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•  Growing Climate Ambition
​​​•  UN-African Union Hybrid Peacekeeping Mission Ends
•  No consensus on waiver of TRIPS obligations to tackle Covid-19
•  Vienna-based CTBTO Fails To Elect  Executive Head
​​•  Virtual Diplomacy unable to bridge divides at UN

Growing Climate Ambition

2020 was a year in which for the first time this century, no formal climate negotiations took place. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (CoP) 26 was postponed due to the pandemic. Yet declarations about planned climate action and ambition have risen. To mark the 5th anniversary of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, on 12 December, the UN along with the UK, France in partnership with Italy and Chile organized the Climate Ambition Summit. More than 75 Climate leaders from various countries, businesses and cities outlined ambitious new climate action goals. 45 new Nationally Determined Contributions, 24 net zero commitments, and 20 adaptation and resilience plans were presented at the Summit. The general consensus was that taken together the Summit was a good start to setting the momentum for greater Climate Change ambition for the CoP 26 to be now held in Glasgow, in November 2021.

In total, 126 countries are assessed to have publicly committed to net carbon neutrality. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called on all countries to declare “climate emergencies” and announced that the central ambition of the United Nations for 2021 is to build a global coalition for carbon neutrality - net zero emissions - by 2050. This wave of  long term commitments taken together with the likely formal announcement of the incoming Biden Administration to carbon neutrality by 2050 are clear indications that global transition towards carbon neutrality has begun. The estimate of the Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis, is that by early 2021 countries that contribute 63% of Green House Gas emissions will be covered by net zero targets (see chart below).


As 2020 drew to a close, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation termed the decade 2011-2020 as the warmest on record. Yet, projections for the future indicate a tone of greater optimism, if all countries fulfill their commitments to carbon neutrality. The prognosis is that the acceleration in national climate pledges and legally binding carbon targets will help to push down the planet’s warming trajectory. Paris Agreement goals are seen within reach, with warming of 2.1C now likely by the end of the century - much lower than seemed likely only a few years ago.  The 2.1C forecast is the lowest ever produced by the non-profit groups, which have been tracking climate pledges and temperature projections since 2009. Back then, they projected that existing pledges — mostly made under the Kyoto protocol — put the world on track for 3.5C of warming (see chart below).

Comment: The shift towards greater climate ambition is helped by the combination of technological progress, along with increasing knowledge of climate change impacts. However, there is a huge gap between countries’ 2050 targets, and the policies that they have put in place. Nevertheless, the signal to climate reluctant countries such as Australia, Russia and Brazil who were refused an invitation to the Climate Ambition Summit was that they need to get their acts together in 2021. However, amidst all the talk of ambition what was missing at the Summit was financial commitment to meet the promise of $ 100 billion annual financing for vulnerable developing countries.  As the climate activist Greta Thunberg cynically put it, “Distant hypothetical targets are being set...Yet, the action we need is nowhere in sight”.

UN-African Union Hybrid Peacekeeping Mission Ends

The Security Council on 22 December unanimously adopted Resolution 2559 (2020) terminating the mandate of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) on 31 December 2020, withdrawing all the remaining 6000 uniformed and 1500 civilian personnel other than those needed for liquidation by 30 June 2021.

The termination of the Mission follows the request  of Sudan to take over full security of the region after the transitional Government of Sudan signed a peace deal in October 2020 with a coalition of various rebel and political groups, including from Darfur. The agreement covers a variety of issues around security, land ownership, transitional justice, power sharing, the return of displaced persons and the dismantling of rebel forces and the integration of rebel fighters into the national army. Based on this, the African Union (AU) and the UN jointly recommended ending the first hybrid peacekeeping operation established jointly by the UN and the AU in July 2007. The UN estimates that more than 300,000 people died and 2.5 million were displaced in the war-torn Darfur region of  Sudan during the conflict that began in 2003 between the Government of Sudan and Arab militias and other non-Arab armed rebel groups. The UN Integrated Transition Assistance  Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) established in June 2020 will subsume all UN peace building and political activities in Sudan.

Comment: UNAMID was a novel experiment of the UN undertaking peacekeeping in partnership with a regional organisation.The lessons learnt from the experience will be useful if and when other such initiatives are undertaken in the future. More immediately, the impending end of UNAMID has aroused concern that those groups who did not join the peace deal with the Sudanese government may undermine the efforts to withdraw UN peacekeepers. There have been sporadic violent incidents and protests against the withdrawal decision prompting the Sudanese government to send reinforcements to the Darfur region.

No consensus on waiver of TRIPS obligations to tackle Covid-19

The South African - Indian  proposal to the Trade-Related  for a temporary waiver of certain provisions of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) obligations in response to Covid-19 gained support from about 90 states and numerous civil society organisations globally. However, opposition of the dozen or so delegations who had objected to the proposal previously (see UNcovered November 2020) ensured that there was no outcome during discussions on 10 December at the TRIPS Council virtual meeting of the WTO.

