectors have “less access” than before but would not be “flying bind”. He did not describe what form the new limits would take. However, there is talk that while the IAEA inspectors would continue their verification work and monitor the key nuclear sites as provided for by Iran’s commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but they will not have daily access agreed as part of the JCPOA thereby perhaps impeding IAEA’s immediate vision of Iran’s nuclear activity on a day to day basis. It appears that while data required under other arrangements such as the AP and the JCPOA will be constantly recorded and stored to enable having a repository of uninterrupted knowledge,  it will be made available to the IAEA if the US rejoins the JCPOA following arrangements made during the temporary hiatus of three months.

Whether this understanding lasts for the three month period or not will depend on how other key players, including the US and E-3, respond to  the technical arrangements between the Director General of the IAEA and Iran at the next meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors starting on 1 March.  News reports mention that Iran has threatened to end the understanding if the Board adopts a US-led push criticizing Iranian actions.

Comment: The US rejoining the JCPOA and lifting nuclear-related sanctions is an immensely difficult process even without the added complications of ensuring unrestricted access for monitoring and verification by the IAEA of Iran’s nuclear activities. The recent IAEA-Iran understanding, by delaying the further complications, provided time for diplomacy to try and come up with a pathway to address issues related to US re-engagement with the JCPOA. If those matters are sorted out the access issue will be moot. If they are not addressed the restriction of access will become another aspect of the broader consequences  of continued  US-Iran animosity.

ICC ruling on jurisdiction for grave crimes in Palestinian Territories

On 5 February 2021, a Pre-Trial Chamber of The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) decided, by a 2-1 majority, that the Court's territorial jurisdiction in the Situation in Palestine, a State party to the ICC Rome Statute, extends to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

The decision follows the conclusion in December 2019 by the ICC’s Prosecutor that all necessary criteria to proceed with a formal investigation of alleged serious crimes in the Palestinian Territories had been met. However, given the unique circumstances in Palestine, and the potential uncertainty this raised as to the question of the scope of the Court’s territorial jurisdiction, the Prosecutor had in January 2020 requested a ruling, in order to confirm that she was proceeding on a solid legal foundation.

Palestine which joined the ICC in 2015 welcomed the ruling even though, in all probability, Hamas functionaries will figure amongst those who may be prosecuted. Israel which has never signed the Rome Treaty and is not a party to the ICC Statute termed the decision a “perversion of justice” and launched a diplomatic campaign to gain support. Several parties to the Rome Treaty including Australia, Canada, Germany  and Hungary reiterated their positions that the ICC lacks jurisdiction. The US which is not party to the ICC too joined in the criticism. There are reports that Israel has encouraged President Biden to maintain Trump era U.S. sanctions on senior prosecution officials from the ICC as a leverage to persuade Bensouda and her successor not to pursue the investigations into Afghanistan or the West Bank and Gaza.

Comment: The ICC can only investigate and prosecute individuals, not States. Israeli concerns are that members of the Israeli Defense Forces may be prosecuted. Also, of the categories of potential crimes that the prosecutor has identified, Israeli settlement activity is the most politically explosive. The current ICC prosecutor Fatou Besouda of Gambia is due to demit office in June 2021. Her successor, the UK’s Karim Khan was selected by a contentious vote for the first time on 12 February. His decisions will be key in deciding how to take this process further.

Myanmar in UN Fora 

The UN system has been vociferously making its views known about developments in Myanmar with Secretary General Guterres emphasizing that  “Coups have no place in our modern world”. The matter has also figured in the Security Council, the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

On 2 February, a day after the Myanmar military declared a year long sate of emergency and detained civilian leaders, the Security Council was briefed on Myanmar by Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener. She informed the Council of developments that led to the military takeover and appealed to members to send a strong signal in support of democracy in Myanmar. Following further consultations a press statement ( which figures low in the pantheon of responses) was issued by the Security Council on 4 February.  The Council did not use the term “military coup” but expressed deep concern at the declaration of the state of emergency and the arbitrary detention of members of the government. It sought the immediate release of all those detained and called for safe and unimpeded humanitarian access to all people in need, besides welcoming the 1 February statement of the ASEAN chair on developments in Myanmar. 

On 12 February, the Human Rights Council in Geneva convened a special session and adopted without a vote, a UK & EU initiated resolution, which called urgently for the immediate and unconditional release of all persons arbitrarily detained in Myanmar, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and others, and the lifting of the state of emergency. Following adoption, China and Russia explained that they dissociated from the resolution. Myanmar’s Ambassador to the UN Offices in Geneva, Myint Thu who had responded by underscoring his country’s commitment to democratic values, and justifying the military’s intervention as necessary resigned a few days later.   

On 26 February an informal meeting of the General Assembly provided an opportunity for all UN members to express their views on the situation in Myanmar. The highlight was Myanmar's Ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, breaking ranks. He announced that he was not representing the military leadership, but the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, or parliament, (CRPH) formed by parliamentarians pushed aside by the military takeover and  was speaking on their behalf. He appealed for all Member States and the UN, to condemn the takeover and urged them  “to use any means necessary to take action against the Myanmar military” so as to “end the military coup immediately”. He gave the three-fingered salute adopted by protesters in Myanmar and said that he would join those continuing "to fight for a government which is of the people, by the people, and for the people." He was dismissed soon after, with  Myanmar State TV announcing that he had  “betrayed the country” and had “abused the power and responsibilities of an Ambassador.”

Comment: The differences in approach between members of the Security Council on Myanmar are well known and had led to deadlocks in the past. Hence not much was expected. The issuance of the press statement by the Security Council was the second ever on Myanmar ( the last time was following a  Security Council Mission in May 2018) and does not amount to much.  Meanwhile the situation in Myanmar is volatile. The military is trying to suppress opposition, at times violently, and consolidate its hold by annulling the results of the November 2020 elections. The opposition to the regime is organizing protests in major cities and planning to form an “interim government” to seek official recognition from the United Nations. In such a situation the issue is likely to remain on the active agenda in global fora.

A selection ends another begins

The long-running saga to select the Director General of the Geneva-based World Trade Organisation (WTO) that began in May 2020, (See UNCovered October 2020) concluded with the announcement on 15 February that  Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela, a dual Nigerian-US citizen was unanimously approved as the next Director General. This followed the withdrawal of the other contender is Ms  Yoo Myung-hee, the Trade Minister of South Korea after the Biden Administration announced it would support Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, reversing efforts by the Trump Administration to block her candidacy. Consequently, come 1 March 2021 the WTO’s first woman and African Director General will assume office. Her term, renewable, will expire on 31 August 2025.

Meanwhile, in New York on 5 February, the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council for the month of February set in motion the formal process of selection of the United Nations Secretary General by addressing a joint letter to all states. The timeline provides for informal dialogues with candidates in the General Assembly to take place before the Council begins its selection by May or June 2021. The incumbent, Antonio Guterres is already in the fray following his letter of 11 January 2021. Subsequently, Portugal has officially nominated Guterres.  Although news reports refer to Akanksha Arora, a 34 year old millennial Indian origin UNDP staffer of Canadian nationality having floated her name, she has thus far not secured backing of any state.

Comment: The appointment of Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela,removes a key obstacle to the functioning of WTO at a time of growing protectionism and global economic upheaval, further accentuated by the pandemic. It faces steep challenges including the paralysis of its system of settling trade disputes with the Biden Administration signaling that it may continue with the “systemic concerns“ with the appellate body. Among other issues are long-standing complaints from the US and Europe about subsidies enjoyed by Chinese state firms, the ongoing discussions on fisheries subsidies, and updating WTO’s rule book that now works based on the consensus of all 164 member states. On the other hand, the initial expectations of the current incumbent UN Secretary General breezing through to another term (see  UNCovered January 2021) to remain valid. 

