INDEPENDENT NEWS AND COMMENT ON WORLD AFFAIRS
The first session of the United Nations General Assembly opened on 10 January 1946 at Central Hall in London.
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19 December 2017: The General Assembly just adopted a resolution to guide its 2019 Ministerial review on drug policy. That news is buried 7,000 words deep in a UN Press release, and the only detail it provides is that the text, titled, 'International cooperation to address and counter the world drug problem, "called on States to intensify efforts to address the drug problem based on the principle of common and shared responsibility, and through a comprehensive and balanced approach."
During debate in the General Assembly's Third Committee, delegates from numerous countries described the drug problem as of critical importance to sustainable development. Over the last decade, Latin American delegates especially have highlighted the need to change the current prohibitionist drug policies that make trafficking enormously profitable to organized crime and to the financial interests behind it.
The response from Britain, the country that pioneered drug trafficking during the colonial era and emerged as its modern kingpin in its role as the global center of money laundering through offshore "tax havens," has been to make the issue invisible in terms of international cooperation.
For instance, it worked through former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to have Amina Mohammad (of Nigerian-British parentage), appointed as coordinator of the process that produced Agenda 2030. She managed to restrict the issues of money laundering, drug trafficking and terrorism to a bare 22 words in a text of over 15,000. Major issues of the highest priority to African, Asian and Latin American countries were thus rendered virtually invisible as a sub-paragraph of Goal 16. Promoted to Deputy-Secretary-General by the current Secretary-General, Ms. Mohammad has continued to work her magic, entirely eliminating the issues from the benchmark report that will guide action over the 15-year span of Agenda 2030.
She is not in charge, however, of the meetings coverage that made the drug problem vanish from sight. The official responsible for that is Ms. Alison Smale of the United Kingdom, who became UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications on 1 September 2017. (On the same date, Mark Lowcock, also of the United Kingdom, succeeded to the "hereditary" British post of Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.)
In view of the 2019 High-Level Ministerial Review of the international drug regime, Ms Smale's appointment is a typically far-reaching move by the British Foreign Office. She will undoubtedly be active in shaping public perceptions of the drug problem as we approach the 2019 event. We will continue to point out what she and Ms. Amina Mohammad do as officials who perform their duties, as they are sworn to do, with the "interests of the United Nations only in view."
29 January 2017: At its final meeting in 2016 on 23 December, the General Assembly adopted a stinging resolution on Ban Ki-Moon’s proposed budget outline for 2018–2019. Echoing the views expressed by itsAdvisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, the Assembly reaffirmed testily that the “budget outline should provide a greater level of predictability of resources” and set out what it wanted from the Secretary-General:
(a) A preliminary estimate of resources needed for the proposed program of activities
(b) Priorities, reflecting general trends of a broad sectoral nature
(c) Real growth, positive or negative, compared with the previous budget
(d) Size of the contingency fund expressed as a percentage of the overall level of resources.
In another sign of open dissatisfaction the Assembly further reaffirmed that the “proposals of the Secretary-General should reflect resource levels commensurate with mandates” and that “the budget outline is a preliminary estimate of resources.”
UN Priorities for 2018-2019
In inviting the Secretary-General to base the Outline on a preliminary estimate of $5,395 million (inclusive of $1,124.4 million for special political missions), the Assembly asked that he be guided by the following 8 priorities:
(a) Promotion of sustained economic growth and sustainable development
(b) Maintenance of international peace and security
(c) Development of Africa
(d) Promotion of human rights
(e) Effective coordination of humanitarian assistance
(f) Promotion of justice and international law
(h) Drug control, crime prevention and combating international terrorism.
Source: General Assembly resolution 71/274; SG report in A/71/428; ACABQ report in A/71/634.
2 December 2016: Delegates in the General Assembly's Budget Committee have been roundly critical of the Secretary-General’s budget outline for 2018‑2019 for lack of strategic depth and clarity on estimated costs. They have also found fault with the way the Secretariat has dealt with cost estimates for implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. There has been a level of open asperity seldom seen in the UN's diplomatic proceedings.
The Budget Outline was presented by Assistant Secretary-General and Controller Bettina Tucci Bartsiotas. She said the outline represented the Secretary-General's "vision of doing more with less” and improving mandate delivery. While the preliminary $5.4 billion estimate for the biennium was $21.2 million higher than the 2016‑2017 figure the increase was due mainly to initiatives currently being considered by the General Assembly. Without them, the budget outline was $259 million less than the nearly $5.7 billion spent in 2014‑2015.
