UN General Assembly addresses sustainability, nuclear disarmament, and human rights in 68th session

The United Nations General Assembly opened its 68th session on September 17. Between September 24 and October 1, 190 Member states, two Observer states and one Observer mission took the floor during the General Debate. The majority of the delegates placed priority on two important issues in their speeches.

The first addressed the critical need for the international community to act responsibly in building a more sustainable future. The pessimistic report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published last June indicates that climate change is a threat to sustainable development, and its impact affects the poorest and more vulnerable communities more severely.

The second issue warned of the imperative to pursue peace and security and to continue efforts towards nuclear disarmament and chemical weapons elimination with the active involvement of civil society. In this context, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki- Moon, pointed out that the crisis in Syria is the biggest challenge facing the international community today, and the Assembly has a role to play in resolving the conflict.

He also emphasized that there will be little peace and enjoyment of human rights unless we confront a world awash with deadly weapons. The international community must enforce the ban on chemical weapons, but military action is not the solution because it will not achieve lasting peace.

Of the 173 discussion items on the General Assembly (GA) agenda, two new important items stood out. The first item was the fast approaching deadline of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015 and the challenges that lay ahead in moving forward. The MDGs are eight goals addressing hunger, poverty and disease that Heads of State and Government agreed to try to achieve by 2015. To seal the commitment, 191 member states signed the Millennium declaration in 2000.

The importance of the MDGs’ future was highlighted in the 68th session theme chosen by the president of the General Assembly, His Excellency Ambassador John W. Ashe: “The post 2015 development agenda: setting the stage.” Under this theme the GA will evaluate and draw lessons from countries’ MDGs achievements in order to plan for the follow-up, taking into account that the majority of member states, particularly in the development countries, did not reach their target.

Member States’ discussions on the post MDGs will take place within the framework of a High Level Political Forum (HLPF), a new entity of the United Nations body, which was put in place under a joint initiative of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

The HLPF is tasked  to promote and implement an integrated and balanced sustainable development agenda beyond 2015. The new agenda will emphasize the three interrelated dimensions of sustainable development: environmental, economic and social, at the global, regional and national levels, as well as countries’ interdependence regardless of development levels. At the opening session of the HLPF on September 24, Ambassador Ashe pointed out that this GA session will be pivotal as nations try to identify the parameter of the new development agenda.

The HLPF calling is to play a critical role in the elaboration and implementation of the post 2015 development agenda. If the Forum is properly used, it will become a tool for mainstreaming sustainable development at all levels. The Forum will be held every four year at the level of Head of State and every year under the auspice of the ECOSOC at the Ministerial level.

The other important item on the GA agenda dealt with the long overdue reform of the Security Council, which has been on the General Assembly agenda for past two decades. Many delegates called for the expansion of the Security Council for a more balanced representation of the geopolitical realities and equitable regional presence of the developing countries, particularly of the Africa region. Support for an African seat in the Council has significantly increased within member states.

Equally in context of the reform, delegates expressed concern for the lack of clear guidelines in the use of the veto power when voting on resolutions and the need for more transparency in reporting.

As an initial platform for discussion, the five permanent members, namely China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, agreed to an expansion, although the United States favored a modest one. The President of the General Assembly strongly recommended that State Members embrace the spirit of compromise when discussing the sensitive topic of the Security Council reform.

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