Second time is easier for Covid-related resolution in Security Council

The first time the Security Council ventured to address Covid-related aspects it took three months of negotiations before agreement was reached in July 2020  on resolution 2532 (2020). The UK Presidency skillfully obtained agreement of the Council for the unanimous adoption of Resolution 2565(2021) on 26 February, following just a few days of negotiations consequent to the Open Debate on the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines on 17 February. The outcome was co-sponsored by 112 members, including all members of the Council. The resolution calls for a humanitarian pause and facilitating equitable and affordable access to Covid-19 vaccines in armed conflict situations, post-conflict situations and complex humanitarian emergencies. The UN estimates that approximately 160 million people live in such circumstances. Unlike the last time when the US opposed mentioning the World Health Organisation (WHO), the new resolution references the WHO multiple times.

Comment: The swift passage of the resolution signals the distance travelled since the sharp disagreements witnessed in the Council last year between the US and China on the origin of the virus and the accountability for its outbreak. Whether this improved climate in the wake of the Biden Administration’s  approach to multilateral cooperation will foster more such outcomes remains to be seen.


(The views expressed are personal)


Read more…


•  Biden Administration rapidly re-engaging with UN system
•  UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres seeking a second five year term
•  WHO Team probing origins of COVID-19 virus begins China visit
•  UN Report raises alarm about Human rights situation in Sri Lanka
•  India assumes non-permanent membership of Security Council


Biden Administration rapidly re-engaging with UN system

The US re-engagement with the UN system and the distinctive emphasis on multilateralism following President Biden’s inauguration has been swift and widely welcomed. The Biden Administration has moved with alacrity on a variety of fronts to signal the change in US approach to multilateralism. 

On Day One ( 20th January 2021) President Biden signed the executive decision to return to the Paris Agreement. Accordingly, on the same day, the US deposited its new instrument of acceptance of the Paris Agreement with the UN Secretary General, the depository of the Agreement (The US had previously expressed consent for the Agreement by acceptance on 3 September 2016, before withdrawing from the Agreement as of 4 November 2020). Welcoming the move warmly Secretary General Guterres said that he looks “forward to the leadership of the United States in accelerating global efforts towards net zero”. The Agreement will enter into force, for the US, on 19 February 2021.

A week later, the US President’s Special Climate Envoy John Kerry announced that on Earth Day ( 22 April) President Biden intends to convene a “Climate Leaders” Summit. It is understood that this would be a convening at the Summit level (perhaps virtually) of the Major Economies Forum on Climate and Energy which had met during the Obama Administration in 2009-2016. The participants were Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The effort is to pave the way for all major countries to offer stepped-up Climate pledges at the 26th Conference of Parties (CoP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change  (UNFCCC) in Glasgow in November 2021. Kerry has also been speaking at the circuit of various climate meetings expressing “humility” for the US “absence”  during the Trump years, assuring of US’s future climate leadership and promising fulfillment of financial promises made as part of the Paris Agreement.

The US President’s National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy has indicated that the US has begun work on its new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)  under the Paris accord with ambitious targets to be announced by the time President Biden holds the Summit meeting in April, 2021. 

While Climate Change is a signature issue of the Biden Administration the US has also moved towards greater multilateral engagement on other fronts.  Leading the US delegation at a video meeting of the Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO), on 21st January, Dr. Anthony Fauci the  US infectious diseases expert said that he was “honored to announce that the United States will remain a member of the WHO”, and added that the U.S. will also join the international COVAX  initiative, which is meant to distribute COVID-19 vaccines and therapies to low-income countries. The U.S., he said, will also fulfill its financial obligations to the WHO and cease a drawdown of U.S. staff who work with the organization.  WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s  remarks, “This is a good day for WHO and a good day for global health", sum up the relief at these policy shifts marking the end of a difficult phase in US ties with the WHO.

There was more good news for the UN system. At the Senate hearings, the Biden Administration’s nominee as the US Permanent Representative to the UN, Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield termed the UN as the “world’s most important diplomatic forum”  and explained that with US presence,  the United Nations can be an indispensable institution for advancing peace, security, and our collective well-being”. She then proceeded to lay out several policy approaches that would mark a turn around from the previous Administration.  President Biden, she said, had decided that the US will run to rejoin the UN’s Human Rights Council, a body that the President Trump had pulled the US out from in 2018. She also referred to the need to being in the UNESCO making the same argument that, “We can work from inside to make the organization better. If we’re on the outside we have no voice.” Amb. Thomas-Greenfield also committed to working to expeditiously release the funding Congress appropriated for the UN Population Fund for 2021. The following day President Biden announced his intention to resume funding which had been stopped by the Trump Administration.

Even as the announcements keep flowing, there is talk that in March 2021,  when the US takes over the Presidency of the Security Council, it may float an initiative on Climate and Security.  

Comment: Expectedly the Biden Administration has indicated an active role in the UN system. However, the geopolitical underpinning that the US sees the multilateral arena as one of contestation with China as its “strategic adversary” is evident. The Senate hearings of Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, were heavily dominated by questions on how the US will address the challenges that China poses in multilateral bodies. Her response, "I see what they're doing at the United Nations as undermining our values, undermining what we believe in. They're undermining our security. They're undermining our people. And we need to work against that," portends a challenging period ahead. 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres seeking a second five year term  

On 11th January, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres informed that he is “available to serve a second term as Secretary-General of the United Nations, if that would be the will of the Member States”. The current  5-year term of the former Portuguese Prime Minister who was elected from a field of 13 candidates ( 7 women and 6 men) in 2016, following a relatively open and transparent process agreed upon in 2015 ends on 31st December 2021.  

According to  Article 97 of the UN Charter, the appointment of the Secretary  General is made by the General Assembly, on the recommendation of the Security Council. Since the practice is that only a single candidate is recommended by the Security Council, it plays a key role with the Permanent Members having a veto in the process. 

The process is slated to begin with a letter from the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council jointly addressing the Member States to submit nominees. The nominated candidates usually provide a vision document and engage in informal interaction with the Member States. As this is the first time that an incumbent is in the fray after the new process has been put into place in 2015 the procedures remain uncertain and will be informed following consultations between the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council. 

Comment: Guterres has, during his first term, not done anything that would warrant disapproval of a second term by any of the permanent members. Hence his quest for a second term was not unexpected, although he waited until the outcome of the US election before making his desire public. So far there have not been any announced challengers. Also, it is normal for an incumbent to get a second term unless a permanent member decides to weigh against the candidature. News reports indicate that China and UK have already indicated support for Guterres. Once the new US Administration is fully in place there will be greater clarity. However, it would be a surprise if the suave 71 year old Portuguese diplomat doesn’t sail through comfortably. 

WHO Team probing origins of COVID-19 virus begins China visit

More than a year after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic a 13 member WHO team of scientists began meetings in Wuhan, China in January as part of an effort to understand the origins of the novel corona virus, which was first reported in Wuhan. This follows months of negotiations between WHO and Chinese authorities following an understanding reached last July that China will draw up a plan to figure out how the virus spread from animals to humans. The WHO stresses the scientific nature of the visit and hopes that information on the earliest known cases of the new coronavirus will help better understand where it came from and prevent similar pandemics in the future.

The visit has been shrouded in secrecy. The WHO has tweeted that the team plans to visit hospitals, laboratories and markets, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Huanan sea food market and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control laboratory. The team also intends to speak with early responders and some of the first patients, besides reviewing the efforts of Chinese officials. 

What China will allow the researchers see and do remains uncertain. Chinese spokespersons insist that the delegation was not a probe, rather, “It is part of global research, not an investigation.” The visit is politically fraught for China. It is concerned that the research could shed light on its handling of the virus that could open it up to international criticism — and even demands for financial compensation, if it is found to have been negligent. Chinese officials have repeatedly suggested that the virus may have originated outside China and have suggested that the WHO consider those options too. The WHO while considering this unlikely has diplomatically maintained that all hypotheses are on the table and the team will follow the science to understand the origins of the virus, implying that they stand ready to explore any data that may point in other directions. On the other hand, former US Secretary of State Pompeo issued a statement upon the arrival of the team in China pointing to directions that the team should probe. 

