H I G H L I G H T S
• 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.
The 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)