Consequently, the WTO General Council meeting on 16-18 December was informed of the lack of consensus on this issue, while the common goal shared by members of providing access to high-quality, safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines and medicines for all was acknowledged. Given that the proposal was initially submitted on 2 October, 2020, the 90-day time-period in which a decision is normally required to be taken by the WTO General Council ends on 31 December 2020.

Comments: The outcome is on expected lines. Given the launch of the various vaccines and news that the initiatives launched by the Geneva-based Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) and the World Health Organization are on track, it is likely that the perception that adequate options are available to tackle the pandemic will grow and the push for a temporary waiver will be relegated to the back burner.

Vienna-based CTBTO Fails To Elect  Executive Head

The Vienna-based Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) was unable to elect its executive head - Executive Secretary - despite several rounds of balloting in December. This comes on the back of Geneva-based WTO (World Trade Organisation) still being unable to decide upon a Director General on account of US objections (See UNcovered October & November 2020). 

Established in 1996, the CTBTO has 184 members. However, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has still to come into force.   Eight ( China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and  USA) of the 44 specific nuclear technology holders who are required to sign and ratify the CTBT have not done so. Hence, the CTBTO’s main tasks are the promotion of the CTBT and the build-up of the verification regime so that it is operational when the Treaty enters into force. In this context, the  Provisional Technical Secretariat of the CTBTO which is co-located at the Vienna International Centre along with other UN bodies is not part of the UN system but has a cooperation agreement with the UN. The CTBTO has a staff drawn from nearly 70 countries headed by an Executive Secretary and an annual budget of $ 130 million.

Going into the election process, there were differences about who were to have voting rights. Only about 140 of the 184 members were, after a divisive vote, provided voting rights. The others were considered not to have met the requirement of being in adequate financial standing as they had not paid their contributions. In the race were the incumbent Dr. Lassina Zerbo of Burkina Faso who has led the CTBO for the last seven years and Australia’s Dr. Robert Floyd . None of the candidates was able to secure the  2/3rd majority of the votes cast, with Dr. Floyd falling short of the required 92 votes by just a vote in the last ballot on 17 December. The nomination process is now once again re-opened, until 5 February 2021, with the goal that the saga will end before the incumbent’s current term ends in July 2021.

Comment: The prolonged bickering over the procedural and financial aspects of who should elect the Executive Secretary and the failure to elect any of the candidates in the fray, reflects the difficulties that multilateral bodies of various hues are facing in the conduct of their business in the era of great power rivalry.

Virtual Diplomacy unable to bridge divides at UN

The lack of in-person meetings seem to be hampering the completion of normal business of UN bodies. The Fifth Committee of the UN’s General Assembly, notorious for prolonged budgetary discussions, delayed agreement on the annual budget for 2021. It prompted the President of the UN General Assembly  Volkan Bozkir to warn of the dire consequences that the inability to agree on a budget will have on the UN’s credibility. Finally, late in the night of 30 December a $3.2 billion 'Regular Budget' resolution was adopted (Peacekeeping Budget is separate and usually approved in June). It was not through the usual consensus route but following a vote in which the US and Israel voted against the budget resolution. The formal adoption of the budget by the General Assembly will be on 31 December. This is the first time that it has taken so long for adoption of the budget since the General Assembly had failed to adopt the budget for 1965 in 1964.

Similarly, the members of the Security Council have been delaying a decision about the chairpersons of the subsidiary bodies to replace five of the non-permanent members who complete their 2-year term on 31 December 2020. Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa who were chairing 10 of the subsidiary bodies that oversaw sanctions regimes and working groups of the Security Council end their terms. India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and Norway who are poised to join 1 January 2021 are left with little advance preparation for the new roles of chairing the subsidiary bodies they will be allocated. Previously, the latest that such decisions took after the election schedule of non-permanent members were shifted to June, a few years ago, was 21 November in 2018. 

Comment: The limitation of virtual meetings on diplomatic outcomes and the reduction of “in-person” meetings in delaying routine outcomes cannot be discounted. However, the growing perception is that difficulties in arriving at regular decisions are also reflective of the stress that multilateral processes are under due to sharp policy divides. Gathering negotiators together in physical proximity alone may not be able to resolve such issues.

(The views expressed are personal)

Read more…


•  Access to Covid-19 vaccine is an issue of global concern
​​​•  Change is in the air for multilateralism
•  Western Sahara dispute threatens to reignite 
•  Quest for Director General of WTO in limbo
​​•  Elections to the International Court of Justice signal a return to normalcy

Access to Covid-19 vaccine is an issue of global concern

As news of the most promising Covid-19 vaccine candidates from Pfizer & BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Russian Sputnik V being the most effective in clinical trials made global headlines, global fora became platforms for voicing concerns about equitable access to Covid vaccines. The final communique of the G-20 virtual Summit hosted by Saudi Arabia recognised “the role of extensive immunisation as a global public good” and pledged to “spare no effort” to ensure affordable, global access to Covid vaccines.

These sentiments reflected concerns about predictions that there will not be enough vaccines to cover the world's entire population, at least until 2023 and reports of studies projecting that even before any vaccine candidates have been approved for the market, planned purchases seem to have cornered the vaccine market. The Duke University calculated that purchase of 6.8 billion doses have been confirmed, with another 2.8 billion doses are under negotiation or reserved as optional expansions of existing deals.