Comment: The search for the origins of COVID-19 is likely to take years. It took more than a decade to find the origins of SARS, and the origins of Ebola, first identified in the 1970s, remain elusive. But knowing where the virus came from could help prevent future outbreaks of viruses that cross to people from wild animals. While the scientific quest is important it is the political implications that are being more closely followed.  

UN Report raises alarm about Human rights situation in Sri Lanka 

The simmering concerns within the UN system about the deterioration in the Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka seem to have been articulated in full measure in a report issued by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on 27th January. The report  draws its mandate from Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution 40/1 adopted in March 2019 without a vote. The   Resolution requested a comprehensive report for discussion at the 46th session of the HRC to be held in February-March 2021. (In February 2020, following the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019, Sri Lanka revoked its co-sponsorship of the resolution and also prior commitments to HRC resolutions 30/1 & 34/1) 

The report lists a series of “early warning” signals : the accelerating militarization of civilian governmental functions including the appointment of at least 28 serving military personnel to key administrative pots; reversal of important constitutional safeguards through the 20th amendment; political obstruction of accountability; exclusionary rhetoric; intimidation of civil society; and the use of anti-terrorism laws. It concludes that all these, taken together, carry the seeds of “repeated patterns of human rights violations and potential conflict in the future.”

The report urges enhanced monitoring and strong preventive action by the international community. It suggests that the HRC address the issue through a resolution and recommends a series of measures that States could take including “targeted sanctions - assets freeze and travel bans  against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses.” Further, States could  “pursue investigations and prosecution in their national courts – under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction – of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka.” The Report also calls on the UN to keep under review, “Sri Lanka’s contributions to UN peacekeeping operations.” 

On January 21, Sri Lanka announced a new commission of inquiry to examine the findings of previous domestic inquiries, which the government proposes as an alternative to Human Rights Council action. 
Comment: The concerns that the report raises and its argument that “it is time for international action to ensure justice for international crimes,” is likely to pose a serious challenge to Sri Lankan diplomacy at the HRC meeting starting next month. 

India assumes non-permanent membership of Security Council 

On 1 January 2021 India began its 2 year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, along with Ireland,Kenya,Norway and Mexico. This is India’s eight term as a non-permanent member from eleven attempts since our independence. Also, it is the seventh time that India was elected in a contest without any competition from others in the regional group from which our candidature was put forth. 

India, for the duration of its current tenure, is to chair two Sanctions Committees, which are subsidiary bodies of the Security Council. These relate to sanctions on the Taliban and Libya respectively. Additionally, in 2022 it will also chair the Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee for a year. 

Comment: With the Council still largely meeting virtually, the start of the year has been sedate under the Presidency of Tunisia, with no major issues of vigorous contention. The virtual mode has afforded opportunities for public articulation of India’s views on a host of international issues, not only by diplomats of the Permanent Mission to the UN but also by senior officials including the External Affairs Minister and the Foreign Secretary. With the UK as President of the Council in February planning high level Open Debates on  Climate Change (to be possibly chaired by Prime Minister Boris Johnson) and COVID-19 and access to vaccines,especially in conflict-affected regions (expected to be chaired by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab) high level participation from India too can be expected. Additionally, Council deliberations on developments in Myanmar are also likely to be an area of focus for India.



(The views expressed are personal)



Read more…


•  Growing Climate Ambition
​​​•  UN-African Union Hybrid Peacekeeping Mission Ends
•  No consensus on waiver of TRIPS obligations to tackle Covid-19
•  Vienna-based CTBTO Fails To Elect  Executive Head
​​•  Virtual Diplomacy unable to bridge divides at UN

Growing Climate Ambition

2020 was a year in which for the first time this century, no formal climate negotiations took place. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (CoP) 26 was postponed due to the pandemic. Yet declarations about planned climate action and ambition have risen. To mark the 5th anniversary of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, on 12 December, the UN along with the UK, France in partnership with Italy and Chile organized the Climate Ambition Summit. More than 75 Climate leaders from various countries, businesses and cities outlined ambitious new climate action goals. 45 new Nationally Determined Contributions, 24 net zero commitments, and 20 adaptation and resilience plans were presented at the Summit. The general consensus was that taken together the Summit was a good start to setting the momentum for greater Climate Change ambition for the CoP 26 to be now held in Glasgow, in November 2021.

In total, 126 countries are assessed to have publicly committed to net carbon neutrality. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called on all countries to declare “climate emergencies” and announced that the central ambition of the United Nations for 2021 is to build a global coalition for carbon neutrality - net zero emissions - by 2050. This wave of  long term commitments taken together with the likely formal announcement of the incoming Biden Administration to carbon neutrality by 2050 are clear indications that global transition towards carbon neutrality has begun. The estimate of the Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis, is that by early 2021 countries that contribute 63% of Green House Gas emissions will be covered by net zero targets (see chart below).


As 2020 drew to a close, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation termed the decade 2011-2020 as the warmest on record. Yet, projections for the future indicate a tone of greater optimism, if all countries fulfill their commitments to carbon neutrality. The prognosis is that the acceleration in national climate pledges and legally binding carbon targets will help to push down the planet’s warming trajectory. Paris Agreement goals are seen within reach, with warming of 2.1C now likely by the end of the century - much lower than seemed likely only a few years ago.  The 2.1C forecast is the lowest ever produced by the non-profit groups, which have been tracking climate pledges and temperature projections since 2009. Back then, they projected that existing pledges — mostly made under the Kyoto protocol — put the world on track for 3.5C of warming (see chart below).

Comment: The shift towards greater climate ambition is helped by the combination of technological progress, along with increasing knowledge of climate change impacts. However, there is a huge gap between countries’ 2050 targets, and the policies that they have put in place. Nevertheless, the signal to climate reluctant countries such as Australia, Russia and Brazil who were refused an invitation to the Climate Ambition Summit was that they need to get their acts together in 2021. However, amidst all the talk of ambition what was missing at the Summit was financial commitment to meet the promise of $ 100 billion annual financing for vulnerable developing countries.  As the climate activist Greta Thunberg cynically put it, “Distant hypothetical targets are being set...Yet, the action we need is nowhere in sight”.

UN-African Union Hybrid Peacekeeping Mission Ends

The Security Council on 22 December unanimously adopted Resolution 2559 (2020) terminating the mandate of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) on 31 December 2020, withdrawing all the remaining 6000 uniformed and 1500 civilian personnel other than those needed for liquidation by 30 June 2021.

The termination of the Mission follows the request  of Sudan to take over full security of the region after the transitional Government of Sudan signed a peace deal in October 2020 with a coalition of various rebel and political groups, including from Darfur. The agreement covers a variety of issues around security, land ownership, transitional justice, power sharing, the return of displaced persons and the dismantling of rebel forces and the integration of rebel fighters into the national army. Based on this, the African Union (AU) and the UN jointly recommended ending the first hybrid peacekeeping operation established jointly by the UN and the AU in July 2007. The UN estimates that more than 300,000 people died and 2.5 million were displaced in the war-torn Darfur region of  Sudan during the conflict that began in 2003 between the Government of Sudan and Arab militias and other non-Arab armed rebel groups. The UN Integrated Transition Assistance  Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) established in June 2020 will subsume all UN peace building and political activities in Sudan.

Comment: UNAMID was a novel experiment of the UN undertaking peacekeeping in partnership with a regional organisation.The lessons learnt from the experience will be useful if and when other such initiatives are undertaken in the future. More immediately, the impending end of UNAMID has aroused concern that those groups who did not join the peace deal with the Sudanese government may undermine the efforts to withdraw UN peacekeepers. There have been sporadic violent incidents and protests against the withdrawal decision prompting the Sudanese government to send reinforcements to the Darfur region.

