H I G H L I G H T S
• Security Council remains mute while UNGA adopts Myanmar vote
• Uncertainty about IAEA-Iran nuclear monitoring hovers over Vienna talks
• Cyber Security makes a formal entry in the Security Council
• Revised waiver proposal meandering at WTO
• Elections, re-elections, appointments and re-appointments
In June, there was a return of regular “in person” diplomacy at UN headquarters in New York. The Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) met throughout the month, more often than at anytime since March 2020. However, outcomes in the “new normal” at the UN seem similar to pre-covid times. The differences that ensured lack of action on such issues as Myanmar remained as entrenched as they were earlier, even though the ground situation has worsened. Interminable discussions at the WTO on the “waiver proposal” continued in Geneva. The shenanigans over the UN’s $6.378 billion annual peacekeeping budget in New York delayed adoption till the last day of the financial deadline on 30 June. On the other hand, back room agreements ensured that elections and appointments sailed through without serious differences. An incremental forward-looking effort was the initiative of Estonia as President of the Security Council convening the first-ever formal Security Council discussion on cyber security, signaling the evolving importance of the issue in the global security firmament.
Security Council remains mute while UNGA adopts symbolic Myanmar vote
For the second month in succession the UNGA articulated a desire for greater international action on a matter of global concern, even while the Security Council remained unable to act. If in May the UNGA discussed the most significant resurgence of violent clashes between Israel and Palestinians in years (see see UNCovered May 2021), in June it was the developments in Myanmar that rose in prominence.
In an unusual gesture, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that condemned the coup; demanded an end to the five-month-old military takeover; called for the stopping of the killing of civilians; and sought the freeing of imprisoned civilian leaders. Though it was non-binding, the resolution called upon all Member States “to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar” symbolizing the desire for an arms embargo. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 118 in favour and 1 against (Belarus) with 36 abstentions and 37 states not participating at all. Those supporting the move said that it was, “the broadest and most universal condemnation of the situation in Myanmar to date”. The outcome also had the strong support of UN Secretary General Guterres who remarked, “We cannot live in a world where military coups become a norm”.
However, the vote revealed that the ASEAN, which was touted as being in the vanguard of efforts towards a diplomatic outcome in Myanmar, was a divided house. Four ASEAN states abstained (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Brunei). The other six (including Myanmar whose representative supports the National Unity Government even though no country has formally recognized it) voted in favour. Finally, the outcome reflected the split in the approach to addressing the situation in Myanmar. Key Security Council members including Russia, China, and India abstained at the UNGA. This also meant that the month ended with the Security Council unable to move beyond what was expressed in their 10 March presidential statement, the 4 February press statement and 30 April press elements, despite the Council’s consideration of the matter during the month was for the sixth time since the military takeover in February.
Comment: The General Assembly’s action which came just after the Security Council had held a ‘private’ meeting without any outcome is a reflection that despite this month the Council meeting often “in person”, it is unable to act. Symbolic decisions as at the UNGA do little to impact developments on the ground in Myanmar. In effect, they reinforce the thinking that the UN is often stifled by divergences on issues of geopolitical sensitivity.
Uncertainty about IAEA-Iran nuclear monitoring hovers over Vienna talks
The saga of the ongoing “indirect talks”, in Vienna, to restore compliance of the US and Iran as signatories of the 2015 ‘Iran nuclear deal’ known as the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) continued. Despite the widespread belief that the sixth round of talks may be the last as the Biden administration and Iran both wanted to conclude a deal, the round ended with differences in four broad areas:
- Specific sanctions the Iranians wanted lifted and the U.S. wants to keep in place;
- Measures US wants Iran to undertake to ensure nuclear advances Iran made are fully reversed;
- Iran’s demand for guarantees that the U.S. won’t quit the JCPOA again:
- The U.S. demand for follow-on talks
Meanwhile, the election of head of the judiciary Ebrahim Raisi, as the next President of the Islamic Republic of Iran has spurred talk that the negotiations need to be brought to a conclusion before he takes over six weeks after the election. A much more immediate concern arose on account of the unwillingness of Iran to immediately confirm extension of the “temporary bilateral technical understanding” arrived with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in February 2021 for a three month period, and extended by a further period of a month, i.e., until June 24, 2021. (for background see UNCovered February & May 2021)
The extension is a safeguard to assuage concerns that the IAEA is continuing the monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities during the ongoing talks. The lapse of the arrangement on June 24 has added to the uncertainty about the fate of the talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. The IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi has been voicing concerns that the temporary arrangement by themselves have restricted IAEA access and has termed them as tantamount to the monitoring arrangements being on a “ventilator”. The delay in Iran extending even these arrangements has added to the IAEA’s discomfort. It has also prompted the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to warn that the day when the Biden administration may walk away from the nuclear talks is “getting closer”. On the other hand, the Speaker of the Iranian parliament Mohammad Bagher GhalibafIran, though not the final authority on such matters, reportedly said that Iran would never share with the IAEA recorded footage of activity at some of its nuclear sites since the arrangement had lapsed.
Comment: The brinkmanship between USA and Iran has increased as the Vienna talks head towards their final denouement. This is at variance with both sides in the past trying to avoid distractions and make strides towards a return towards compliance with the JCPOA. Despite these discordant developments, both do not have a “Plan B” should the current effort collapse. Hence despite both sides sharpening their rhetoric, they will not easily give up on efforts to arrive at an agreement in Vienna.
Cyber Security makes a formal entry in the Security Council
At the initiative of Estonia, the President of the Security Council in June and a pioneer in the use of digital technologies, the UN Security Council held its first-ever formal public meeting on cybersecurity on 29 June. Coinciding with the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) release of the global cybersecurity index the virtual meeting was presided over by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas of Estonia, with the participation of senior officials from various capitals.