Given finite manufacturing capacity, the direct deals made by high-income (and some middle-income) countries are likely to result in a smaller piece of the pie being available for equitable global allocation. Initiatives such as COVAX, which aims to provide two billion doses by the end of 2021 to protect high-risk populations around the world, with a longer-term goal of covering 20% of the population strive for equity. However, countries with adequate resources have purchased two or more doses for their entire populations upfront. Thus, the outlook for global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is bleaker when logistical challenges are taken into account in middle and lower income countries.

Amidst such concerns of “vaccine nationalism”, South Africa & India on October 2, 2020, submitted a proposal to the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council of the World Trade Organization for waiver from provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19. Specifically, they sought a temporary waiver of sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement. Section 1 of part II of the TRIPS Agreement pertains to copyright and related rights; section 4 deals with industrial designs. Section 5 of part II of the TRIPS Agreement pertains to patents; section 7 deals with the protection of undisclosed information.

In essence the proposal is to allow all countries to choose whether or not to grant or enforce patents and other intellectual property (IP) related to COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic. While acknowledging that TRIPS “flexibilities” existed, the proposal argues that the cumbersome, case by case and product by product process for compulsory licensing and for placing limitations on or making exceptions to exclusive rights was unsuitable to tackle the challenges raised by the pandemic. Hence the proposal seeks to invoke the waiver available under Article 9 (3) of the WTO Agreement. While the WTO General Council strives for such decisions by consensus, they can be taken with the support of 75% of the 164 member states.

The subject was introduced at the TRIPS Council on 16th October and further discussed on 20 November. India and South Africa were joined by Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique and Pakistan as co-sponsors. As expected, a large number of developing countries including Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Indonesia, Egypt, Cuba, Tanzania (on behalf of the African Group), Venezuela, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Jamaica (on behalf of Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group) supported the proponents. There was widespread support from civil society and from UNAIDS and the the DG of WHO. On the other hand, USA, EU, Japan, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, UK and Brazil strongly opposed the initiative. Their main arguments were that Intellectual Property(IP) protection is not a barrier to wider access to COVID-19 health products; that the flexibilities already provided for in the TRIPS Agreement are adequate; and that IP is necessary to fund innovation. Several others including Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, China, Turkey and Ukraine were said to be open to further “constructive discussions”. The next meeting of the TRIPS Council is scheduled for 10 December. The General Council of the WTO, which is the authority to decide on the matter within 90 days, is scheduled to next meet on 17 December. In the meanwhile the Chairperson of the TRIPS Council would have further consultations on how to report on the matter.

Comment: A satisfactory outcome at the WTO to address equitable access to Covid vaccines is unlikely, given well known cleavages. However, as it is a matter of life and death for millions across the globe, the quest for affordable access and equitable distribution of vaccines, will remain even if collaborative solutions are difficult to arrive at. The issue will continue on the agenda of global fora, in some form or the other. 

Change is in the air for multilateralism

Rarely has the outcome of the US Presidential election aroused such expectations amongst diplomats and staff at the UN headquarters in New York, as this year. The anticipated changes of policy and personnel in the US approach to multilateralism, after the inauguration of the next US President, seem to have already breathed new hope in an institution that was floundering amidst global tumult.

There is a widespread belief that for the next US Administration multilateralism will matter more. The announced return of the US to the Paris accord on Day One of the Biden Administration will symbolize the return of Climate Change  and environmental issues to the top of the global agenda in 2021. It is a goal that the UN system has been assiduously working towards (See UNcovered Vol I, Issue 1, September 2020). Several other steps that fall in the realm of US executive decisions, are also seen as low hanging fruit that can be harvested early next year. Cumulatively all these will signal renewed US engagement with the UN system. 

The announcement that Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a State Department veteran as the next US Ambassador to the UN with cabinet rank has been welcomed by UN watchers. Her knowledge of African issues is expected to stand her in good stead since African issues dominate the Security Council’s agenda. Also, African diplomats, who form the largest group at the UN, had felt neglected during the Trump Administration. The appointment of an African-American with long experience of African issues, in an environment where China’s “wolf warriors” have often overplayed their hand with African diplomats, makes it an especially smart move.

Long-time UN officials, recall that it was Senator Biden who joined Senator Jesse Helms to stitch together the 1999 Helms-Biden Act, which resulted in the payment of nearly $1 billion in unpaid arrears to the United Nations. The hope is that the terms of reference for US funding of UN, long set in accordance with the Helms-Biden Act may now be the guiding star for future US contributions. The thinking, amongst UN insiders, is that in 2021 with a more normal US to deal with UN Secretary General Guterres intends to put on the table several ideas to get the UN back to the center of global conversation on an array of issues.

Comment: Palpable hope for change at the UN is discernible amongst diplomats and UN officials. However, it is unlikely that the situation of the past can be restored in full measure. The UN system has moved on, in the last few years, notwithstanding the US distancing itself. The new normal may take time and may not be a replica of the past. Nevertheless, the talk is that change in any measure will be welcomed. 

