(Editor’s Note: We are back from hiatus! This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.)

U.N. General Assembly opens its 75th Session in New York

The session opened on Sept. 15 and will include Special Sessions on the novel coronavirus pandemic and on corruption. The incoming U.N. General Assembly President, Volkan Bozkir, said that the session will focus on the theme of multilateralism, and that in-person meetings will convene, with health precautions, as much as possible. Bozkir also listed review of the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, commemoration of various anniversaries, and discussions of Security Council reform as priorities for his term.

Secretary-General Guterres says that failing to support an affordable COVID vaccine for all would be a “stupid mistake”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres gave a wide-ranging interview in anticipation of the opening of the 75th Session. When asked about COVID-19, Guterres said that “a microscopic virus has put us on our knees. This should lead to a lot of humility in world leaders, and to unity and solidarity in the fight against COVID-19. But we know that there has been no unity.”

Countries have sought to ensure they will receive a COVID-19 vaccine first, with the United States, European Union (EU), and United Kingdom buying the first 2.6 billion doses of the vaccines under development. Guterres said that it was “essential that a vaccine be considered a global public good, a people’s vaccine…We need an affordable vaccine for everybody, everywhere, because we will only be safe if everybody’s safe. To think that we can preserve rich people and let the poor people suffer, is a stupid mistake.”

The Secretary-General named an affordable vaccine as one of his top three priorities, along with a global ceasefire and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Guterres first called for a global ceasefire in March, and the Security Council passed a resolution in support of his appeal in July. In order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, Guterres said that “we need to have a reduction of about 45 per cent of emissions in the next decade.”

On Sept. 17, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus reiterated his call for equal access to a COVID-19 vaccine, echoing the Secretary-General. He urged countries that had not yet joined the COVAX Global Vaccines Facility to join before the deadline on Sept. 18.

Secretary-General says Afghan peace talks represent “major opportunity,” while Security Council extends UN Mission

The Afghan government and the Taliban began peace talks in Qatar on Sept. 12, coming to the table after repeated delays. The United States and the Taliban had agreed to an deal in February in which the United States conditionally agreed to withdraw troops. As part of the agreement, the Taliban agreed to negotiate with the Afghan government. The Secretary-General said that the start of peace negotiations “presents a major opportunity to achieve the long-held aspirations of the people of Afghanistan for peace.” Guterres also said that “all parties must do their part to ensure that women participate in a variety of roles.”

On Sept. 15, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to extend the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan for another year. The Security Council welcomed the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban and encouraged the parties “to work towards a permanent, comprehensive ceasefire and an inclusive political settlement.” The representative of Afghanistan thanked the Council for adopting the resolution and welcomed its acknowledgement of the “difficult compromises made towards peace.” The representative of the United States “voiced his country’s strong support for the people of Afghanistan,” highlighting the United States’ support for accountability and efforts to address the legacy of human rights violations. However, he added that “his support for today’s resolution must not be interpreted as support for the International Criminal Court’s illegitimate investigation of United States personnel.”

U.N. Security Council adopts resolution demanding enforcement of arms embargo on Libya

The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution on Sept. 15 demanding the enforcement of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya. Last week, a U.N. panel of experts released a report finding that the arms embargo remained “totally ineffective.” The report cited countries including Turkey, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for violating the arms embargo. Two rival administrations currently operate in Libya, with each supported by various local militias and international backers.

The resolution extended the mandate of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) by one year. The resolution also altered the organization of the mission. UNSMIL will now be led by a Special Envoy of the Secretary-General, and the Special Envoy will oversee an UNSMIL Coordinator “in charge of the Mission’s day-to-day operations and management.” The former head of UNSMIL, U.N. special representative Ghassan Salame, resigned in March.

The resolution passed 13-0 with Russia and China abstaining. The representative of Russia said  that “not all its views were reflected in the resolution.” China’s representative “expressed regret that several elements in today’s resolution—especially those related to human rights, gender and ceasefire monitoring—were not properly agreed upon by all Council members.”

U.N. General Assembly adopts resolution on COVID-19 pandemic; U.S./Israeli objection to amendment fails

On September 11, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. The omnibus text is the third and most detailed resolution that the General Assembly has adopted addressing the pandemic. The resolution urged member states “to enable all countries to have unhindered, timely access to quality, safe, efficacious and affordable diagnosis, therapeutics, medicines, and vaccines.” The resolution also “recognize[d]” immunization against COVID-19 as a “global public good.”

Other provisions of the resolution called on countries to “address the immediate social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” “to provide more liquidity in the financial system, especially in all developing countries,” to empower and engage women and girls, and to adopt “climate- and environment-sensitive” recovery efforts.

