25th Plenary Meeting - General Assembly 75th Session

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12-Nov-2020 03:05:15
General Assembly debates special procedure for voting during ‘exceptional’ circumstances, defeats motion on ensuring in-person decision-making.

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Selection of New Secretary-General, Cooperation with United Nations Organs among Other Topics Covered in Broad Discussion on Assembly Revitalization

The General Assembly, mindful of the impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic on its work, debated today whether to enact a special procedure for adopting resolutions and decisions “only in the most exceptional circumstances” when it cannot hold in‑person meetings, and postponed a vote on the matter to Friday, 13 November.

A motion proposed by the Russian Federation and China to refer the draft decision “Procedure for decision‑making in the General Assembly when an in‑person meeting is not possible” (document A/75/L.7/Rev.1) to the Sixth Committee (Legal) for its consideration, pursuant to rule 163 of the rules of procedure, was rejected by a recorded vote of 85 against, to 33 in favour, with 35 abstentions.

Under the terms of “L.7/Rev.1”, the Assembly would authorize its President — when an in‑person meeting is not possible — to circulate a proposal, at the request of its main sponsor, among Member States under a 72‑hour silence procedure.

If silence is not broken during that period, the proposal — which can be either a draft resolution or a draft decision — would be considered adopted. On the other hand, if silence is broken, or if a Member State so requests, the proposal would be put to a vote without an in‑person meeting.

The Assembly would take note of proposals adopted through the silence procedure the next time it meets in person in plenary, according to the draft decision, which also spells out the modalities for voting through electronic means that would be provided by the Secretariat within existing resources.

Also before the Assembly is a draft amendment (document A/75/L.15) that would have had the Assembly decide that votes conducted without in‑person meetings would apply to proposals from the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) and to the rescheduling and postponement of meetings and events mandated by the Assembly. The draft would also make the decision to apply the special procedure subject to the recommendation of the General Committee, composed of the Assembly’s President, its Vice‑Presidents and the Chairs of its six main committees.

Volkan Bozkir (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, in opening remarks, emphasized that the 193‑nation body cannot be seen to sit idle while the world around it attempts to address one of the greatest challenges in a generation. Having worked across aisles on the topic, he was fully aware of the sensitivities and complexity of the issues, he said, adding that the Assembly has an obligation to work effectively and to remain relevant.

Several delegates, explaining their positions, pointed out that the Assembly’s current seventy‑fifth session is not only grappling with the impact of COVID‑19 — which the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic on 11 March — but must also prepare for the selection of a new Secretary‑General in 2021. For their part, those supporting the draft amendment said that the decision lacked consensus and put the Assembly’s authority — and the legitimacy of its resolutions — at risk.

Christian Wenaweser (Liechtenstein), introducing “L.7/Rev.1,” expressed hope that the Assembly would continue to work under its current modus operandi and successfully complete the work of its Main Committees and plenary before the holidays. At the same time, it must prepare for less propitious circumstances, such as a lockdown. He noted the difficulty the Assembly faced in adopting an omnibus resolution on COVID‑19 (see Press Release GA/12262), adding that the Security Council already has a voting procedure in place for whenever it cannot meet in person.

Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta (Cuba), introducing the draft amendment “L.15”, said that the text would increase Member States’ participation and ensure that the proposed decision‑making mechanism is only used to take action on topics that are essential for the Organization’s functioning. It also would help balance a draft decision that lacks consensus, he said, adding that his delegation had no choice but to propose the amendment after those behind “L.7/Rev.1” showed little or no flexibility.

Mohammed Bessedik (Algeria), speaking on behalf of the Non‑Aligned Movement, emphasized the importance of strict compliance with the Assembly’s rules of procedure, even during the pandemic. He highlighted the need to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the Office of the President of the General Assembly, an objective particularly relevant in light of the epidemic. With the Secretary‑General’s term of office expiring on 31 December 2021, the selection and appointment process for a new Secretary‑General should be undertaken in full compliance with the Assembly’s mandate. He also welcomed discussions regarding the duration of appointment and renewability of the Secretary‑General’s term of office.