Western Sahara dispute threatens to reignite 

Even as the UN Secretary General has repeatedly called for a global ceasefire so as to focus on the fight against Covid-19, the decades-long dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front in Western Sahara threatened to return to open hostilities. Frustrated by the lack of international attention to its cause resulting in a territorial outcome that has been hardened into an internationally accepted reality and angered by a recent Moroccan military operation in a United Nations-monitored buffer zone, the Polisario Front on November 14, issued a decree announcing the “resumption of armed struggle in defense of the legitimate rights of our people.”

If the Polisario proceeds down this path, it would mean an end to the cease-fire agreement that was put in place in 1991 and is monitored by MINURSO, a UN peace keeping force. Whether it was  “an exchange of gunfire,” as described by Morocco, or “a state of war,” as the Polisario Front claims, the the 29-year-old ceasefire between the two sides over the disputed region seems to be in danger of collapsing entirely, opening up another African conflict that has for long been contained. UN officials are scrambling to ensure that this is not so.

Comment:  The Polisario Front’s declaration appears to be designed to drawing attention to Western Sahara. However, the response of UN officials and others are focused on efforts to ensure observance of the 1991 cease-fire by both sides. That perhaps is not what the Polisario would have wanted, but is the likely outcome in a world saddled by mounting crises of a larger magnitude.

Quest for Director General of WTO in limbo

The meeting of the General Council of the WTO scheduled for 9th November to appoint the DG of the WTO was postponed on account of “the health situation and current events”. At the last meeting in October, the facilitators had concluded that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was the candidate most likely to attract consensus and had recommended her appointment by the General Council as the next Director-General of the WTO. The US opposition to her had stalled a decision. (see UNcovered Vol I, Issue 2, October 2020)

The Covid-related restrictions placed by the Swiss authorities in early November, limiting meetings to gatherings of not more than 50 persons, meant that the 164 member General Council could not be convened as scheduled, as the requirement was that at least 50% of the members need to be physically present to ensure a quorum. Also, the prevalent uncertainty about the outcome of the US Presidential election was, perhaps, subsumed under the notion of “current events” that precluded the holding of the meeting.

The current US Administration’s position on the matter accounts for the continued uncertainty on the subject. To this is the added speculation that  Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a dual Nigerian-US citizen, may have strong ties with the Democratic Party. On the other hand, it is also being talked about that the Republic of Korea’s Trade Minister Ms Yoo Myung-hee, is considering withdrawal after having demonstrably failed to garner broad support. Even if this was the case, the next General Council meeting planned for 17 December may be difficult to convene, as the legal requirements for physical presence of half the members may be difficult to fulfill. Changes of process and procedures that may be required to be agreed upon for the meeting to proceed in an environment of uncertainty about decision making in the last days of the Trump Administration add to the complexity.

Comment: It would appear that the situation of limbo that the WTO finds itself in is likely to continue for some more time. As with several other expected multilateral decisions, this change too may have to await the inauguration of the next US President on 20 January 2021.

Elections to the International Court of Justice signal a return to normalcy

Elections to five of the fifteen seats on the International Court of Justice are held once every three years. The process of balloting by two of the main UN organs - the General Assembly and the Security Council - to elect candidates separately but simultaneously, makes the process the most complex known to the UN system. The winning candidates need to obtain an absolute majority of 97 votes  (out of a total of 193 members) in the General assembly and 8 votes (out of the 15 members) in the Security Council. This usually results in a repeated rounds of balloting until only five candidates obtain the required majority in both the bodies. However, the elections in November ended with just two rounds of balloting in the General Assembly and a single round in the Council. 

Of the eight candidates contesting the five seats, four were current members of the Court:  Hanqin Xue (China); Peter Tomka (Slovakia); Julia Sebutinde (Uganda); and Yuji Iwasawa (Japan). All of them were re-elected. Georg Nolte (Germany) was the other winning candidate.  The remaining three candidates: Taoheed Olufemi Elias (Nigeria), Maja Seršić (Croatia) and Emmanuel Ugirashebuja (Rwanda) failed in their bids. The outcome ensured that the geographical distribution of seats remained as it was, with the judge from Germany replacing a judge from Italy who did not seek re-election. The elected judges will begin their nine year term from 6 February 2021.

Comment: The ease of outcome of the ICJ elections this time reinforced the exceptional nature of the electoral verdict three years ago. On that occasion, Judge Dalveer Bhandari (India) defeated Judge Christopher Greenwood (UK), unseating a judge from a permanent member of the UN Security Council for the first time in the more than 70 year history of the UN. It also changed the regional balance of the ICJ, by increasing an Asian judge and reducing a West European judge for the only time in the ICJ. The outcome, this time, signaled  a return to business as usual.   ​​​​​​


(The views expressed are personal)

Read more…


•  UN’s World Food Program Wins Nobel Peace Prize 
​​​•  WTO Selecting New Director General 
•  Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Reaches Ratification Threshold
•  Humans Rights Council Activities
​​•  UN brokered Libyan Ceasefire
•  Covid Cohort Fears At UN Headquarters

UN’s World Food Program Wins Nobel Peace Prize 

The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the United Nations World Food Program  (WFP) has been awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, for its efforts to combat a surge in global hunger and prevent it being used as a weapon of war. The Rome-based WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization. In 2019 it provided food assistance to 97 million people and plans to expand it to 137 million of the 270 million people who could be suffering from acute hunger, accentuated by the Corona virus, by the end of 2020.

