•  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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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.