On March 26, the G-20 held a virtual summit focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic. In that meeting, the President of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador made three concrete proposals, the first of which was the intervention of the United Nations to ensure that all countries have equal access to medicines and medical equipment which, because of the ongoing pandemic, are being hoarded by those States with an economic advantage. He also indicated that the U.N. should intervene to avoid economic speculation regarding the purchase and acquisition of medicines and medical equipment. A few weeks later, on Monday April 20, this Mexican proposal, endorsed by 179 countries as co-sponsors, would be adopted by consensus as General Assembly resolution 74/274, entitled “International cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19.”

We wish to explain how this resolution worked its way through the U.N. system during a time in which the organization has adopted special procedures to continue its vital work, how delegations came together in this process, and how the mandate now set forth by this first action-oriented resolution can help the global community confront the coronavirus pandemic.

Mexico’s initiative at the United Nations

It is in times of crisis that the United Nations is needed the most. The purpose of achieving international cooperation in solving international problems of economic, social or humanitarian character is at the heart of the organization, as reflected in Article 1(3) of the U.N. Charter. As it was mentioned by Andras Vamos-Goldman in his Just Security article, “When international dysfunctionality really matters,” the U.N. General Assembly can and must play a crucial role in boosting international cooperation and strengthening the role of the Secretary-General for that purpose. Even more so when the Security Council, which should be taking decisive steps to tackle this pandemic, has certainly been “missing in action.”

On April 2, the General Assembly adopted by consensus resolution 74/270 put forward by Ghana, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland, entitled “Global Solidarity to Fight the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).”

Undoubtedly, this resolution, which Mexico was proud to co-sponsor, sent an important message of unity reaffirming the commitment of all States to international cooperation and multilateralism and their strong support for the central role of the United Nations system in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, its terms have a declaratory nature without focusing on specific actions and without making decisions on how to operate. This was the stated intention of this initiative though. In a letter dated March 30, the authors of the resolution expressly indicated the following:

This draft resolution represents an important and overdue first step that leaves open the possibility for subsequent resolutions on specific issues or additional areas not covered in our draft resolution. Indeed, we believe that further decisions by the General Assembly will be needed to effectively address this complex global crisis. (emphasis added)

It is in this context that, stemming from the President’s proposals put forward at the virtual G-20 summit, the team of the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the United Nations put together a draft resolution for its consideration and adoption by the General Assembly.

An unusual process

Resolution 74/274 was the second adopted by the General Assembly through an exceptional “silence procedure,” in accordance with decision 74/544, entitled, “Procedure for taking decisions of the General Assembly during the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic,” which sets out the terms in which this body can operate now that it is not possible to meet at the U.N. Headquarters to do business as usual. This decision reads as follows:

The General Assembly,

Noting with concern the situation concerning the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the limitations recommended on meetings within the United Nations premises as precautionary measures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19,

Authorizes the President of the General Assembly, where, in his view, a plenary meeting of the General Assembly is not practicable due to the coronavirus pandemic, to circulate, after consultation with the General Committee, draft decisions of the General Assembly to all Member States under a silence procedure of at least 72 hours,

Decides that, if the silence is not broken, the decision shall be considered adopted, and the General Assembly shall take note of the decision at its first plenary meeting held after the cessation of the precautionary measures as soon as the circumstances allow, and that this decision on the procedure for taking of decisions of the General Assembly shall be in effect until the end of May unless extended through this procedure.

Resolution 74/274 is also the first action-oriented resolution adopted in this crisis. As a first step, Mexico prepared a draft resolution and circulated it to all U.N. Member States on April 3 together with a concept note that explained the objectives and scope of the draft. Under normal circumstances, once a draft is put forward, delegations would hold rounds of consultations at the U.N. It goes without saying that under the current social distancing rules, this process becomes practically impossible. Nevertheless, despite the challenging working methods, it was important for Mexico to hold an open, inclusive, and transparent consultation process to the extent possible. Enough time was given for all delegations to study the text, share it with their capitals and forward any suggestions, questions, or comments to the focal points at the Mexican Mission. Several delegations indeed requested clarifications or submitted textual proposals, as is normal in multilateral negotiations. All questions received responses, and all proposals were given a careful consideration.

It is important to highlight that in the elaboration of the draft, due consideration was given to the U.N. Report, “Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to socio-economic impacts of COVID-19,” and that throughout the entire process, close consultations were held with the Office of the Secretary-General.

After thorough consideration of all comments received, changes were included in the text to make the resolution more precise. These adjustments included some elements reiterated by several delegations as important issues but did not change the nature and scope of the original draft. This was a very delicate process since it had to ensure that a balance was struck in order to make the resolution effective but also to make possible its consensual adoption.

On April 8, the final text was sent to the President of the General Assembly with the request that it be circulated under the silence procedure to all U.N. Member States for its consensual adoption, in accordance with decision 74/544. The consultation process that led to a balanced text allowed also for the endorsement of 179 countries from all regions of the world that co-sponsored the resolution. This represents 93% of the organization’s membership.

Following the request to the President of the General Assembly, consultations with the General Committee took place on Wednesday, April 15, a week after its formal submission. The General Committee also had for its consideration two other draft resolutions put forward by Russia and by Saudi Arabia, respectively. Both texts relate to the COVID-19 pandemic (although they include elements which are much more political than practical). This prompted some delegations to suggest that all three proposals be either merged, as far as possible, or considered together as a package.