The WFP was set up in 1961, at the behest of the US, initially as a three-year experiment, to assess the effectiveness of emergency food aid delivery through the UN system.  After the experiment proved successful, the WFP became a full-fledged UN agency, to last for “as long as multilateral food aid is found feasible and desirable”. The governing body of the WFP is the 36 member Executive Council (which includes India currently). Organizationally, it is headed by the Executive Director (ED), appointed jointly by the by the UN Secretary General and the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In recent times, a convention seems to have evolved that the ED is a US national.  Stretching back to 1992 the last five EDs, including the current incumbent David Beasley,have been US nationals.

WFP is funded primarily by voluntary contributions. Its principal donors are governments, but the organization also receives donations from the private sector and individuals. In 2019 contributions reached a record level of US$ 8bn — but still left a gap of US$ 4.1 billion funding gap. The US has consistently been the primary donor. Washington’s contribution in 2020, as of early October, was $2.73 billion—some 43% of the total $6.35 billion received by WFP. Germany was the next largest contributor, with $964 million. China had provided $4 million.

Multiple UN institutions have been recipients of the Nobel Peace prize. The WFP is the 7th UN institution to be awarded the prize. If individuals who have received the awards for their UN-related activities are also taken into account then the number increases to 14 Nobel awards.

Comment: The Nobel for the WFP at a time when multilateralism is under severe criticism, and many countries are tending to go their own way, is viewed as a signal of the need for greater support and resources to beleaguered multilateral institutions .

WTO Selecting New Director General 

The selection of the Director General (DG) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is reaching its final denouement in Geneva. Of the eight candidates whose nominations were accepted in June 2020, two remain in fray in the third and final phase of an elaborate process. The effort is to arrive at a vaguely defined “consensus” candidate.

Usually the process takes nine months.  On this occasion it was initiated in May, following the announcement by the then Director-General Roberto Carvalho de Azevêdo of his intention to leave on  31st August. This was a year ahead of the completion of his second term. He has since joined as the Executive Vice President, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at PepsiCo. His departure has left the body without an interim DG as China opposed that the American Alan Wolff, one of the deputy directors-general, take over in an acting capacity.

While the announcement of the next DG is awaited, it is no longer in doubt that the WTO will have its first female DG. Both the candidates left in the fray are eminently qualified and accomplished women leaders. Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has served previously as the Finance Minister of Nigeria and as a Managing Director at the World Bank. She is chairing the Gavi Vaccine Alliance that is overseeing plans to  support low and middle-income countries’ access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. The other contender is Ms  Yoo Myung-hee,  the Trade Minister of South Korea. She is well versed in the rules and processes that govern the multilateral trading system, having specialised in this area since the mid-1990s.

Knowledgeable observers considered Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela a dual Nigerian - US citizen as having the edge. This seems to have been borne out in the private consultations that the “troika” consisting of the chairs of the three major WTO committees—the General Council (GC), the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), and the Trade Policy Review Body (TPRB) — conduct with each WTO member’s ambassador to find out their country’s preference for DG.  The process is led by the GC chair Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand. The other troika members are DSB chair Ambassador Decio Castillo of Honduras and TPRB chair Ambassador Harald Aspelund of Iceland.

However, at a meeting of all the 164 members on 28th October the United States expressed its opposition to Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela candidacy. The US argued that she had no background in trade and described the Korean candidate as having an extensive background in trade that made her better suited for the role of managing the WTO in a period of turmoil. The US also expressed dissatisfaction about the process being followed to choose the DG. Many others are said to have opposed this latest US challenge.

Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela appears to have broad support. While consultations continue, her supporters are confident and are even girding for a vote, which can be opted, as a last resort. An announcement of the choice of the seventh DG, is now expected at  a meeting scheduled on 9th November.

Comment: Whoever is the next DG, will find the multilateral platform that the WTO provides in a crisis. Discord over global trade is deep. The impulse towards liberalization has waned. The WTO legislative process is at a standstill. The appellate mechanism has been undermined by the US preventing new appointments. In a turbulent economic landscape where the coronavirus pandemic is causing damage to global growth the challenges that the next DG will face are amongst the stiffest in the WTO’s history.   

Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Reaches Ratification Threshold

On  24th October, even as the 75th UN Day was being observed globally, Honduras became the 50th state to deposit its instrument of ratification  of  the  Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons (TPNW). It meant that, in accordance with its provisions, the TPNW would come into force 90 days thereafter, on 22 January 2021.

Adopted at a UN Conference in New York on 7 July 2017, the TPNW lays out a comprehensive set of prohibitions on states parties. These include undertakings not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, deploy, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. It prohibits assistance to any State in the conduct of prohibited activities. States will be obliged to prevent any activity prohibited under the TPNW undertaken by persons or on territory under its jurisdiction or control. The TPNW also obliges states parties to provide assistance to individuals affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, as well as to take measures of environmental remediation in areas under their jurisdiction or control contaminated as a result of activities related to the testing or use of nuclear weapons.

