H I G H L I G H T S

•  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).

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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).

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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.


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(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.