General Assembly Mandates Future Accountability

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With the political situation throughout North Africa and the Middle East in flux after months of anti-Government protests, the dismal reality of climate change playing out across South-east Asia and the Horn of Africa, and the world’s major economic engines still mired in recession, the General Assembly opened its sixty-sixth session with a busy agenda reflecting many of the year’s most vital international issues.

“The sands are shifting,” Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar said as the 194-member body’s substantive session began.  The United Nations had before it a unique opportunity to shape change and ensure “our next chapter will be safer for the most vulnerable, more prosperous for those in need and kinder to the planet,” he added, stressing that future generations would hold Member States accountable for their response to the current challenges.

Gathering at a critical juncture in the history of nations, “this is our opportunity to define our place in this decisive moment; to prove that we can work together to produce results,” he continued.  “An increasingly interdependent and interconnected world is forcing us to rethink the way we do business at the [United Nations],” he said, outlining his four main areas of focus for the session:  the peaceful settlement of disputes; United Nations reform and revitalization; improving disaster prevention and response; and sustainable development and global prosperity.  The session would also aim for progress on strengthening the Organization’s peacebuilding architecture, and would include deliberations on sensitive issues regarding development, human rights, climate change and global safety and security.

At a press conference later in the session, Mr. Al-Nasser described the impact of the protests, calls for freedom and other events across the Arab world as one of the most dramatic developments during “an eventful and demanding year for the United Nations”, saying:  “You call it the Arab Spring, but I think the more appropriate description should be the Arab Awakening.”  The popular protests that had swept from Africa’s Maghreb region to the Persian Gulf had generated deep concern about the plight of people in the affected countries, especially human rights, and those of women and youth in particular.  “Under my Presidency, the Assembly remains active in galvanizing the necessary global partnership to assist the Governments and people in the Arab world during this Arab Awakening,” he added.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed the Assembly President’s opening address as he presented his annual report on the work of the Organization with a challenge to Member States to shape the world of tomorrow by taking decisive action on some of today’s most pressing issues.  Flagging sustainable development as the most serious among them, he said:  “We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women’s empowerment.”  Stressing that the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development — known as “Rio+20” — must succeed, he added:  “We cannot burn our way to the future,” and called for early agreement on a binding climate deal with more ambitious national and global emission-reduction targets.

He went on to say that the effort to build a safer and more secure world was the core responsibility of the United Nations, noting that the Organization had recently been “sorely tested” in that regard.  In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, it had “stood firm” for democracy and human rights, while in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would carry on its missions with determination and commitment.  “In Darfur, we continue to save lives and help keep peace under difficult conditions,” he added.

Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, he emphasized:  “[We] must break the stalemate.  We have long agreed that Palestinians deserve a State.  Israel needs security.  Both want peace.”  He pledged unrelenting efforts to help achieve that peace through a negotiated settlement.  As for the dramatic events in North Africa and the Middle East, he said the United Nations was deploying a special mission to support the transitional authorities in Libya.  “Let us help make the Arab Spring a true season of hope for all.”

Ahead of its annual high-level segment — which would include ministerial meetings devoted to desertification and sustainable development, the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases, and the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Durban Declaration against Racism — the Assembly faced the challenging question of who would represent Libya during the session.  On 16 September, in two rounds of voting, the Assembly decided, by a recorded vote of 107 in favour to 22 against with 12 abstentions, to allow the National Transitional Council — formed in the wake of civil protests that ultimately drove long-time leader Muammar al-Qadhafi from power — to represent Libya in the General Assembly.

The votes sparked intense debate that would echo throughout the Assembly session; while most delegates affirmed support for Libya and the aspirations of its people, many others denounced the “mishandling” of Security Council resolution 1973 (2011), which authorized qualified States to “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya.  The consequent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air campaign had not only left the country worse off, several delegations said, it had also, under the “guise of the responsibility to protect”, obstructed regional efforts to craft a negotiated political solution without foreign intervention.  As such, the issue remained a “big question mark”, some said, noting that they would voice their concerns later in the session, when the Assembly moved to reinstate Libya to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

Another matter that galvanized the session’s early days was the anticipated application of Palestine for United Nations membership.  Standing before a packed and applauding hall after having presented the application to the Secretary-General, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas outlined on 23 September his homeland’s bid for the statehood it had long sought.  Declaring that the “moment of truth” had arrived, he said:  “We have one goal — to be.  And we shall be.”  The application, which would be submitted to the Security Council for its consideration, was yet another in a series of peaceful Palestinian efforts to resolve the long-standing impasse between themselves and Israel, he added.