Carlos Ruiz Massieu, Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), led off the criticism by saying the outline did not clearly distinguish between estimates for established activities and those for initiatives to be considered. In the ensuing discussion Thailand’s representative speaking for the Group of 77 (developing countries), said estimates for the Umoja management project could be affected by the Assembly’s consideration and thus it was premature to assume that costs could be decreased. She also expressed concern over the proposed resource reductions; they did not reflect achieved efficiencies but rather cuts in expenditure with no clear explanation of how targets would reached.
The European Union representative said "by far the most serious concern" about the outline was the incremental way in which it had been put together. The figures were confusing and sometimes contradictory, the overall approach lacked strategic depth and it was unclear what items were included in the outline and what must be added. The limited benefits accruing from the Umoja project were disappointing and those expected in 2019 needed clarification. The delegate of Japan noted the need to go beyond mere projection of the current budget into the next biennium and asked why it had been introduced so late in the session
The delegate of Switzerland said that by the time the budget was approved program plans often were outdated; there was no link between resource allocation and past performance. The lack of strategy left member States “embroiled in micro-management of allocating resources to the extent that they authorize the creation and abolition of individual posts.”
Calling for a "reform the budget process,” the United States delegate urged a scrutiny of core drivers of costs such as staff costs, the review of mandates and reduction of duplication. Under current arrangements substantive bodies were routinely forced to operate in a financial vacuum without information on how much their decisions would cost.
The representative of the Russian Federation said he could not agree on appropriations for initiatives that had not been approved; they should be shown separately.
Agenda 2030 Implementation
Another round of criticism was heard on 30 November, with delegates focusing on the Secretary-General's failure to present a comprehensive proposal to support implementation of the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals. They also expressed strong concern over the Secretariat’s handling of program budget assessments for Regional Commissions.
David Nabarro, Special Adviser on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, presented the Secretary General’s report on supporting and financing the 2030 Agenda. To eliminate extreme poverty, reduce inequality and tackle climate change, among a multitude of other goals, the report asked for $3.48 million (to implement ECOSOC decisions), $5.9 million for other mandated action in 2017 and $12.5 million for strengthening technical cooperation.
The Chairman of ACABQ noted that the Secretary-General had not provided sufficient information on how proposed enhanced resources for the Development Account and technical cooperation would be utilized, and would therefore not recommend an approval of those resources.
Thailand’s representative, speaking for the “Group of 77” expressed disappointment with the report. “We are perplexed that even after two resolutions, 70/247 and 70/248 C, the Secretary-General does not appear to fully comprehend the intentions of this Assembly,” she said.
Many other delegations expressed the same sentiments. The representative of the Dominican Republic, speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, said the Secretary-General’s report had neither provided sufficient details on how regional commissions would deliver their development mandates, nor acknowledged how the capacity of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) would be strengthened. The delegate of Switzerland said the report demonstrated that old structures and concepts were still in place, leaving little evidence that the Secretary-General had established new mechanisms allowing the Secretariat to work more cohesively. The representative of the European Union warned that neither the Development Account nor the regular program for technical cooperation were effective mechanisms; they would divert much-needed funds from other, more effective delivery mechanisms.
20 September 2016: In the wake of UNCTAD 14's failure to take on board the issue of massive illicit financial flows from developing countries (read here), the General Assembly is ramping up the work of ECOSOC’s Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters.
Under a draft resolution (E/2017/L.2/Rev.1) presented by the Group of 77 (developing countries) on 15 September, the Assembly would direct the Committee to meet twice a year instead of once and take note of the report of the High-level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa and the joint Second Committee-ECOSOC discussions of the matter last October and November (summary records in E/2015/SR.28 and 29).
The Committee’s nine subcommittees are already focused on core issues related to the multi-billion-dollar illicit flow of resources from developing countries, but it meets only once a year for four days. The Assembly looks to strengthen the “institutional arrangements to scale up” tax cooperation, including “the conversion of the Committee into an intergovernmental subsidiary body of the Council.”
The resolution emphasizes the importance of the Committee enhancing its collaboration with other international organizations active in the area of international tax cooperation, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and with relevant regional and sub-regional bodies. It asks the President of ECOSOC “to issue invitations to representatives of national tax authorities to attend the annual special meeting of the Council” that will consider international cooperation in tax matters.
