•  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)



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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.