During the general debate, many delegates argued that while decisive action was required to tackle many pressing global challenges, the true test of the international community’s fibre would come not through action but through its commitment to prevention.  The session’s theme, “The role of mediation in the settlement of disputes”, underscored that compromise-oriented diplomacy stood foremost among the reasons for the world body’s founding, said Assembly President Al-Nasser, adding that he hoped to galvanize the real multilateral capacity of that theme.  “The world is going through a particularly difficult time and transition, and the United Nations can — and should — play an important role in resolving disputes and conflicts,” he stressed during a thematic debate later in the session.

One of the main highlights of the session was the Assembly’s fist ever summit-level meetings on preventing and controlling non-communicable diseases.  Proclaiming the spread of deadly chronic illnesses a socio-economic and development challenge of “epidemic proportions”, Governments pledged to work with the United Nations to adopt, before the end of 2012, targets to combat heart disease, cancers, diabetes and lung disease, and to devise voluntary policies that would cut smoking and slash the high salt, sugar and fat content in foods that caused them.

World leaders joined Health and Development Ministers in the consensus on adopting a wide-ranging Political Declaration.  The centrepiece of the two-day meeting, it acknowledged that the global threat of non-communicable diseases “constitutes one of the major challenges for development in the twenty-first century”.  It also recognized that many chronic disease risk factors were driven by obesity, and that mental and neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, added to the global burden non-communicable disease “for which there is a need to provide equitable access to effective programmes and health-care interventions”.

The Assembly also convened its Fourth High-level Meeting on Financing for Development, where delegations stressed the particular importance of reinvigorating the international partnership for development as States began to consider the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals framework.В  While those ideas would be fleshed out at the Rio+20 Conference next year, many speakers stressed that, in the short term, the global financial crisis must not be seen as an excuse for the flagging commitment to fulfil official development assistance (ODA) obligations.В  Speakers also underscored the need to consider new, innovative mechanisms for financing the critical global development agenda.

As for the work of the Assembly’s main subsidiary bodies, Sergio Duarte, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, told the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) that it “should not wait for the dawning of world peace as a precondition for disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control to succeed”.  Heeding that call, the Committee pressed ahead, adopting 52 draft resolutions and decisions covering a range of issues, from accelerating implementation of nuclear-disarmament commitments to banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, and reviving the long-deadlocked Conference on Disarmament.

The developing world’s vulnerabilities to the multiple global crises and preparations for the June 2012 Rio+20 Conference were prominent among the concerns of the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) during the session.  As reflected in the 24 draft resolutions and four draft decisions that it would submit to the Assembly, the Committee’s discussions covered a range of issues, including the need to enhance development cooperation with middle-income countries, and pressing environmental concerns, such as the importance of practical steps to protect coral reefs.

Following a session in which senior United Nations officials and experts pledged to stand with the world’s most marginalized as transformation swept through North Africa and the Middle East, and in which quieter but equally far-reaching revolutions bolstered social protection systems, strengthened judicial and legislative safeguards and advanced human rights protections around the globe, the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) forwarded 67 draft resolutions to the Assembly.  In response to those commitments, the drafts addressed such issues as the human rights situation in Syria, a third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and women’s participation in politics.

Once again taking up some of the world’s most enduring political challenges, the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) sent a broad range of texts to the General Assembly, with its work for the session culminating in an examination of Israeli practices.  That cluster of drafts which, as in past years, required recorded votes, demanded that the Government of Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in all the Occupied Palestinian Territory and in the occupied Syrian Golan.  In the realm of decolonization, the Committee produced several draft resolutions aimed at furthering that aim.  It also took action on texts concerning dissemination of the United Nations message and the review of peacekeeping operations.

After arguing over whether the global economic crisis justified across-the-board budget cuts proposed by the Secretary-General and any decreases in staff pay, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) recommended a budget of $5.152 billion budget for the Organization in 2012-2013, which, at 4.8 per cent less than the current two-year expenditure, would aim to make the best possible use of United Nations resources.  The Committee also approved texts on the next biennium’s financing requirements of special political mission, peacekeeping operations, the world body’s administration of justice system, the Capital Master Plan and the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia, among other areas.

During its 2011 session, the Sixth Committee (Legal) saw a record number of delegations participating in debates on crucial issues facing the international law community and the world at large.  That resulted, through the Committee’s trademark consensus, in the approval of 23 draft resolutions in 18 reports centred on the promotion of the rule of law, concerted efforts to eliminate international terrorism, international trade frameworks, and the dissemination and teaching of international law.

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