No consensus on waiver of TRIPS obligations to tackle Covid-19

The South African - Indian  proposal to the Trade-Related  for a temporary waiver of certain provisions of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) obligations in response to Covid-19 gained support from about 90 states and numerous civil society organisations globally. However, opposition of the dozen or so delegations who had objected to the proposal previously (see UNcovered November 2020) ensured that there was no outcome during discussions on 10 December at the TRIPS Council virtual meeting of the WTO.

Consequently, the WTO General Council meeting on 16-18 December was informed of the lack of consensus on this issue, while the common goal shared by members of providing access to high-quality, safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines and medicines for all was acknowledged. Given that the proposal was initially submitted on 2 October, 2020, the 90-day time-period in which a decision is normally required to be taken by the WTO General Council ends on 31 December 2020.

Comments: The outcome is on expected lines. Given the launch of the various vaccines and news that the initiatives launched by the Geneva-based Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) and the World Health Organization are on track, it is likely that the perception that adequate options are available to tackle the pandemic will grow and the push for a temporary waiver will be relegated to the back burner.

Vienna-based CTBTO Fails To Elect  Executive Head

The Vienna-based Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) was unable to elect its executive head - Executive Secretary - despite several rounds of balloting in December. This comes on the back of Geneva-based WTO (World Trade Organisation) still being unable to decide upon a Director General on account of US objections (See UNcovered October & November 2020). 

Established in 1996, the CTBTO has 184 members. However, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has still to come into force.   Eight ( China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and  USA) of the 44 specific nuclear technology holders who are required to sign and ratify the CTBT have not done so. Hence, the CTBTO’s main tasks are the promotion of the CTBT and the build-up of the verification regime so that it is operational when the Treaty enters into force. In this context, the  Provisional Technical Secretariat of the CTBTO which is co-located at the Vienna International Centre along with other UN bodies is not part of the UN system but has a cooperation agreement with the UN. The CTBTO has a staff drawn from nearly 70 countries headed by an Executive Secretary and an annual budget of $ 130 million.

Going into the election process, there were differences about who were to have voting rights. Only about 140 of the 184 members were, after a divisive vote, provided voting rights. The others were considered not to have met the requirement of being in adequate financial standing as they had not paid their contributions. In the race were the incumbent Dr. Lassina Zerbo of Burkina Faso who has led the CTBO for the last seven years and Australia’s Dr. Robert Floyd . None of the candidates was able to secure the  2/3rd majority of the votes cast, with Dr. Floyd falling short of the required 92 votes by just a vote in the last ballot on 17 December. The nomination process is now once again re-opened, until 5 February 2021, with the goal that the saga will end before the incumbent’s current term ends in July 2021.

Comment: The prolonged bickering over the procedural and financial aspects of who should elect the Executive Secretary and the failure to elect any of the candidates in the fray, reflects the difficulties that multilateral bodies of various hues are facing in the conduct of their business in the era of great power rivalry.

Virtual Diplomacy unable to bridge divides at UN

The lack of in-person meetings seem to be hampering the completion of normal business of UN bodies. The Fifth Committee of the UN’s General Assembly, notorious for prolonged budgetary discussions, delayed agreement on the annual budget for 2021. It prompted the President of the UN General Assembly  Volkan Bozkir to warn of the dire consequences that the inability to agree on a budget will have on the UN’s credibility. Finally, late in the night of 30 December a $3.2 billion 'Regular Budget' resolution was adopted (Peacekeeping Budget is separate and usually approved in June). It was not through the usual consensus route but following a vote in which the US and Israel voted against the budget resolution. The formal adoption of the budget by the General Assembly will be on 31 December. This is the first time that it has taken so long for adoption of the budget since the General Assembly had failed to adopt the budget for 1965 in 1964.

Similarly, the members of the Security Council have been delaying a decision about the chairpersons of the subsidiary bodies to replace five of the non-permanent members who complete their 2-year term on 31 December 2020. Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa who were chairing 10 of the subsidiary bodies that oversaw sanctions regimes and working groups of the Security Council end their terms. India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and Norway who are poised to join 1 January 2021 are left with little advance preparation for the new roles of chairing the subsidiary bodies they will be allocated. Previously, the latest that such decisions took after the election schedule of non-permanent members were shifted to June, a few years ago, was 21 November in 2018. 

Comment: The limitation of virtual meetings on diplomatic outcomes and the reduction of “in-person” meetings in delaying routine outcomes cannot be discounted. However, the growing perception is that difficulties in arriving at regular decisions are also reflective of the stress that multilateral processes are under due to sharp policy divides. Gathering negotiators together in physical proximity alone may not be able to resolve such issues.

(The views expressed are personal)

Read more…


•  Access to Covid-19 vaccine is an issue of global concern
​​​•  Change is in the air for multilateralism
•  Western Sahara dispute threatens to reignite 
•  Quest for Director General of WTO in limbo
​​•  Elections to the International Court of Justice signal a return to normalcy

Access to Covid-19 vaccine is an issue of global concern

As news of the most promising Covid-19 vaccine candidates from Pfizer & BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Russian Sputnik V being the most effective in clinical trials made global headlines, global fora became platforms for voicing concerns about equitable access to Covid vaccines. The final communique of the G-20 virtual Summit hosted by Saudi Arabia recognised “the role of extensive immunisation as a global public good” and pledged to “spare no effort” to ensure affordable, global access to Covid vaccines.

These sentiments reflected concerns about predictions that there will not be enough vaccines to cover the world's entire population, at least until 2023 and reports of studies projecting that even before any vaccine candidates have been approved for the market, planned purchases seem to have cornered the vaccine market. The Duke University calculated that purchase of 6.8 billion doses have been confirmed, with another 2.8 billion doses are under negotiation or reserved as optional expansions of existing deals.


Given finite manufacturing capacity, the direct deals made by high-income (and some middle-income) countries are likely to result in a smaller piece of the pie being available for equitable global allocation. Initiatives such as COVAX, which aims to provide two billion doses by the end of 2021 to protect high-risk populations around the world, with a longer-term goal of covering 20% of the population strive for equity. However, countries with adequate resources have purchased two or more doses for their entire populations upfront. Thus, the outlook for global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is bleaker when logistical challenges are taken into account in middle and lower income countries.

Amidst such concerns of “vaccine nationalism”, South Africa & India on October 2, 2020, submitted a proposal to the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council of the World Trade Organization for waiver from provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19. Specifically, they sought a temporary waiver of sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement. Section 1 of part II of the TRIPS Agreement pertains to copyright and related rights; section 4 deals with industrial designs. Section 5 of part II of the TRIPS Agreement pertains to patents; section 7 deals with the protection of undisclosed information.

In essence the proposal is to allow all countries to choose whether or not to grant or enforce patents and other intellectual property (IP) related to COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic. While acknowledging that TRIPS “flexibilities” existed, the proposal argues that the cumbersome, case by case and product by product process for compulsory licensing and for placing limitations on or making exceptions to exclusive rights was unsuitable to tackle the challenges raised by the pandemic. Hence the proposal seeks to invoke the waiver available under Article 9 (3) of the WTO Agreement. While the WTO General Council strives for such decisions by consensus, they can be taken with the support of 75% of the 164 member states.

The subject was introduced at the TRIPS Council on 16th October and further discussed on 20 November. India and South Africa were joined by Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique and Pakistan as co-sponsors. As expected, a large number of developing countries including Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Indonesia, Egypt, Cuba, Tanzania (on behalf of the African Group), Venezuela, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Jamaica (on behalf of Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group) supported the proponents. There was widespread support from civil society and from UNAIDS and the the DG of WHO. On the other hand, USA, EU, Japan, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, UK and Brazil strongly opposed the initiative. Their main arguments were that Intellectual Property(IP) protection is not a barrier to wider access to COVID-19 health products; that the flexibilities already provided for in the TRIPS Agreement are adequate; and that IP is necessary to fund innovation. Several others including Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, China, Turkey and Ukraine were said to be open to further “constructive discussions”. The next meeting of the TRIPS Council is scheduled for 10 December. The General Council of the WTO, which is the authority to decide on the matter within 90 days, is scheduled to next meet on 17 December. In the meanwhile the Chairperson of the TRIPS Council would have further consultations on how to report on the matter.