Cuba’s late amendment to the resolution proved to be its most controversial provision. The text of the resolution originally called for the removal of “unjustified obstacles” to responding to the pandemic. Cuba amended the paragraph to urge countries to “refrain from promulgating and applying any unilateral economic, financial or trade measures” inconsistent with international law or the U.N. charter. Despite the United States and Israel’s strong objections, the resolution passed by an overwhelming 132-3 margin. The US was also heavily defeated in efforts to remove references to “sexual and reproductive health,” “promoting global sustainable transport,” and the WHO.

U.N. Fact-Finding Mission urges accountability for Venezuelan crimes against humanity

The U.N. Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela issued its first report on September 16. The panel found evidence of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture. The Mission identified egregious violations committed by “the Government, State agents, and groups working with them.” It found that “high-level State authorities held and exercised power and oversight” over these actors and “President Maduro and the Ministers of the Interior and of Defence were aware of the crimes. They gave orders, coordinated activities and supplied resources in furtherance of the plans and policies under which the crimes were committed.”

The report noted that Venezuela’s judiciary has “failed to serve as a check on other state actors.” Marta Valiñas, Chairperson of the Mission, said that “the violations must stop. And impunity must end. Venezuelan authorities must immediately carry out prompt, effective, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into the violations and crimes, bringing perpetrators to account and providing justice for victims.”

The Fact-Finding Mission investigated human rights violations committed since 2014. The U.N. Human Rights Council Mission established the Fact-Finding Mission in Sept. 2019 for an initial one-year mandate.

High Commissioner urges Human Rights Council to “rise to the occasion” to tackle injustice

On the opening day of the Council’s session, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged the Human Rights Council to “rise to the occasion” presented by the pandemic. Bachelet said that “the world has rarely experienced a simultaneous, global shock as complex as COVID-19.” She also noted a number of situations of concern. Bachelet cited Poland’s “LGBTI-free zones,” Tanzania’s “increasing repression of the democratic and civic space,” and the plight of migrants and refugees in Greece. Bachelet devoted particular concern to “alarming reports” of repression of peaceful protests in Belarus. The Human Rights Council also agreed to an Urgent Debate on the situation in Belarus due to the “steep deterioration of the human rights situation.”

Commission of Inquiry finds “no clean hands” in Syria

The U.N. Syrian Commission of Inquiry issued a report that documents “continuing violations by nearly every fighting force controlling territory across the country.” Even though largescale hostilities have reduced since a ceasefire in March, human rights abuses including assassinations, sexual and gender-based violence, and looting have continued. According to Commissioner Hanny Megally, government and rebel groups continue to detain civilians “without a scintilla of evidence or due process.” The report “concludes” that recent human rights violations by government forces constitute “crimes against humanity.” Commission of Inquiry Chair Paulo Pinheiro said “there are no clean hands in this conflict but the status quo cannot endure.”

Famine risk in Yemen as donors fail to follow through on pledges

Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s top humanitarian official, told the Security Council that Yemen faces renewed famine threat. Lowcock said that increased funding averted famine two years ago but this year “only 30 per cent of promised donations had come through.” Lowcock noted that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, all members of the coalition supporting Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government against the Houthis, had given no money to the U.N.’s humanitarian response plan. Lowcock also cited “endless delays” but expressed hope that the Houthis would soon allow U.N. experts to board the FSO Safer, a tanker threatening to spill one million barrels of crude oil off the coast of Yemen. The U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, also addressed the Security Council and said fighting had increased. Last week, Griffiths sent the parties to the conflict a new draft of a joint declaration calling for a ceasefire and renewed peace talks.

On Thursday, Secretary-General Guterres echoed Lowcock’s dire assessment, informing a High-Level Ministerial meeting at the General Assembly that at least 2,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, but that the true number is likely much higher. He stated that the combined effects of the war and COVID-19 have “devastated the lives of tens of millions of Yemenis.” He reiterated his call for a ceasefire and for a negotiated political settlement to permanently end the conflict.

Special Rapporteurs call execution of Iranian wrestler “deeply disturbing”

Five U.N. Special Rapporteurs issued a joint statement that “strongly condemned” Iran’s execution of wrestler Navid Afkari. Afkari was sentenced to death for allegedly killing a security guard during protests in 2018. The experts wrote that Iran imposed the execution “following a process that did not meet even the most basic substantive or procedural fair trial standards.” They added that “the authorities appear to have used the death penalty against an athlete as a warning to its population in a climate of increasing social unrest.” The authors of the statement are the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the Special Rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.


Image: Volkan Bozkir (left), President of the seventy-fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly, opens the seventy-fifth session of the General Assembly. At right is Secretary-General António Guterres. UN Photo/Evan Schneider