Rodrigo A. Carazo (Costa Rica), speaking on behalf of the 27‑member Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group, said the Assembly must better prepare for crisis situations. “The possibility to vote electronically is an indispensable element of such an effort,” he noted. On the selection of the next Secretary‑General, he outlined two scenarios: one in which the incumbent runs for re‑election, and another in which the process carried out in 2015‑2016 is replicated. The process could also include interactive discussions between the Secretary-General and Member States, consultations with regional groups and town hall meetings.

Vassily A. Nebenzia (Russian Federation), speaking for a group of countries including Burundi, Venezuela, Iran, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Myanmar, Nicaragua and Syria, warned that “L.7/Rev.1” could cause irreparable harm to the Assembly’s authority and to the legitimacy of its resolutions. “We are being asked to adopt a decision that does not enjoy unanimous support,” he stressed, dividing delegates at a time when unity is needed. He disagreed with a procedure that would give the Assembly President the ability to suspend in‑person meetings, adding that nothing in the rules of procedure deals with virtual decision‑making. In the Security Council, some members initially favoured electronic voting, but consensus was ultimately achieved on voting through written procedure. The situation around COVID‑19 is precarious, but the Assembly has taken preventative measures “and we are getting by,” he said, emphasizing that the focus must remain on in‑person meetings and, if required, written procedures.

Shaojun Yao (China), in the same vein, said that electronic voting is fraught with technical and other challenges, and that his country, with the Russian Federation, had circulated an alternative joint proposal among Member States. However, the sponsors of “L.7/Rev.1” rushed to establish an e‑voting procedure, refused to consider alternatives and artificially pared down other feasible options, leaving Member States with no time or opportunity to compare the different options. “This is deplorably unfair,” he said, agreeing that the matter should be referred to the Sixth Committee.

Nagaraj Naidu Kakanur (India) pointed out that the special procedure, put in place by the President of the seventy‑fourth session, enabled the Assembly to adopt more than 70 decisions and resolutions. While consultations on improving preparedness are welcome, he is unconvinced that the proposed decision is even required at this stage. The provisional procedure adopted in March works well. “What is the rush to put this procedure in place?” he asked. More time is needed for transparent deliberations, including on seeking legal advice. The sanctity of States’ in‑person presence in the Assembly cannot be undermined.

Silvio Gonzato of the European Union spoke — like several other delegates — to the broader question of revitalizing the work of both the Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. “We should and can do a better job in streamlining our work,” he said, emphasizing the Assembly’s central role in responding to global challenges. COVID‑19 forced many processes to be postponed or moved to virtual spaces, he said, adding that the lack of interpretation services limited delegations’ ability to make their voices heard. He called for better preparation for crises, with full respect for multilingualism and the use of inclusive processes that engage civil society and other stakeholders. The process to select the next Secretary‑General will begin during the current session, he observed, describing the coming months as a unique opportunity for progress.

Mr. Nebenzia (Russian Federation), taking the floor for a second time, proposed at the conclusion of the debate that the draft decision be referred to the Sixth Committee (Legal) in accordance with the rules of procedure. Doing so would make it possible to find an approach that would be acceptable to all. The issue is not about whether Assembly resolutions and decisions should be put to a vote in exceptional circumstances, but rather, what procedure should be followed.

E. Courtenay Rattray (Jamaica), whose delegation is among the co‑sponsors of “L.7/Rev.1,” opposed that motion, explaining that the draft decision was the product of extensive consultations on a topic going back seven months. Delegates had ample time to propose amendments and the sponsors undertook consultations to ensure the broadest possible agreement.

Also speaking today were representatives of Malaysia (on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Australia (also on behalf of Canada and New Zealand), Qatar, South Africa, Pakistan, Maldives, Ecuador, Ukraine, Morocco, Cyprus, Slovakia, Bangladesh, Malta, Croatia, El Salvador, United Kingdom, Equatorial Guinea and Algeria (in national capacity).

The General Assembly will reconvene at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, 13 November, to vote on the draft decision and its proposed amendment.

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