The Trump Administration had earlier written to signatories informing them that the US, Russia, China, Britain and France – and America’s NATO allies “stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions” of the TPNW. The letter warned that the TPNW “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” to the NPT, considered the cornerstone of global nonproliferation efforts. The signatories were urged to recognize their “strategic error” and rescind their signatures.

On the other hand, groups such as ICAN which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its role in shepherding the TPNW hope that it will be more than symbolic and have a gradual deterrent effect. They believe that the TPNW will stigmatize production and stockpiling as did treaties on landmines and cluster munitions. This, they feel, will lead to a change in behavior even in countries that did not sign up.

Comment: In the barren environment where multilateral instruments for nuclear disarmament have been missing for long, the ratification of the TPNW, at least, keeps the flickering quest for global nuclear disarmament from being entirely extinguished.   

Humans Rights Council Activities

The Geneva-based Human Rights Council concluded on 7th October, its forty fifth session (which was the last of the three  regular sessions for the year), adopting 35 resolutions on an array of issues. The most significant of these was the approval of a proposal for the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor the situation in Belarus in the context of the 2020 Presidential elections and present before the end of the year an oral report and recommendations. Other important decisions included the extension of  the mandate of the international fact-finding mission on Venezuela by a further two years and the commission of inquiry on Burundi by a year.

However, it was the outcome of the elections to 15 members of the 47 member Human Rights Council by the General Assembly in New York on 13th October that garnered significantly more interest, primarily on account of those who were seeking membership.

The Russian Federation, having lost to Croatia and Hungary in its last effort in 2016 to gain membership, had re-entered the race after a considerable gap. In a contest that was not competitive as there were only two candidates for two seats Ukraine secured 166 votes and Russia 158 votes thus ensuring that both were elected from the East European Group. Similarly in the African Group, the Latin American and Caribbean Group and the West European and Others Group the number of candidates was equal to the number seats available, ensuring easy victories of all those who were contesting from these groups.

The results from the Asia-Pacific  were more interesting as there were five candidates for four seats. First time entrant Uzbekistan (169 votes) along with Pakistan (169 votes) and Nepal (150 votes) who were seeking re-election easily won along with China (139 votes) which was seeking entry after the mandatory  “cooling off” period of a year following two consecutive terms. Saudi Arabia (90 votes) lost, in the only competitive outcome. 

There were several comments in the western media about the process which enables non-competitive contests, as well as the outcome of  China and Russia joining the Council despite the considerable human rights baggage they carried. No tears were shed on account of Saudi Arabia’s loss. 
Comment: The Human Rights Council elections, with 16 candidates in the fray for 15 seats have followed a long UN tradition. In the majority of the elections at the UN, the number of candidates from various regional groups do not exceed the slots available and consequently result in non-competitive contests. This year was just more of the same.  

UN brokered Libyan Ceasefire

Ever since UN Secretary-General António Guterres first called for a global ceasefire in response to COVID-19 on 23rd March, UN officials have been pursuing, without success, efforts to showcase an achievement that can have a global demonstration effect.  On 23rd October, they announced that during UN brokered talks in Geneva, Libya’s two main warring factions had signed on to a “complete and permanent ceasefire agreement with immediate effect”.

Full details of the agreement between the UN recognized Government of National Accord, based in the capital Tripoli, and the self-styled Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hifter, based in the country’s east are are not yet available.

According to UN officials the agreement calls for fighters from both sides to pull back from front-line positions and return to their bases in a process to be monitored by the UN. More significantly, it calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces and all mercenaries within three months. The deal, it said, will also allow tens of thousands of internally displaced people, as well as refugees outside the country, to return to their homes; open of air and land routes; and in due course lead to resumption of Libyan oil production. The Security Council, in an initial response, welcomed the outcome.

Preparatory discussions commenced amongst Libyan delegates by video conference to pave the way for holding “direct and in person” meeting of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) on November 9 in the Tunisian capital. UN officials hope the discussions will “generate consensus on a unified governance framework and arrangements that will lead to holding national elections.”

Comment: Previous cease fires in Libya have floundered. Hence skepticism if this time will be different is understandable.  Nevertheless, as six months ago there were active hostilities with several foreign personnel ranged against each other and a huge number of  Libyan casualties, the change in tide, even if momentary, is a welcome development.

Covid Cohort Fears At UN Headquarters

Even as the pace of “in person” diplomacy was gathering momentum at the UN headquarters in New York, fears of a Covid-19 cohort surfaced on account of five diplomats from Niger testing positive. Niger is not only a member of the 193 member General Assembly but also is currently a non-permanent member of the Security Council. As a matter of “abundant caution” this has led to the cancellation of all “in person” meetings at UN headquarters, from 27th October till the end of the week, to enable full contact tracing and to gain better understanding of the extent of exposure of staff and diplomats.

Comment: UN diplomacy still remains, metaphorically as well as physically, hampered by Covid-19.