The obvious hope behind those instructions is that the bodies named can be energized on an issue they have dealt with very cautiously over the decades. As the 11.5 million leaked documents in the May 2016 Panama Papers showed, the world's ultra-rich siphon out enormous amounts of wealth to escape taxes, and all institutions have been wary of offending them.
The next meeting of the Committee of experts will be in Geneva (11 to 14 October). The Assembly would have it meet again in December “back-to-back with the special meeting of the Council,” to increase the Committee’s engagement with ECOSOC and enhance intergovernmental consideration of tax issues.
13 September 2016: The 118th meeting of the 70th session of the General Assembly this morning segued into the first meeting of the 71st session with a historic event: the first ever oath of office by the Assembly president. Peter Thomson of Fiji made the event memorable by having his two granddaughters, Grace (7) and Mirabelle (5), join him on the podium.
In his concluding remarks, Assembly president Mogens Lykkettoft of Denmark reviewed a list of significant achievements under his stewardship, most prominently, the increased transparency of the process to appoint the next Secretary-General. He announced that he had sent a letter to the president of the Security Council (with copies to all Ambassadors), expressing hope that the transparency of the process would continue into the next phase and contribute to the legitimacy of the recommendation to the Assembly for action.
After the oath-taking, which Mr. Thomson did with a copy of the UN Charter in his upraised right hand, the gavel changed hands and the Assembly heard Mr. Thomson's opening statement. He dwelt on the challenges ahead, especially the implementation of Agenda 2030. The 71st session, he declared, must "witness the wheels turning" on Agenda 2030 implementation. To push work on all 17 goals, he had assembled a team in the Office of the President. He would also seek to align the work of the Assembly and ECOSOC on Agenda 2030 issues. After that, the Assembly got down to arranging its work for the months ahead. Real work will begin with the meeting next Monday on the issue of mass migrant flows. Oath is 37 minutes into the tape (link above).
6 August 2016: The General Assembly has negotiated for eight years on Security Council reform without a written text, structuring its talk around five clusters of issues. On 27 July, in deciding to continue talking into 2017, it noted that there had been some "convergence" on two of those clusters. One was the working methods of the Council (see next column); the other was the relationship of the Council and the Assembly. The issues on which there was no acknowledged progress were: categories of membership and the question of the veto, regional representation and the size of an enlarged Council.
The 40 minute meeting of the Assembly as it adopted the decision is worth watching (video here) because it makes clear why progress has been so hard to achieve: the system of group positions that usually facilitates UN negotiations has broken down. Only the African, Arab and Caricom groups have spokesmen (respectively, Sierra Leone, speaking 6 minutes into the video, Kuwait 22 minutes in, and Guyana at 24).
All the rest are split into unique patterns. There is Brazil speaking (substantively) for the "Group of 4," including also Germany, India and Japan (at the 10 minute mark). Italy speaks (16 minutes in) for the "Uniting for Consensus" group which took shape in opposition to the G-4 and has as core members also Egypt, Mexico, Pakistan and Turkey. Nicaragua speaks (19 minutes in) for the disparate "L 69" group of developing countries from all regions. Belgium speaks also for the Netherlands. China and the Russian Federation speak separately; the three other permanent members of the Security Council do not speak.
29 July 2016: In announcing the sentencing of one of those who pleaded guilty in the bribery of the late John Ashe, the president of the United Nations General Assembly from September 2013 to August 2014, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York made clear that the case was not only about building a South-South conference center in Macau.
At the UN, the case has been seen as primarily about the effort to get Ashe – and the UN Office of South-South Cooperation – to support the development of a UN conference center in Macau. However, a 29 July Press release from the prosecutor’s office announcing the 20-month sentence handed down to Shiwei Yan, also known as “Sheri Yan,” noted that she and co-defendant Heidi Park had paid Ashe $800,000 in exchange for official actions to benefit several Chinese businessmen.
“With Yan’s knowledge, Ashe shared a portion of the bribe payment with one or more Antiguan officials,” the press release said. In August 2013, Yan and Park “began paying Ashe approximately $20,000 per month, purportedly for his forthcoming service as the ‘Honorary Chairman’ of a non-governmental organization, the Global Sustainable Development Foundation, later known as the Global Sustainability Foundation (GSF).”a wider canvas.