Comment: A satisfactory outcome at the WTO to address equitable access to Covid vaccines is unlikely, given well known cleavages. However, as it is a matter of life and death for millions across the globe, the quest for affordable access and equitable distribution of vaccines, will remain even if collaborative solutions are difficult to arrive at. The issue will continue on the agenda of global fora, in some form or the other. 

Change is in the air for multilateralism

Rarely has the outcome of the US Presidential election aroused such expectations amongst diplomats and staff at the UN headquarters in New York, as this year. The anticipated changes of policy and personnel in the US approach to multilateralism, after the inauguration of the next US President, seem to have already breathed new hope in an institution that was floundering amidst global tumult.

There is a widespread belief that for the next US Administration multilateralism will matter more. The announced return of the US to the Paris accord on Day One of the Biden Administration will symbolize the return of Climate Change  and environmental issues to the top of the global agenda in 2021. It is a goal that the UN system has been assiduously working towards (See UNcovered Vol I, Issue 1, September 2020). Several other steps that fall in the realm of US executive decisions, are also seen as low hanging fruit that can be harvested early next year. Cumulatively all these will signal renewed US engagement with the UN system. 

The announcement that Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a State Department veteran as the next US Ambassador to the UN with cabinet rank has been welcomed by UN watchers. Her knowledge of African issues is expected to stand her in good stead since African issues dominate the Security Council’s agenda. Also, African diplomats, who form the largest group at the UN, had felt neglected during the Trump Administration. The appointment of an African-American with long experience of African issues, in an environment where China’s “wolf warriors” have often overplayed their hand with African diplomats, makes it an especially smart move.

Long-time UN officials, recall that it was Senator Biden who joined Senator Jesse Helms to stitch together the 1999 Helms-Biden Act, which resulted in the payment of nearly $1 billion in unpaid arrears to the United Nations. The hope is that the terms of reference for US funding of UN, long set in accordance with the Helms-Biden Act may now be the guiding star for future US contributions. The thinking, amongst UN insiders, is that in 2021 with a more normal US to deal with UN Secretary General Guterres intends to put on the table several ideas to get the UN back to the center of global conversation on an array of issues.

Comment: Palpable hope for change at the UN is discernible amongst diplomats and UN officials. However, it is unlikely that the situation of the past can be restored in full measure. The UN system has moved on, in the last few years, notwithstanding the US distancing itself. The new normal may take time and may not be a replica of the past. Nevertheless, the talk is that change in any measure will be welcomed. 

Western Sahara dispute threatens to reignite 

Even as the UN Secretary General has repeatedly called for a global ceasefire so as to focus on the fight against Covid-19, the decades-long dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front in Western Sahara threatened to return to open hostilities. Frustrated by the lack of international attention to its cause resulting in a territorial outcome that has been hardened into an internationally accepted reality and angered by a recent Moroccan military operation in a United Nations-monitored buffer zone, the Polisario Front on November 14, issued a decree announcing the “resumption of armed struggle in defense of the legitimate rights of our people.”

If the Polisario proceeds down this path, it would mean an end to the cease-fire agreement that was put in place in 1991 and is monitored by MINURSO, a UN peace keeping force. Whether it was  “an exchange of gunfire,” as described by Morocco, or “a state of war,” as the Polisario Front claims, the the 29-year-old ceasefire between the two sides over the disputed region seems to be in danger of collapsing entirely, opening up another African conflict that has for long been contained. UN officials are scrambling to ensure that this is not so.

Comment:  The Polisario Front’s declaration appears to be designed to drawing attention to Western Sahara. However, the response of UN officials and others are focused on efforts to ensure observance of the 1991 cease-fire by both sides. That perhaps is not what the Polisario would have wanted, but is the likely outcome in a world saddled by mounting crises of a larger magnitude.

Quest for Director General of WTO in limbo

The meeting of the General Council of the WTO scheduled for 9th November to appoint the DG of the WTO was postponed on account of “the health situation and current events”. At the last meeting in October, the facilitators had concluded that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was the candidate most likely to attract consensus and had recommended her appointment by the General Council as the next Director-General of the WTO. The US opposition to her had stalled a decision. (see UNcovered Vol I, Issue 2, October 2020)

The Covid-related restrictions placed by the Swiss authorities in early November, limiting meetings to gatherings of not more than 50 persons, meant that the 164 member General Council could not be convened as scheduled, as the requirement was that at least 50% of the members need to be physically present to ensure a quorum. Also, the prevalent uncertainty about the outcome of the US Presidential election was, perhaps, subsumed under the notion of “current events” that precluded the holding of the meeting.

The current US Administration’s position on the matter accounts for the continued uncertainty on the subject. To this is the added speculation that  Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a dual Nigerian-US citizen, may have strong ties with the Democratic Party. On the other hand, it is also being talked about that the Republic of Korea’s Trade Minister Ms Yoo Myung-hee, is considering withdrawal after having demonstrably failed to garner broad support. Even if this was the case, the next General Council meeting planned for 17 December may be difficult to convene, as the legal requirements for physical presence of half the members may be difficult to fulfill. Changes of process and procedures that may be required to be agreed upon for the meeting to proceed in an environment of uncertainty about decision making in the last days of the Trump Administration add to the complexity.

Comment: It would appear that the situation of limbo that the WTO finds itself in is likely to continue for some more time. As with several other expected multilateral decisions, this change too may have to await the inauguration of the next US President on 20 January 2021.

Elections to the International Court of Justice signal a return to normalcy

Elections to five of the fifteen seats on the International Court of Justice are held once every three years. The process of balloting by two of the main UN organs - the General Assembly and the Security Council - to elect candidates separately but simultaneously, makes the process the most complex known to the UN system. The winning candidates need to obtain an absolute majority of 97 votes  (out of a total of 193 members) in the General assembly and 8 votes (out of the 15 members) in the Security Council. This usually results in a repeated rounds of balloting until only five candidates obtain the required majority in both the bodies. However, the elections in November ended with just two rounds of balloting in the General Assembly and a single round in the Council. 

Of the eight candidates contesting the five seats, four were current members of the Court:  Hanqin Xue (China); Peter Tomka (Slovakia); Julia Sebutinde (Uganda); and Yuji Iwasawa (Japan). All of them were re-elected. Georg Nolte (Germany) was the other winning candidate.  The remaining three candidates: Taoheed Olufemi Elias (Nigeria), Maja Seršić (Croatia) and Emmanuel Ugirashebuja (Rwanda) failed in their bids. The outcome ensured that the geographical distribution of seats remained as it was, with the judge from Germany replacing a judge from Italy who did not seek re-election. The elected judges will begin their nine year term from 6 February 2021.

Comment: The ease of outcome of the ICJ elections this time reinforced the exceptional nature of the electoral verdict three years ago. On that occasion, Judge Dalveer Bhandari (India) defeated Judge Christopher Greenwood (UK), unseating a judge from a permanent member of the UN Security Council for the first time in the more than 70 year history of the UN. It also changed the regional balance of the ICJ, by increasing an Asian judge and reducing a West European judge for the only time in the ICJ. The outcome, this time, signaled  a return to business as usual.   ​​​​​​


(The views expressed are personal)

Read more…


•  UN’s World Food Program Wins Nobel Peace Prize 
​​​•  WTO Selecting New Director General 
•  Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Reaches Ratification Threshold
•  Humans Rights Council Activities
​​•  UN brokered Libyan Ceasefire
•  Covid Cohort Fears At UN Headquarters

UN’s World Food Program Wins Nobel Peace Prize 

The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the United Nations World Food Program  (WFP) has been awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, for its efforts to combat a surge in global hunger and prevent it being used as a weapon of war. The Rome-based WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization. In 2019 it provided food assistance to 97 million people and plans to expand it to 137 million of the 270 million people who could be suffering from acute hunger, accentuated by the Corona virus, by the end of 2020.