Previous formal discussions on cybersecurity and issues related to information and communication technologies (ICT) had taken place under UN General Assembly mandated processes. These have been in the format of a limited Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Advancing responsible State behaviour in cyberspace in the context of international security, and an Open-Ended Working Group on Developments in the Field of ICTs in the context of international Security (OEWG). Earlier this year the OEWG had unanimously adopted its final report and the Chair’s summary (See UNCovered March 2021). The Council debate follows several other discussions by Council members of the subject in various formats and comes at a time when the issue is garnering global interest in light of growing number of cyber attacks and even featured on the agenda of the Biden-Putin summit meeting in Geneva earlier in the month.
Comment: The Security Council has sought to address what it considers to be “emerging threats” to international peace and security. These include issues such as climate and security, pandemics, and food insecurity, among others. The Council has considered these, at times, at the thematic level while also integrating some of them into country and region-specific outcomes. In light of the growing instances of malicious incidents targeting ICT, cyber security discussions too fit into this broader pattern. However, as yet, there has not been any formal outcome from the Council’s deliberations on this issue.
Revised waiver proposal meandering at WTO
The tortuous course of the India – South Africa “waiver proposal” from certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement (see UNCovered November 2020 and May 2021) at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) continued. This was so even after the effort gained some steam following the statement of support by the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s last month. In early June, the European Union put forth its own proposal with a different approach, focusing on compulsory licensing, to address shortages of vaccines and other requirements needed during the pandemic. As the number of global Covid-19 deaths in 2021 exceeded deaths in 2020 (see figure below), delegates are considering both the proposals separately.
However, since the EU proposal is fundamentally different from the India-South Africa proposal, many view it primarily as an attempt to stall the progress of the waiver proposal. Some feel that the EU proposal has a different legal basis and cannot be an alternative to the waiver proposal. They are therefore keen to move ahead expeditiously to negotiate the waiver proposal in July. The EU is keen to have its proposal considered on an “equal footing” with the waiver proposal, whereas those opposing it feel that it can’t be treated on par with the waiver proposal that has been on the table for discussions since October 2, 2020. They consider the EU initiative as disingenuous and nothing more than window dressing on a system that is already in place and has proved during this pandemic to be insufficient when it comes to improving access to COVID-19 medical tools. The US view is that the most expeditious pathway toward consensus would be to focus efforts on actions needed to address specifically the supply and distribution of vaccines , rather than the broader approach of pandemic-related “health products and technologies,” contained in the India-South Africa proposal. All this has meant that while there have been many “small group” consultations and discussions have clarified positions, “text-based negotiations” are yet to begin.
Comment: The consensus-based nature of the WTO and the complexity of the issues involved mean that the negotiations as and when they begin will remain a time-consuming process, even as the equitable availability of vaccines remains a pressing global concern.
Elections, re-elections, appointments and re-appointments
The UN witnessed a spate of elections and appointments.
- On June 7, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted to elect the Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid as the President of the 76th UNGA succeeding the incumbent Volkan Bozgir of Turkey. In a rather one-sided outcome, he polled 143 of the 191 votes cast. The only other candidate in the fray, the former Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Zalmai Rassoul got 48 votes. In this contest amongst two friends, India had thrown its lot in favour of the Maldivian candidate who will assume office in September 2021 for a year.
- On June 11, the UNGA elected five non-permanent members of the Security Council for a two-year period. All new members were elected without a contest, having already been endorsed by their respective regional groups, but were required to demonstrate that they had the support of more than 2/3rd of the general membership (129 votes). The five elected were: Albania (elected for the 1st time) with 179 votes from East East Europe; Brazil (elected for the 11th time) with 181 votes from Latin America and the Caribbean; the United Arab Emirates (elected for the 2nd time) with 179 votes from the Asia-Pacific; Gabon ( elected for the 3rd time) with 183 votes and Ghana with 185 votes (elected for the 3rd time) for the two seats from Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo which had in May announced its intention to contest for the African seat withdrew ahead of the election. The new members will take their seats from January 1, 2022.
- On June 11 the UNGA elected 22 members of the Economic and Social Council. 18 of these, including India, were elected for a 3 year term starting from 1 January 2022. Besides 4 were elected for a single year to fill vacancies of unfulfilled terms of states who chose relinquish their seats ahead of completion of normal terms. All these 22 candidates won without a contest, i.e., the number of candidates were equal to the number vacancies.
- Also on June 11, the UNGA approved UN Secretary General Guterres’s nomination of Ms Rebeca Grynspan of Costa Rica as the new Secretary-General of the Geneva-based UNCTAD (UN Conference on Trade and development). Ms. Grynspan, is the first woman and Central American to be appointed as Secretary-General of UNCTAD. A veteran international civil servant who had served with the UNDP. A former Vice-President of Costa Rica, she is an economist and the current Secretary-General of the Secretariat of the Ibero-American Conference. She will be the 8th Secretary General of UNCTAD.
- On June 18 the UNGA by acclamation acted upon the recommendation of the Security Council (also by acclamation at a private meeting on June 8), to appoint incumbent UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for a further period of 5 years starting from 1 January 2022. In accordance with past practice, the process of re-appointment of an incumbent Secretary General was completed in June, as was the case with two of Guterres’s immediate predecessors – Ban ki-Moon and Kofi Annan (see UNCovered May 2021)
Comment: These smoothly conducted processes indicate that despite the contestation on so many different global issues, the continuity and changes in memberships of UN bodies are largely uncontested.
(The views expressed are personal)