General Debate of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the General Assembly

By Alex Maresca, 21 January 2016

On 19 January 2016, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the Work of the General Assembly (AHWG) officially began its work for the 70th session. As in previous years, the session formally opened with a general debate, to be followed by thematic debates on the four thematic clusters addressed within the AHWG.

However, there are intriguing differences between this session and previous sessions of the AHWG. Notably, the general debate was scheduled nearly two months earlier than in previous sessions. In his opening remarks, Ambassador Drobnjak noted this change, explaining that an earlier date would allow for more time to discuss the issues and could make it possible to adopt a resolution by July.

There are several factors which may have contributed to this shift. First, in recent statements, some member states have argued that there is not enough time left after the AHWG’s thematic debates for the negotiation of a draft resolution. Another concern is that the AHWG’s normal timeline results in negotiations taking place in July and August, a period when many delegates leave for summer vacation. The change may also have been influenced by the upcoming appointment of the Secretary-General, which is expected to take place by fall 2016. Given that the AHWG normally concludes its work in September, the resolution it proposes would not be able to impact the appointment unless it can be adopted earlier.

Additionally, while the general debate marks the formal start of the AHWG, it is important to note that it was not the first meeting of the AHWG in the 70th session. In fact, the co-chairs convened an informal session on 11 December 2015 to discuss the Office of the PGA, partially in response to the corruption allegations against former PGA John Ashe. It is also worth mentioning that, unlike past sessions, the co-chairs of the most recent AHWG (Ambassador Drobnjak of Croatia and Ambassador Emvula of Namibia) agreed to serve in this capacity a second time.

Following an introduction by co-chair Ambassador Drobnjak, statements were delivered by 23 Member States. In their remarks, the speakers* touched upon all four thematic clusters of the Ad Hoc Working Group. However, there was a marked focus on two issues in particular: the Office of the President of the General Assembly and the selection process for the Secretary-General.

Office of the President of the General Assembly

Officially, the fourth cluster of the AHWG is designated to discuss ways to strengthen the institutional memory of the Office of the President of the General Assembly. This has been perceived as an ongoing challenge due to the high turnover in the post itself—a new PGA assumes office each year—as well as the lack of permanent staff for the Office.

In this regard, the European Union encouraged cooperation between incoming and outgoing Presidents of the General Assembly, and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) requested that the outgoing President of the GA brief the incoming PGA before she or he assumes office. NAM further asked the Secretariat to explore the idea of creating a compendium of best practices to improve the institutional memory of the OPGA.

Statements were also made regarding the financing of the OPGA. NAM stated that the OPGA should have significant human and financial resources from the general budget; the amount allocated for these purposes should be increased. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) emphasized that the OPGA must have enough financial resources to fulfill its mandate, and Costa Rica observed that the allocation of resources to the OPGA from the general budget has not increased in 15 years.

In addition to its financial resources, many speakers felt that the human resources of the OPGA could be strengthened. NAM argued that the OPGA should be provided with more permanent staff members. NAM noted that this would not prevent the PGA from getting support from governments, and expressed its support for the practice of secondment. Liechtenstein emphasized that the practice of secondment has many advantages and should not be eliminated; the practice increases the diversity of the OPGA, strengthens its institutional memory, and builds capacity. However, Morocco felt that the OPGA should not depend on the generosity of Member States in order to function, arguing that it is inappropriate for the OPGA to be obligated to ask states for its staff.

Liechtenstein stated that it was their understanding that the transition period is the most difficult for PGAs, due to high workload and limited staff, and suggested that this period in particular could be examined.
However, as noted by Finland in its remarks, speakers this year addressed a broader array of issues pertaining to the OPGA. There was considerable interest in promoting greater transparency and accountability in the Office. In fact, Japan felt that promoting ethics and transparency of the OPGA’s finances should be the focus of the AHWG, arguing that it was “not realistic” to address questions of financial or human resources during this session.

Many speakers expressed support for the steps taken by the President of the General Assembly to ensure greater transparency and accountability of his Office, with Japan, the UK, Costa Rica, and Liechtenstein encouraging steps to institutionalize these practices. In particular, Costa Rica and Liechtenstein welcomed the PGA’s efforts to publicly disclose contributions to his office, and NAM, Brazil, Indonesia, and Liechtenstein expressed interest in pursuing a Code of Conduct on ethics for the President of the General Assembly. CELAC stated that the GA must must ensure the independence of the office from undue influences, and encouraged future Presidents to follow the current PGA’s example on transparency. Morocco called for the transparent communication practices instituted by the current PGA to continue. Panama expressed an interest in ethics generally, noting that since June it had taken efforts to promote the mainstreaming of ethics throughout the UN.

At the same time, Liechtenstein argued that none of the proposals under discussion would prevent a future President from engaging in corrupt practices like those of former PGA John Ashe, and encouraged the PGA to propose further steps.