(The views expressed are personal)

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•  A novel 75th anniversary session of the United Nations 
​​​​​•  Contention Exemplifies Security Council Dysfunction
•  Environmental Priorities Rise On Global Agenda 
•  Independent Panel starts probing Pandemic 
​​​•  David Overcomes Goliath

 The United Nations (UN) system, is both a stage and an actor. 

It provides a unique platform for  stakeholders (primarily States) to engage and arrive at shared solutions to shared problems. Since outcomes that are acceptable to all are usually in the nature of least common denominators, the UN as a stage has been seen as fulfilling a necessary but not very successful global role to address an array of common challenges.

It also is an actor that  engages in advocacy on subjects of global importance such as climate change and human rights. Additionally, it implements a range of mandates  relating to peace and security(primarily through Peacekeeping Operations) and in the humanitarian and development space. Here the UN’s role has expanded, in response to growing need for such support.

Given the breadth of arenas in which the United Nations system is engaged through its various organs and specialized agencies, it is easy to focus on the maze of events and activities and lose sight of broader trends they reflect. UNcovered will endeavor, every month, to glean some of the most interesting issues from the wider UN system. It will uncover their moorings and cover their possible impact from a broader perspective.

A novel 75th anniversary session of the United Nations 

September is the centre-piece of the UN’s diplomatic calendar. The “General Debate at the start of a new session of the General Assembly attracts upwards of 100 Heads for State/Government of the 193 Members of the UN to New York annually. While statements made from the pulpit at the General Assembly attract media attention, a lot of quiet diplomacy is undertaken on the margins. 

This year, with the UN celebrating its 75th anniversary, the event was, in many ways, novel. Covid-19 restrictions meant that all activities were virtual. Leaders sent their video-statements which were played in the presence of a limited number of socially distanced delegates at the General Assembly Hall. The mood was somber with no celebrations; the motorcades were missing from mid-town Manhattan; and premium hotel rooms remained empty. However, the mounting global concerns meant there was a talkfest, without the ballast of substantive engagements on the sidelines.

Reflecting a lack of appetite for serious change amidst geopolitical tensions an anodyne Declaration was adopted to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UN. The quest for reform was pushed down the road.  The UN Secretary General was entrusted with the responsibility to “report back before the end of the 75th session of the General Assembly with recommendations to respond to current and future challenges.” 

The week-long “General Debate” was on the theme “ The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism - confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action”. The standout feature was the divergences between the USA and China. President Trump called for holding China accountable for unleashing the plague of  “China virus” on the world. President Xi rejected the attempt of politicizing the issue or stigmatization. 

Other leaders, including the UN Secretary General, warned that lack of international cooperation could worsen the coronavirus pandemic, slow a global economic recovery or even lead to outright conflict. Most used the platform for announcing their priorities and voicing concerns to the world and touting achievements at home for domestic audiences. 

PM Modi spoke twice - at the 75th anniversary commemorative event and the General Debate. His advocacy of reforming the UN  and a greater role for India in decision making on international peace and security was the most vigorous pitch for change made by an Indian leader at this forum. His assurance that India’s vaccine production capacities would be used to help all of humanity in fighting the Covid-19 crisis, drew praise for standing up for global good amidst fears of  ‘vaccine nationalism’. 

For the second straight year PM Modi ignored Pakistan in India’s list of multilateral priorities by making no reference to it (or to China). On the other hand, the perennial side-show that Pakistan triggers by making references to Jammu and Kashmir and other aspects of the Indian polity, leading to India using its right of reply to set the record straight was repeated, with the Indian delegate also staging a “walk out” of the General Assembly Hall even as PM Imran Khan’s recorded statement was being played there.

With physical presence not a necessity the total number of Heads of State and Heads of Government who made statements exceeded the usual number. The level of interest generated was well below par, even though the show was kept going . 

Comment: The UN @75 is ensuring ‘business process continuity’, amidst the most trying times since it was established in 1945. That the organisation needs rejuvenation, to be fit for purpose to address the looming challenges of modernity is well understood. However, given the paucity of  international cooperation amidst great power competition, pathways towards change remain elusive.
Contention Exemplifies Security Council Dysfunction

The depths to which Security Council’s diplomacy has descended was exemplified in the exchange of accusations at a virtual Council meeting on Post-COVID-19 Global Governance convened by President Issoufou of Niger, as President of the Security Council  for the month on September 24.

“ Shame on each of you....I am disgusted by the content of today’s discussion. I am actually really quite ashamed of this Council” charged US Ambassador Kelly Craft during her remarks. She was responding to veiled swipes by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, at the United States.

“Abusing the platform of the UN and its Security Council, the US has been spreading political virus and disinformation, and creating confrontation and division” countered China’s Ambassador Zhang Jun, accusing the US of “lying, cheating and stealing”.

Amidst, such acrimony  the Secretary General Guterres’s reiteration of the need for the Council to play an active role in working towards a global cease-fire did not excite responses. Also, his appeal for broadening global governance, to take in businesses, civil society, cities and regions, academia and young people was lost. However, over the next year matters of more inclusive and flexible mechanisms to address global challenges are likely to be fleshed out and presented at various UN fora. 