Yan, a 60-year old naturalized American citizen who lived mainly in China prior to her arrest, had arranged for him to travel to Antigua with a Chinese businessman (identified as “CC-2”). They met with Antiguan officials about a business deal for a “Chinese security company” and succeeded in signing a “memorandum of understanding” with the government.
That deal was different from the one that led Ashe to officially attend a private conference in Macau hosted by the real estate developer identified as “CC-3,” who turned out to be billionaire Ng Lap Seng.
Yan and Park were charged with bribery in October 2015, along with Francis Lorenzo (then-Deputy Permanent Representative of the Dominican Republic to the UN), Ashe, Ng and his assistant Jeff C. Yin. Yan, Park and Lorenzo subsequently pleaded guilty to bribery, money laundering, and other charges. Ng and Yin, are set to go to trial in New York on 23 January 2017. Following Ashe’s untimely death on 22 June, charges against him were dropped.
In addition to her prison term, Yan was sentenced to two years of supervised release, fined $12,500, and ordered to forfeit $300,000.
25 July 2016: The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is the latest addition to the United Nations System. Not a full-fledged Specialized Agency nor a Fund or Program initiated by the General Assembly, it will nevertheless be represented on the UN System Chief Executive’s Board (CEB) and its staff will be entitled to carry the Organization’s blue passport.
Founded in 1951 as the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe (PICMME), to deal with the post-World War II population displacements, IOM has had its current name and a formal relationship with the UN since 1989. The existing agreement was deemed inadequate in view of the increasing importance of the issue in recent years.
After its initial task of identifying resettlement countries for the 11 million people uprooted by the war, it helped get nearly a million of them to their destinations. Since then, as it has faced successive challenges in Europe and globally – Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Chile 1973, the Vietnamese Boat People 1975, Kuwait 1990, Kosovo and East Timor 1999, the Asian tsunami and Pakistan earthquake of 2004/2005 – the agency has evolved significantly from its original logistical functions. It now deals with all aspects of the issue except the normative, working with governments and civil society to advance understanding of particular situations, support socioeconomic development through migration, and promote the well-being of migrants.
IOM activities have grown rapidly in recent years and are currently funded at some $1.4 billion; it has over 9,500 staff in 450 centers in over 150 countries. It has 165 States members and 8 with Observer status.
The new agreement was approved by the IOM Council in June and by the UN General Assembly on 25 July; it will be signed by Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon and IOM Director General William Lacy Swing at the UN General Assembly's one-day Summit for Refugees and Migrants on 19 September 2016.
July 2016: United States authorities have expanded the bribery charges against Macau billionaire Ng Lap Seng in the case involving former General Assembly president John Ashe who was found dead on 22 June in his home gym in Dobbs Ferry, NY (see below). The new charges say Ng and his assistant, Jeff Yin, agreed to pay Ashe even after he left office, and that they also bribed two UNDP officials in the effort to get backing for a UN conference center in Macau. Both Ng and Yin have pleaded not guilty.
The additional charges brought in by a federal grand jury in Manhattan on 14 July have the obvious effect of replacing Ashe with two unnamed UNDP officials who could testify to the alleged crime if they cooperate with the prosecution. The indictment also expands the time frame of the case from 2014, when Ashe finished his term as president of the General Assembly, to September 2015, when Ng and Yin were arrested.
In May 2015, the foundation associated with Ng's company, Sun Kian Ip Group, donated $1.5 million to the UN Office for South-South Cooperation. A UNDP review of the use of that money said in May 2016 that the funds were used, in part, to pay for a conference in Macau.
Three people have pleaded guilty to related charges in the case, including Francis Lorenzo, a former diplomat from the Dominican Republic who is said to have been a go-between for Ashe and Ng.
24 June 2016 — John Ashe, the president of the 68th UN General Assembly was reported dead of a heart attack on 22 June and the next day the cause of death was changed by a Westchester Medical Examiner to “traumatic asphyxia.” It seems he suffered neck trauma while doing a bench press at his home gym in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
Whether there will be further investigations to rule out homicide is not clear.
Ashe, 61, had been indicted of tax fraud amidst allegations that he received some $1.3 million from Chinese businessmen including billionaire Macau real estate developer Ng Lap Seng. At a hearing in May, Prosecutor Daniel Richenthal announced that Ashe, who had pleaded not guilty, would be facing additional charges. Seven people have been indicted so far in the case. NG and two others have pleaded not guilty; three others have pleaded guilty.