Another concern for many states was the lack of gender parity in the appointment of Presidents of the General Assembly. Ambassador Drobnjak stressed this issue in his opening remarks, observing that only three out of seventy PGAs had been women. CELAC observed that this record was only slightly better than that for the UN Secretary-General, given that there has never been a female SG. Liechtenstein characterized this record as “appalling,” stating that there ought to be gender parity “because it’s 2016”.

Selection and Appointment of the Secretary-General

In their remarks, many speakers commended the achievements of last year’s Ad Hoc Working Group with regard to the selection and appointment of the Secretary-General, highlighting the new procedures adopted in resolution 69/321. Indeed, only Russia seemed to have reservations, expressing concern that the selection of the Secretary-General could overtake the GA’s “substantive work”.

Many states were pleased that a joint letter by the Presidents of the GA and SC calling for candidate nominations had already been circulated on 15 December 2015, as requested in the resolution. However, CELAC stated its wish that the joint letter had incorporated more of the text of resolution 69/321.

Many also called for the implementation of the other provisions of the resolution, such as informal dialogues or meetings with candidates in the General Assembly. The Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency group (ACT) stated that it would engage actively in these meetings, and urged all candidates to participate. Liechtenstein and Japan hoped civil society could also take part in these meetings. NAMcalled for summaries of these meetings to be distributed to all Member States, and Costa Rica proposed that the General Assembly hold a debate for member states to discuss the candidates following these informal dialogues.
In line with the language of resolution 69/321, a number of speakers called for women to be put forward, including CELAC, ACT, Costa Rica, Finland and Nicaragua. NAM, ACT, Morocco, andCuba emphasized that gender and region were important considerations when selecting a candidate.

Some states were primarily interested in ensuring that the achievements of last year’s AHWG were put into practice. [/b]The United Kingdom[/b] felt that the focus should be on candidates, or “who to choose,” this year. Japan thought the focus should be on implementation of resolution 69/321, rather than new elements. Japan noted that it would be President of the Security Council in July—the date set out in the joint letter by which the Council’s deliberations on candidates ought to start—and expressed its commitment to moving the process forward at that time.

While also expressing support for these procedures, other states suggested that further improvements could be made during this year’s session.

Several speakers called on the Security Council to recommend more than one candidate to the General Assembly for its consideration, or suggested that the issue should at least be discussed. These included NAM, Brazil , Colombia, Costa Rica, and Sweden. Belarus suggested that the Secretary-General be appointed by secret ballot, rather than by acclamation as has become informal practice. CELAC suggested that following Rule 141 in the General Assembly’s Rules of Procedure, which specifies appointment by secret ballot, would help to democratize the appointment process.

ACT called for “thorough discussion” of the proposal to appoint the Secretary-General for a single, non-renewable term. Liechtenstein and Costa Rica, both members of ACT, called for a single term in their national capacities, and Costa Rica suggested that the proposal could be put into practice in two ways: either as part of a resolution drafted by the AHWG, or by the GA when stating the terms of appointment for the next Secretary-General. Brazil and Sweden also stated that the single term merited consideration, and Brazil mentioned that a single term had been proposed by civil society groups such as “1 for 7 Billion” and the Elders.

There were also remarks pertaining to the appointment of other executive heads.NAM highlighted what it described as the practice in which candidates for Secretary-General make promises to appoint the nationals of certain countries to key high-level positions in exchange for support, as described in the Joint Inspection Unit’s 2011 report. Brazil stated that the AHWG should also discuss the election of other executive heads, such as Under-Secretaries-General, and observed that the nationals of the same countries are repeatedly appointed to certain positions. In addition, Liechtensteinstated that the allocation of senior management posts should be addressed in the AHWG, which may be a reference to the same issue.

Working Methods

Several speakers felt that the GA’s agenda should be consolidated or streamlined. The EU, Russia, and France, suggested biennialization and triennialization of some agenda items, and the US supported considering some issues “at longer intervals”. The EU suggested that a sunset clause on some items be considered, with the “clear consent” of the original sponsor of the agenda item.
CELAC noted that steps had been taken to improve the quality of the Security Council’s annual report, but hoped that further efforts would be undertaken. Colombia stated that the report should be made more substantive and analytical.

Role and Authority of the General Assembly

Some speakers expressed concern about what they perceived as the encroachment of the Security Council on issues which should be addressed in the General Assembly, including NAM, CELAC, and Russia. Along these lines, Russia expressed reservations about thematic topics in the SC, arguing that the Council should focus on countries. Russia felt that the open debates held in SC give the impression that the entire GA has migrated to the SC, and stated that these debates should simply stay in the GA.

The next session of the Ad Hoc Working Group has been scheduled for 16 February. It will address the “role and authority of the General Assembly”.

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