The WFP was set up in 1961, at the behest of the US, initially as a three-year experiment, to assess the effectiveness of emergency food aid delivery through the UN system.  After the experiment proved successful, the WFP became a full-fledged UN agency, to last for “as long as multilateral food aid is found feasible and desirable”. The governing body of the WFP is the 36 member Executive Council (which includes India currently). Organizationally, it is headed by the Executive Director (ED), appointed jointly by the by the UN Secretary General and the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In recent times, a convention seems to have evolved that the ED is a US national.  Stretching back to 1992 the last five EDs, including the current incumbent David Beasley,have been US nationals.

WFP is funded primarily by voluntary contributions. Its principal donors are governments, but the organization also receives donations from the private sector and individuals. In 2019 contributions reached a record level of US$ 8bn — but still left a gap of US$ 4.1 billion funding gap. The US has consistently been the primary donor. Washington’s contribution in 2020, as of early October, was $2.73 billion—some 43% of the total $6.35 billion received by WFP. Germany was the next largest contributor, with $964 million. China had provided $4 million.

Multiple UN institutions have been recipients of the Nobel Peace prize. The WFP is the 7th UN institution to be awarded the prize. If individuals who have received the awards for their UN-related activities are also taken into account then the number increases to 14 Nobel awards.

Comment: The Nobel for the WFP at a time when multilateralism is under severe criticism, and many countries are tending to go their own way, is viewed as a signal of the need for greater support and resources to beleaguered multilateral institutions .

WTO Selecting New Director General 

The selection of the Director General (DG) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is reaching its final denouement in Geneva. Of the eight candidates whose nominations were accepted in June 2020, two remain in fray in the third and final phase of an elaborate process. The effort is to arrive at a vaguely defined “consensus” candidate.

Usually the process takes nine months.  On this occasion it was initiated in May, following the announcement by the then Director-General Roberto Carvalho de Azevêdo of his intention to leave on  31st August. This was a year ahead of the completion of his second term. He has since joined as the Executive Vice President, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at PepsiCo. His departure has left the body without an interim DG as China opposed that the American Alan Wolff, one of the deputy directors-general, take over in an acting capacity.

While the announcement of the next DG is awaited, it is no longer in doubt that the WTO will have its first female DG. Both the candidates left in the fray are eminently qualified and accomplished women leaders. Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has served previously as the Finance Minister of Nigeria and as a Managing Director at the World Bank. She is chairing the Gavi Vaccine Alliance that is overseeing plans to  support low and middle-income countries’ access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. The other contender is Ms  Yoo Myung-hee,  the Trade Minister of South Korea. She is well versed in the rules and processes that govern the multilateral trading system, having specialised in this area since the mid-1990s.

Knowledgeable observers considered Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela a dual Nigerian - US citizen as having the edge. This seems to have been borne out in the private consultations that the “troika” consisting of the chairs of the three major WTO committees—the General Council (GC), the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), and the Trade Policy Review Body (TPRB) — conduct with each WTO member’s ambassador to find out their country’s preference for DG.  The process is led by the GC chair Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand. The other troika members are DSB chair Ambassador Decio Castillo of Honduras and TPRB chair Ambassador Harald Aspelund of Iceland.

However, at a meeting of all the 164 members on 28th October the United States expressed its opposition to Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela candidacy. The US argued that she had no background in trade and described the Korean candidate as having an extensive background in trade that made her better suited for the role of managing the WTO in a period of turmoil. The US also expressed dissatisfaction about the process being followed to choose the DG. Many others are said to have opposed this latest US challenge.

Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela appears to have broad support. While consultations continue, her supporters are confident and are even girding for a vote, which can be opted, as a last resort. An announcement of the choice of the seventh DG, is now expected at  a meeting scheduled on 9th November.

Comment: Whoever is the next DG, will find the multilateral platform that the WTO provides in a crisis. Discord over global trade is deep. The impulse towards liberalization has waned. The WTO legislative process is at a standstill. The appellate mechanism has been undermined by the US preventing new appointments. In a turbulent economic landscape where the coronavirus pandemic is causing damage to global growth the challenges that the next DG will face are amongst the stiffest in the WTO’s history.   

Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Reaches Ratification Threshold

On  24th October, even as the 75th UN Day was being observed globally, Honduras became the 50th state to deposit its instrument of ratification  of  the  Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons (TPNW). It meant that, in accordance with its provisions, the TPNW would come into force 90 days thereafter, on 22 January 2021.

Adopted at a UN Conference in New York on 7 July 2017, the TPNW lays out a comprehensive set of prohibitions on states parties. These include undertakings not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, deploy, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. It prohibits assistance to any State in the conduct of prohibited activities. States will be obliged to prevent any activity prohibited under the TPNW undertaken by persons or on territory under its jurisdiction or control. The TPNW also obliges states parties to provide assistance to individuals affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, as well as to take measures of environmental remediation in areas under their jurisdiction or control contaminated as a result of activities related to the testing or use of nuclear weapons.

The Trump Administration had earlier written to signatories informing them that the US, Russia, China, Britain and France – and America’s NATO allies “stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions” of the TPNW. The letter warned that the TPNW “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” to the NPT, considered the cornerstone of global nonproliferation efforts. The signatories were urged to recognize their “strategic error” and rescind their signatures.

On the other hand, groups such as ICAN which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its role in shepherding the TPNW hope that it will be more than symbolic and have a gradual deterrent effect. They believe that the TPNW will stigmatize production and stockpiling as did treaties on landmines and cluster munitions. This, they feel, will lead to a change in behavior even in countries that did not sign up.

Comment: In the barren environment where multilateral instruments for nuclear disarmament have been missing for long, the ratification of the TPNW, at least, keeps the flickering quest for global nuclear disarmament from being entirely extinguished.   

Humans Rights Council Activities

The Geneva-based Human Rights Council concluded on 7th October, its forty fifth session (which was the last of the three  regular sessions for the year), adopting 35 resolutions on an array of issues. The most significant of these was the approval of a proposal for the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor the situation in Belarus in the context of the 2020 Presidential elections and present before the end of the year an oral report and recommendations. Other important decisions included the extension of  the mandate of the international fact-finding mission on Venezuela by a further two years and the commission of inquiry on Burundi by a year.

However, it was the outcome of the elections to 15 members of the 47 member Human Rights Council by the General Assembly in New York on 13th October that garnered significantly more interest, primarily on account of those who were seeking membership.

The Russian Federation, having lost to Croatia and Hungary in its last effort in 2016 to gain membership, had re-entered the race after a considerable gap. In a contest that was not competitive as there were only two candidates for two seats Ukraine secured 166 votes and Russia 158 votes thus ensuring that both were elected from the East European Group. Similarly in the African Group, the Latin American and Caribbean Group and the West European and Others Group the number of candidates was equal to the number seats available, ensuring easy victories of all those who were contesting from these groups.

The results from the Asia-Pacific  were more interesting as there were five candidates for four seats. First time entrant Uzbekistan (169 votes) along with Pakistan (169 votes) and Nepal (150 votes) who were seeking re-election easily won along with China (139 votes) which was seeking entry after the mandatory  “cooling off” period of a year following two consecutive terms. Saudi Arabia (90 votes) lost, in the only competitive outcome. 

There were several comments in the western media about the process which enables non-competitive contests, as well as the outcome of  China and Russia joining the Council despite the considerable human rights baggage they carried. No tears were shed on account of Saudi Arabia’s loss. 
Comment: The Human Rights Council elections, with 16 candidates in the fray for 15 seats have followed a long UN tradition. In the majority of the elections at the UN, the number of candidates from various regional groups do not exceed the slots available and consequently result in non-competitive contests. This year was just more of the same.  

