Over the coming weeks, world leaders will gather – partly in person, partly online – for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly’s 76th annual session. It is typically regarded as the most significant diplomatic event of the year.

The U.N. General Assembly is the world’s foremost deliberative, policy-making body. It receives less attention than the U.N. Security Council, primarily because of the Council’s unique powers to authorize coercive action in response to threats to international peace and security. The General Assembly, however, has significant powers that are often underestimated. Under the U.N. Charter, the General Assembly can make recommendations on “any matters within the scope” of the Charter, and it can make these recommendations to states and/or to the Security Council. It is explicitly empowered to make recommendations to “assist in the realization of human rights” and on matters of international peace and security.

As world leaders gather in September, it is difficult to think of a time in recent history when the imperative for informed, principled, robust, innovative and cooperative action has been greater. The COVID-19 pandemic will obviously be a focus; but beyond that, around the world, we are witnessing serious violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law on a horrifying scale. Such atrocities demand a response from the General Assembly, and as such, the 76th session provides a critical opportunity.

Current Atrocities, Common Denominators

The Syria Commission of Inquiry continues to document evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including indiscriminate attacks and the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian objects. The special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has said that since the February coup, the military has “likely engag[ed] in crimes against humanity, including the acts of murder, enforced disappearance, persecution, torture, and imprisonment in violation of fundamental rules of international law.” A U.S.-based think-tank recently released an independent expert report on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, concluding – “based on an extensive review of the available evidence” – that China was committing genocide. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, human rights groups have documented massacres of civilians by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has documented evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Tigrayan forces. Afghanistan is once again under Taliban rule, following what human rights experts have described as a “relentless campaign of direct targeting of civilians, civil society and journalists, summary executions, assassination of human rights defenders, arbitrary detention, mass executions of civilians, and unlawful restrictions on the human rights of women and girls.”

These atrocity crime situations share certain common denominators: evidence of the crimes is abundant and credibly documented by U.N. commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions, or other independent bodies; the perpetrators are not being held to account; the Security Council has proved unable to take timely and effective action; and civilians are paying a devastating price. These common denominators underscore the importance of a response by the General Assembly.

We Should “Not Shy Away From Being Bold, Creative and Result-oriented”

Throughout history, the General Assembly has played a significant role in preventing and responding to atrocities. It has, among other things: called on states to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions and arms embargoes; established fact-finding missions, commissions of inquiry and investigative mechanisms; called on the Security Council to impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter; rejected the credentials of a member state’s representatives, thus barring that state from participation in the Assembly; expressed its view on the illegitimacy of rogue regimes; and recommended the use of force (see here for examples of all of these measures). Such measures have been taken by the General Assembly in response to diverse challenges, including struggles for self-determination and independence, civil wars, apartheid, foreign aggression, and atrocity crimes.

For much of the 21st century, however, the General Assembly has suffered a reputational crisis. In 2005, then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan reflected that member states were “rightly concerned about the decline in the Assembly’s prestige and its diminishing contribution.” He called for the decline to be reversed, and said that this would “only happen if the Assembly becomes more effective.” This was not a new sentiment. Responding to the same concern, in the mid-1990s the General Assembly launched a program of work titled the “revitalization of the work of the General Assembly,” and since that time it has established working groups and passed resolutions on the topic. Its 2005 resolution on revitalization, for example, recognized “the need to strengthen the role and authority of the General Assembly” and decided to “discuss issues pertaining to the maintenance of international peace and security,” where appropriate using the General Assembly’s procedures, “which enable swift and urgent action.”

The annual meetings of the revitalization working group have provided a forum for states to express their views on the need for a more active, authoritative General Assembly. In 2018 and 2019, for example (see here and here), “[m]any Member States stressed the importance of strengthening the authority of the General Assembly, including in matters of peace and security.” In 2021 the working group’s co-chairs said that the group should focus on “negotiating and adopting action-oriented outcomes,” and should “not shy away from being bold, creative and result-oriented.”

Alongside the work on revitalization, the General Assembly’s debates on the responsibility to protect have also provided an opportunity for states to express their interest in increasing the Assembly’s effectiveness, and – relatedly – to lament the limitations of the Security Council. In the Assembly’s 2019 debate on the responsibility to protect, for example, Denmark’s representative on behalf of 51 states and the European Union said that the Security Council was failing to “take timely and decisive action in multiple atrocity situations,” and that the Assembly could “play an important role in responding to atrocity crimes.” Australia’s representative said similarly that “where a permanent member blocks Council action in cases of mass atrocities…, we should explore possible ways to use the Assembly for further dialogue.”

Five Priority Actions

The General Assembly’s 76th session, coinciding as it does with the occurrence of mass atrocities across the globe, provides an opportunity to test these ambitions regarding the General Assembly’s effectiveness. In the spirit of the call to be “bold, creative and result-oriented,” following are five priority actions for consideration by diplomats as they head to the high-level debate.

  1. Consistent with previous practice, the General Assembly should refuse to recognize the credentials of any military regime that has come to power by overthrowing a democratically-elected government. The General Assembly should recognize the representatives of Myanmar’s National Unity Government, due to that government having been formed by parliamentarians that won power in last year’s democratic election. In the case of the Taliban, the General Assembly has the option of deferring its decision on credentials, allowing time to establish whether the Taliban should be regarded as legitimately representing the people of Afghanistan.
  1. In light of the Security Council’s primary responsibility for international peace and security, and the well-established link between atrocity crimes and international peace and security, the General Assembly should make recommendations to the Security Council regarding current occurring atrocities. Where there are credible reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide, the General Assembly should recommend to the Security Council that it refer those situations to the International Criminal Court, and that it impose targeted sanctions (such as asset freezes and travel bans) against the perpetrators and/or mandatory arms embargoes.
  1. Where there are credible reports of atrocity crimes, particularly from U.N. commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions, and the Security Council has failed to take timely and effective action to respond to those crimes, the General Assembly should request a special report from the Security Council regarding its handling of the matter – pursuant to article 15 of the U.N. Charter.
  1. Where there is credible evidence that particular individuals have committed atrocity crimes, the General Assembly should recommend to states that they impose targeted sanctions (asset freezes and travel bans) against those individuals. In recommending targeted sanctions, the Assembly should also recommend to states that any such sanctions respect basic requirements of due process.
  1. Where there are credible reports of atrocity crimes, and an independent commission of inquiry, fact-finding mission, or accountability mechanism is not yet in place, the General Assembly should ensure that such a body is established. Human rights organizations, for example, have repeatedly called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry into China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, and have called for an “international monitoring and accountability mechanism” in relation to the Taliban’s alleged atrocities in Afghanistan. Such bodies may be established either by the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council.

The General Assembly’s competence to take these and other actions is described in a Guidance Document produced earlier this year by the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

In the analysis of the international response to atrocity crimes, attention is often focused on the issue of Security Council paralysis. This is of course one of the greatest impediments to the global response to atrocities, but it should not distract from – and indeed, makes all the more imperative – the question of how to most effectively use the General Assembly’s powers.

In 2005, Kofi Annan observed that the General Assembly would not be made more effective unless states took a “serious interest in the Assembly … and insist that their representatives engage in its debates with a view to achieving real and positive results.”  As states head into the 76th session, this is exactly the standard to which member states should hold themselves.

Editor’s note: Readers of this article also might be interested in a series that Just Security is publishing on a proposed treaty on crimes against humanity, to be considered again by UNGA’s Sixth Committee in October 2021.

Image: UN Photo/Manuel Elias (General Assembly Demands Immediate End to Hostilities in Syria)