Mexico strongly advocated for their independent consideration and for an immediate release of its draft resolution under the silence procedure taking into consideration the particular consultation process followed as well as the specificity of the issues addressed in its text, and the fact that its draft had already been formally tabled for consideration (this was not the case of Saudi Arabia’s draft resolution at that moment). The General Committee agreed with this approach and made its recommendation accordingly. Hence, the draft resolution went into silence that same day, with a deadline for Monday, April 20, at 5:00pm (EST).

As a corollary to the other initiatives, it suffices to say that both the Russia and Saudi Arabia resolutions were also circulated eventually under silence and both received objections which did not allow for their adoption. The President of the General Assembly appointed the Ambassadors of Afghanistan and Croatia as coordinators on COVID-19-related initiatives, which include these two texts plus a new initiative presented by Egypt, Algeria, China, Saudi Arabia and Zambia, on “Strengthening National and International Rapid Response to the Impact of COVID-19 on Women and Girls.”

Challenges and reactions

The 72-hour silence procedure leading to the adoption of resolution 74/274 was crucial to ensure consensus. Efforts to expand the number of co-sponsoring delegations never ceased, and during that time the numbers continued to grow. This was the result of the demarches by the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the U.N. in New York, with the invaluable support of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the coordinated efforts in capitals.

At the same time, political tensions arose since the resolution was circulated under the silence procedure just the day after President Donald Trump had announced that the U.S. would halt funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). Even though resolution 74/274 is not about the role of the WHO, it does reaffirm the fundamental role of the U.N. system in coordinating the global response to control and contain the spread of the coronavirus disease, and it acknowledges the crucial leading role played by the WHO. This last reference, which had been there since the first draft and to which no delegations had referred in their comments, suddenly became the center of attention in this particular juncture, leading to an intense engagement with our U.S. colleagues. As a result, the United States did not break silence but submitted formally an explanation of its position in which they disassociated from operative paragraphs 1 and 5 in the following terms:

The United States remains deeply committed to working with the global community to respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While the United States generally supports the resolution titled “International Cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19,” the United States disassociates from Operative Paragraph 1 related to the World Health Organization’s “crucial leading role” in the COVID-19 outbreak. While the United States acknowledges the WHO should play a role in the efforts to end this outbreak, we remain seriously concerned with the lack of independence that the WHO has shown since the beginning of this pandemic. …

In addition, the United States disassociates from Operative Paragraph 5 due to our concerns with the language regarding the creation of a new UN interagency task force. We have serious concerns about how the World Health Organization has responded to the pandemic and the creation of layers of UN bureaucracy devoid of controls to ensure independence, accountability, and transparency, is both unnecessary and unwise.

The United States requests that this Explanation of Position be made part of the record of the proceedings.

General explanations of position were also submitted by the European Union, Australia, Liechtenstein, Venezuela, the United Kingdom and Pakistan. None of them disassociated form any paragraph of the resolution nor objected to any of its content. In general, they referred, on the one hand, to the need to improve negotiations and consultation processes in these times of crisis and, on the other, to some additional elements that delegations would have preferred to see included.

It is true that other political elements could have been included to make a more robust resolution but that would have made it exponentially more difficult (if not impossible) to produce a text that could be adopted by consensus given the current circumstances and limited working methods. This is the reason why Mexico’s conviction was always to maintain a short action-oriented text that would empower the Secretary-General to act in this crisis with the full backing of the General Assembly.

Empowering the Secretary-General through a succinct action-oriented resolution

The main objective of resolution 74/274 is to engage the UN System in ensuring fair access to medicines, vaccines and equipment, preventing speculation and undue stockpiling that may hinder access to these essential materials.

To do so, it gives the Secretary-General two specific mandates:

  • First, to identify and recommend, in close collaboration with the World Health Organization and other relevant agencies of the United Nations system, including the international financial institutions, options, including approaches to rapidly scaling manufacturing and strengthening supply chains that promote and ensure fair, transparent, equitable, efficient and timely access to and distribution of preventive tools, laboratory testing, reagents and supporting materials, essential medical supplies, new diagnostics, drugs and future COVID-19 vaccines, with a view to making them available to all those in need, in particular in developing countries;
  • Second, to take the necessary steps, in close collaboration with the World Health Organization, to effectively coordinate and follow up on the efforts of the U.N. system to promote and ensure global access medicines, vaccines and medical equipment needed to face COVID-19, and, in this regard, to consider establishing an inter-agency task force.

The Secretary-General will have to brief Member States on his efforts in the implementation of this resolution.

Even when the consensual adoption of resolution 74/274 was a remarkable achievement given the circumstances, its real importance lies in the actual effect it can have in practice. This will depend on the ability of the Secretary-General, together with the WHO, to make sure that the U.N. system plays a crucial role to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines, and medical equipment to face COVID-19.

Now is the time to move from rhetoric to action, especially as vaccines and treatments start becoming available in the future. Mexico will continue to pay close attention to the follow-up given to resolution 74/274 and will continue to explore ways in which the U.N. can reaffirm its leading role in this crisis.

We believe that there is now a new opportunity to ensure that the international consensus reflected in resolution 74/274 effectively displays the positive impact of the U.N. system on people’s lives around the world, and demonstrates the value of multilateralism and international cooperation; values that Mexico and we personally will continue to promote and embrace.