UN brokered Libyan Ceasefire

Ever since UN Secretary-General António Guterres first called for a global ceasefire in response to COVID-19 on 23rd March, UN officials have been pursuing, without success, efforts to showcase an achievement that can have a global demonstration effect.  On 23rd October, they announced that during UN brokered talks in Geneva, Libya’s two main warring factions had signed on to a “complete and permanent ceasefire agreement with immediate effect”.

Full details of the agreement between the UN recognized Government of National Accord, based in the capital Tripoli, and the self-styled Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hifter, based in the country’s east are are not yet available.

According to UN officials the agreement calls for fighters from both sides to pull back from front-line positions and return to their bases in a process to be monitored by the UN. More significantly, it calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces and all mercenaries within three months. The deal, it said, will also allow tens of thousands of internally displaced people, as well as refugees outside the country, to return to their homes; open of air and land routes; and in due course lead to resumption of Libyan oil production. The Security Council, in an initial response, welcomed the outcome.

Preparatory discussions commenced amongst Libyan delegates by video conference to pave the way for holding “direct and in person” meeting of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) on November 9 in the Tunisian capital. UN officials hope the discussions will “generate consensus on a unified governance framework and arrangements that will lead to holding national elections.”

Comment: Previous cease fires in Libya have floundered. Hence skepticism if this time will be different is understandable.  Nevertheless, as six months ago there were active hostilities with several foreign personnel ranged against each other and a huge number of  Libyan casualties, the change in tide, even if momentary, is a welcome development.

Covid Cohort Fears At UN Headquarters

Even as the pace of “in person” diplomacy was gathering momentum at the UN headquarters in New York, fears of a Covid-19 cohort surfaced on account of five diplomats from Niger testing positive. Niger is not only a member of the 193 member General Assembly but also is currently a non-permanent member of the Security Council. As a matter of “abundant caution” this has led to the cancellation of all “in person” meetings at UN headquarters, from 27th October till the end of the week, to enable full contact tracing and to gain better understanding of the extent of exposure of staff and diplomats.

Comment: UN diplomacy still remains, metaphorically as well as physically, hampered by Covid-19.


(The views expressed are personal)

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•  A novel 75th anniversary session of the United Nations 
​​​​​•  Contention Exemplifies Security Council Dysfunction
•  Environmental Priorities Rise On Global Agenda 
•  Independent Panel starts probing Pandemic 
​​​•  David Overcomes Goliath

 The United Nations (UN) system, is both a stage and an actor. 

It provides a unique platform for  stakeholders (primarily States) to engage and arrive at shared solutions to shared problems. Since outcomes that are acceptable to all are usually in the nature of least common denominators, the UN as a stage has been seen as fulfilling a necessary but not very successful global role to address an array of common challenges.

It also is an actor that  engages in advocacy on subjects of global importance such as climate change and human rights. Additionally, it implements a range of mandates  relating to peace and security(primarily through Peacekeeping Operations) and in the humanitarian and development space. Here the UN’s role has expanded, in response to growing need for such support.

Given the breadth of arenas in which the United Nations system is engaged through its various organs and specialized agencies, it is easy to focus on the maze of events and activities and lose sight of broader trends they reflect. UNcovered will endeavor, every month, to glean some of the most interesting issues from the wider UN system. It will uncover their moorings and cover their possible impact from a broader perspective.

A novel 75th anniversary session of the United Nations 

September is the centre-piece of the UN’s diplomatic calendar. The “General Debate at the start of a new session of the General Assembly attracts upwards of 100 Heads for State/Government of the 193 Members of the UN to New York annually. While statements made from the pulpit at the General Assembly attract media attention, a lot of quiet diplomacy is undertaken on the margins. 

This year, with the UN celebrating its 75th anniversary, the event was, in many ways, novel. Covid-19 restrictions meant that all activities were virtual. Leaders sent their video-statements which were played in the presence of a limited number of socially distanced delegates at the General Assembly Hall. The mood was somber with no celebrations; the motorcades were missing from mid-town Manhattan; and premium hotel rooms remained empty. However, the mounting global concerns meant there was a talkfest, without the ballast of substantive engagements on the sidelines.

Reflecting a lack of appetite for serious change amidst geopolitical tensions an anodyne Declaration was adopted to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UN. The quest for reform was pushed down the road.  The UN Secretary General was entrusted with the responsibility to “report back before the end of the 75th session of the General Assembly with recommendations to respond to current and future challenges.” 

The week-long “General Debate” was on the theme “ The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism - confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action”. The standout feature was the divergences between the USA and China. President Trump called for holding China accountable for unleashing the plague of  “China virus” on the world. President Xi rejected the attempt of politicizing the issue or stigmatization. 

Other leaders, including the UN Secretary General, warned that lack of international cooperation could worsen the coronavirus pandemic, slow a global economic recovery or even lead to outright conflict. Most used the platform for announcing their priorities and voicing concerns to the world and touting achievements at home for domestic audiences. 

PM Modi spoke twice - at the 75th anniversary commemorative event and the General Debate. His advocacy of reforming the UN  and a greater role for India in decision making on international peace and security was the most vigorous pitch for change made by an Indian leader at this forum. His assurance that India’s vaccine production capacities would be used to help all of humanity in fighting the Covid-19 crisis, drew praise for standing up for global good amidst fears of  ‘vaccine nationalism’. 

For the second straight year PM Modi ignored Pakistan in India’s list of multilateral priorities by making no reference to it (or to China). On the other hand, the perennial side-show that Pakistan triggers by making references to Jammu and Kashmir and other aspects of the Indian polity, leading to India using its right of reply to set the record straight was repeated, with the Indian delegate also staging a “walk out” of the General Assembly Hall even as PM Imran Khan’s recorded statement was being played there.

With physical presence not a necessity the total number of Heads of State and Heads of Government who made statements exceeded the usual number. The level of interest generated was well below par, even though the show was kept going . 

Comment: The UN @75 is ensuring ‘business process continuity’, amidst the most trying times since it was established in 1945. That the organisation needs rejuvenation, to be fit for purpose to address the looming challenges of modernity is well understood. However, given the paucity of  international cooperation amidst great power competition, pathways towards change remain elusive.
Contention Exemplifies Security Council Dysfunction

The depths to which Security Council’s diplomacy has descended was exemplified in the exchange of accusations at a virtual Council meeting on Post-COVID-19 Global Governance convened by President Issoufou of Niger, as President of the Security Council  for the month on September 24.

“ Shame on each of you....I am disgusted by the content of today’s discussion. I am actually really quite ashamed of this Council” charged US Ambassador Kelly Craft during her remarks. She was responding to veiled swipes by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, at the United States.

“Abusing the platform of the UN and its Security Council, the US has been spreading political virus and disinformation, and creating confrontation and division” countered China’s Ambassador Zhang Jun, accusing the US of “lying, cheating and stealing”.

Amidst, such acrimony  the Secretary General Guterres’s reiteration of the need for the Council to play an active role in working towards a global cease-fire did not excite responses. Also, his appeal for broadening global governance, to take in businesses, civil society, cities and regions, academia and young people was lost. However, over the next year matters of more inclusive and flexible mechanisms to address global challenges are likely to be fleshed out and presented at various UN fora. 

The US effort to enforce  “snap back” UN sanctions on Iran played out outside the Council as there was little support for the US within the Council on the issue. Following the completion of the 30 day period since it had notified the initiation of  the process to reimpose UN sanctions specified in Resolution 2231 (2015),  US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that US considered that all UN sanctions on Iran were now back in place. On the other hand, most Council members ( including all other Permanent members) reiterated their views they consider the US as having left the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) and hence having no legal standing to initiate the “snap back” process. 