According to the Grand Jury indictment last October, Ashe, a diplomat representing the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, received bribes to support the development in Macau of a conference facility supporting South-South Cooperation.
A UN internal investigation has found that Ng contributed to a fund supporting the Office of South-South Cooperation and that it paid for the travel of staff to a conference in Macau on cooperation among developing countries. The leadership of OSSC has changed since then because of the retirement of the former Director, who has not been charged.
July 2016: The scandal surrounding John Ashe, former president the General Assembly has led to an effort to have that annually elected officer take an oath of office and abide by a Code of Ethics. There are few structural protections against abuse of the Assembly president's powers because they have always been considered mainly ceremonial and procedural. There are no rules on the books prohibiting what Mr. Ashe is alleged to have done.
The resolution annexing the oath of office and ethics code was drafted by the co-chairs of the Ad hoc Working Group on the revitalization of the General Assembly, Vladimir Drobnjak of Croatia, and Wilfried Emvula of Namibia. It deals with a much broader array of concerns than the integrity of the Assembly’s presiding officer. Among the points it covers are:
Oath of Office
The proposed oath of office is as follows: "I solemnly declare and promise to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions entrusted to me as President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view and in accordance with the Code of Ethics for the Presidency of the General Assembly, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any Government or other source external to the Organization".
Code of Ethics
The draft code of ethics reads as follows:
1. The President of the General Assembly shall at all times observe the highest standards of ethical conduct.
2. The President shall avoid any action, before, during or after his or her term of office, which might result in or create the appearance of:
a) The use of the office of the Presidency or resources attached thereto for private gain;
b) Giving unwarranted preferential treatment to any organization or person;
c) Impeding the work of the Organization; or
d) Affecting adversely the confidence of member States in the integrity of the work of the Organization.
3. The President shall avoid any situation involving a conflict between their own personal or private interest and the interests of the Presidency or United Nations;
4. The President shall ensure the greatest possible transparency in the utilization of property, premises, services, and resources made available for the discharge of the functions of the office, and ensure that they are used only for the official business of the Presidency, and not for other purposes;
5. The President shall ensure the greatest possible transparency in any external activities, including the holding of any public or commercial office, or any commercial dealings, to protect against conflict of interest.
6. In the event that the President considers that a conflict of interest may arise, he or she shall recuse himself or herself from handling the matter and, in accordance with the Rules of Procedure of the General Assembly, appoint an Acting President in relation to that matter or meeting;
7. Any reference to the President of the General Assembly in this Code shall also include his or her agents.
The General Assembly ended work for 2017 on the morning of Sunday, 24 December after adopting the United Nations budget for 2018-2019 (scroll down for story)
24 December 2017: The General Assembly ended work for 2017 by approving a budget of $5.397 billion for 2018-2019. That is some $286 million (5%) below the sum approved for 2016-2017, and $193 million less than the initially proposed budget.
The additional reductions come mainly from across-the-board cuts in non-post resources for most Departments and Offices, including Special Political Missions. A total of 9,959 posts have been approved for 2018-2019; 131 below the total number of posts approved for 2016-2017.
The Trump administration's announcement of the cut in the UN budget as a "historic reduction" created some misunderstanding. UN spokesmen had to clarify that the cuts were not in the US contribution but to the total for the biennium.
The General Assembly approved $88 million to maintain the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH) from 16 October 2017 to 30 June 2018. It approved $911 million for the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) for the period from 1 July 2017 to 30 June 2018. Those add-ons bring the total overall approved resources for peacekeeping operations for the 2017/18 period to $7.316 billion. That is $593 less (7.5 %) than the $7.909 billion approved for 2016-2017.
In addition, the Assembly granted a one year commitment authority for the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
The General Assembly supported the Secretary-General's management reform proposal aimed at enhancing delivery of all mandates and the performance of the Secretariat. It also provided guidance on the comprehensive proposals, including on the restructuring of the Departments of Field Support and of Management to be submitted by mid-2018.
The General Assembly also endorsed the Secretary-General's proposal to move from a biennial planning and budgeting period to annual programme budget on a trial basis, as of 2020. That signals one of the most significant shifts in the programme planning and budgeting process of the Organization since the 1970s.
The General Assembly further requested the Secretary-General to undertake an assessment of the mechanisms and levels of discretionary managerial authorities that may be required in order to address unanticipated programmatic needs and to report to the 73rd Session.
Central Hall in London where all the main organs of the United Nations held their first meetings in 1946.