Faced with uncertainty and no definitive interpretation in face of conflicting views, Secretary General Guterres declined to take any further steps until the Council clarifies its stance. With no hope of that, it sets the stage for US taking unilateral action should it consider any state is violating various UN sanctions, including the embargo on sale of conventional weapons to Iran. Most other Council members are playing for time, and look towards the outcome of US elections as a possible way out.    

Such discord did not restrict the Council from extension of the mandates of the Missions in Afghanistan, Colombia and Libya. Also, there were regular meetings on Syria, Yemen and the  situation in the Middle East. A host of African issues including Sudan and South Sudan were addressed and the Annual meeting with the AU Peace and Security Council was held. 

Comment:   The Security Council continues to routinely address issues on its agenda,   but the sharpness of the geopolitical divide has aggravated following the US’s inability to get support for the “snap back” of Iran sanctions. Disputed assertions about whether UN sanctions are back in place on Iran can potentially lead to unforeseen situations.    

Environmental Priorities Rise On Global Agenda 

Two UN reports issued during the month harness scientific inputs to raise environmental concerns, which have been overshadowed by the pandemic. The cumulative impact of the findings is to once again highlight environmental degradation and climate change as a priority on the global agenda. They also dovetail into the rising advocacy by the UN  Secretary General of environmental initiatives in general and particularly proposals such as early phase out of fossil fuel use so as to meet sustainability goals of carbon neutrality. 

The United in Science 2020 report, issued on September 9, projects that the average temperature during the first five period since the signing of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is expected to be the warmest on record. It will be about 1.1 degree Celsius above 1850-1900 (a reference period for temperature change since pre-industrial times) and 0.24 degree Celsius warmer than the global average temperature for 2011-2015. 

CO2 emissions in 2020 will fall by 4%-7% in 2020, due to COVID-19 confinement policies. At the height of COVID-related lockdowns, daily global fossil CO2 emissions dropped by an unprecedented 17% compared to last year. However, by early June, the emissions had returned to within 5% below 2019 levels and in July 2020 the World Meteorological Organization bench mark stations were reporting higher emissions than last year.

The UN’s fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook, published by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), on September 15, provides an authoritative overview of the state of nature worldwide.  It highlights the importance of biodiversity in addressing climate change, and long-term food security. It warns that the continued degradation of the environment is increasing the likelihood of diseases spreading from animals to humans and concludes that action to protect biodiversity is essential to prevent future pandemics. 

It serves as a “final report card” for the “Aichi Biodiversity Targets”, a series of 20 objectives set out in 2010, at the beginning of the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity, most of which were supposed to be reached by the end of this year. However, none of the targets – which concern the safeguarding of ecosystems, and the promotion of sustainability – have been fully met, and only six are deemed to have been “partially achieved”. 

Although the lack of success in meeting the targets is a cause for concern, the Outlook stresses that virtually all countries are now taking some steps to protect biodiversity. The bright spots include falling rates of deforestation and raised awareness of biodiversity and its importance. The findings are aimed to be a wake-up call, and bring out the dangers involved in mankind’s current relationship with nature. They will be raised by many at the virtual UN Summit on Biodiversity,  and will feed into a new set of targets, for the period between 2021 and 2030, currently under negotiation for adoption at the 15th Conference of Parties of the Convention of Biological Diversity to be held in Kunming, China, in May 2021. 

The release of the two reports has catalyzed a series of announcements. During his statement to the General Assembly President Xi JinPing, indicated that Chinese carbon emissions would peak “before 2030” and  pledged that China would strive to be carbon neutral by 2060. Even as this year, China builds the largest number of coal based power plants since the Paris Agreement, the canny political move has been welcomed as it will represent the biggest reduction in emissions of any country, if it can be achieved. The new target will lower global warming projections by 0.2C-0.3C, according to the non-profit research group Climate Action Tracker.

Many other leaders in their General Assembly statements drew attention to the ravages of caused by extreme climactic events. The UK Prime MInister Boris Johnson and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced plans to co-host an online “Climate Summit” on 12 December, 2020, to mark the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement in 2015. The effort is to rally global leaders to commit to greater climate action and ambition, so as to increase momentum ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (CoP 26) which was to be held this year in Glasgow but is rescheduled for November 2021. 

Following up on the Biodiversity Outlook, more than 70 leaders (including several from South Asia) from five continents signed onto the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature . They embraced 10 commitments related to building sustainable economic systems, reducing deforestation, halting unsustainable fishing practices, eliminating environmentally harmful subsidies and beginning the transition to sustainable food production systems and a circular economy to put nature and biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030. These are aimed at fulfilling the vision of living in harmony with nature by 2050. Missing were key countries including Australia, Brazil, China, India, Russia and US.   

Comment:  Even as multilateral cooperation has been stalemated on most issues, climate change and other environmental concerns are  resurfacing as priorities on the global agenda. The next substantive steps, will like much else in the multilateral sphere, also depend on the outcome of US Presidential elections.  

Independent Panel starts probing Pandemic 

The thirteen member Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response led by Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia had its first meeting on 17 September. In accordance with its mandate, the panel will strive to establish the timeline and events which culminated in COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic, and make recommendations aimed at safeguarding human health and economic and social wellbeing in the face of future global health threats. According to a readout by the Co-Chairs, the meeting was devoted to discussing the program of work and the methodologies to be adopted to make “evidence-based, practical, and people-centred recommendations” that will “make a real difference for the future of global health security”.  

Comment: The panel is keen to emphasize on its independent nature and transparent working. Its report, to be submitted next May, will be eagerly awaited.  

David Overcomes Goliath

Elections at the UN rarely attract attention, unless there is an upset. China, which has been a member of the 45 member Commission on Status of Women (CSW) continuously since 1980 lost its re-election bid for a 4 year term at elections which were initially scheduled to be held at the 54 member Economic and Social Council in April but were delayed until September due to Covid-related restrictions. For the two seats allocated to the Asia-Pacific region Afghanistan which has never been a member of the CSW  polled 39  votes and India which was in the CSW until 2018  and was seeking to join after a gap got 38 votes.Both were declared elected. China was last of the three candidates with 27 votes and lost. 

Comment: Afghanistan’s victory is a reflection that Davids can and do overcome Goliaths. Such outcomes where the shadows of the Permanent Members loom over all activities, makes the UN a place that never ceases to amaze. 



(The views expressed are personal)


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About the Author

Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin

Former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations and Former Spokesperson, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin ended his diplomatic assignment as the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations on 30th April 2020 and has recently returned to India.

In a diplomatic career spanning more than three decades, he represented India's interests in important capacities, promoting friendly ties across the globe.

As the Official Spokesperson of India's Ministry of External Affairs during 2012-2015 he is credited with the effective use of social media tools to considerably expand public diplomacy outreach.

An experienced multilateral diplomat prior to his assignment at the UN, Ambassador Akbaruddin, played a key role as the Chief Coordinator in the organization of the India-Africa Forum Summit held in October 2015 in New Delhi. All 54 African States that are members of the United Nations and the African Union participated in this milestone event in India-Africa ties.

Ambassador Akbaruddin also served as an international civil-servant at the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna from 2006-2011 as Head of the External Relations and Policy Coordination Unit and the Special Assistant to the Director-General of the IAEA.

Ambassador Akbaruddin has previously served at the Indian Mission to the United Nations as First Secretary(1995-98) during which he focused on UN Security Council Reform and Peace-Keeping. He was a member of the UN’s apex body the Advisory Committee on Administrative & Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) during 1997-98.

Ambassador Akbaruddin served as Counsellor at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad (1998-2000). During 2000-2004 he was the Consul General of India, Jeddah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and prior to that was First Secretary in Riyadh and Second Secretary/Third Secretary in Cairo, Egypt. He is proficient in Arabic.

Since his retirement Ambassador Akbaruddin has written extensively on issues of global governance, international order and multilateralism.

Ambassador Akbaruddin has a Master's Degree in Political Science and International Relations. He is married to Mrs. Padma Akbaruddin and they have two sons.

He is an avid and passionate sports enthusiast.