The US effort to enforce  “snap back” UN sanctions on Iran played out outside the Council as there was little support for the US within the Council on the issue. Following the completion of the 30 day period since it had notified the initiation of  the process to reimpose UN sanctions specified in Resolution 2231 (2015),  US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that US considered that all UN sanctions on Iran were now back in place. On the other hand, most Council members ( including all other Permanent members) reiterated their views they consider the US as having left the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) and hence having no legal standing to initiate the “snap back” process. 

Faced with uncertainty and no definitive interpretation in face of conflicting views, Secretary General Guterres declined to take any further steps until the Council clarifies its stance. With no hope of that, it sets the stage for US taking unilateral action should it consider any state is violating various UN sanctions, including the embargo on sale of conventional weapons to Iran. Most other Council members are playing for time, and look towards the outcome of US elections as a possible way out.    

Such discord did not restrict the Council from extension of the mandates of the Missions in Afghanistan, Colombia and Libya. Also, there were regular meetings on Syria, Yemen and the  situation in the Middle East. A host of African issues including Sudan and South Sudan were addressed and the Annual meeting with the AU Peace and Security Council was held. 

Comment:   The Security Council continues to routinely address issues on its agenda,   but the sharpness of the geopolitical divide has aggravated following the US’s inability to get support for the “snap back” of Iran sanctions. Disputed assertions about whether UN sanctions are back in place on Iran can potentially lead to unforeseen situations.    

Environmental Priorities Rise On Global Agenda 

Two UN reports issued during the month harness scientific inputs to raise environmental concerns, which have been overshadowed by the pandemic. The cumulative impact of the findings is to once again highlight environmental degradation and climate change as a priority on the global agenda. They also dovetail into the rising advocacy by the UN  Secretary General of environmental initiatives in general and particularly proposals such as early phase out of fossil fuel use so as to meet sustainability goals of carbon neutrality. 

The United in Science 2020 report, issued on September 9, projects that the average temperature during the first five period since the signing of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is expected to be the warmest on record. It will be about 1.1 degree Celsius above 1850-1900 (a reference period for temperature change since pre-industrial times) and 0.24 degree Celsius warmer than the global average temperature for 2011-2015. 

CO2 emissions in 2020 will fall by 4%-7% in 2020, due to COVID-19 confinement policies. At the height of COVID-related lockdowns, daily global fossil CO2 emissions dropped by an unprecedented 17% compared to last year. However, by early June, the emissions had returned to within 5% below 2019 levels and in July 2020 the World Meteorological Organization bench mark stations were reporting higher emissions than last year.

The UN’s fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook, published by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), on September 15, provides an authoritative overview of the state of nature worldwide.  It highlights the importance of biodiversity in addressing climate change, and long-term food security. It warns that the continued degradation of the environment is increasing the likelihood of diseases spreading from animals to humans and concludes that action to protect biodiversity is essential to prevent future pandemics. 

It serves as a “final report card” for the “Aichi Biodiversity Targets”, a series of 20 objectives set out in 2010, at the beginning of the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity, most of which were supposed to be reached by the end of this year. However, none of the targets – which concern the safeguarding of ecosystems, and the promotion of sustainability – have been fully met, and only six are deemed to have been “partially achieved”. 

Although the lack of success in meeting the targets is a cause for concern, the Outlook stresses that virtually all countries are now taking some steps to protect biodiversity. The bright spots include falling rates of deforestation and raised awareness of biodiversity and its importance. The findings are aimed to be a wake-up call, and bring out the dangers involved in mankind’s current relationship with nature. They will be raised by many at the virtual UN Summit on Biodiversity,  and will feed into a new set of targets, for the period between 2021 and 2030, currently under negotiation for adoption at the 15th Conference of Parties of the Convention of Biological Diversity to be held in Kunming, China, in May 2021. 

The release of the two reports has catalyzed a series of announcements. During his statement to the General Assembly President Xi JinPing, indicated that Chinese carbon emissions would peak “before 2030” and  pledged that China would strive to be carbon neutral by 2060. Even as this year, China builds the largest number of coal based power plants since the Paris Agreement, the canny political move has been welcomed as it will represent the biggest reduction in emissions of any country, if it can be achieved. The new target will lower global warming projections by 0.2C-0.3C, according to the non-profit research group Climate Action Tracker.

Many other leaders in their General Assembly statements drew attention to the ravages of caused by extreme climactic events. The UK Prime MInister Boris Johnson and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced plans to co-host an online “Climate Summit” on 12 December, 2020, to mark the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement in 2015. The effort is to rally global leaders to commit to greater climate action and ambition, so as to increase momentum ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (CoP 26) which was to be held this year in Glasgow but is rescheduled for November 2021. 

Following up on the Biodiversity Outlook, more than 70 leaders (including several from South Asia) from five continents signed onto the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature . They embraced 10 commitments related to building sustainable economic systems, reducing deforestation, halting unsustainable fishing practices, eliminating environmentally harmful subsidies and beginning the transition to sustainable food production systems and a circular economy to put nature and biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030. These are aimed at fulfilling the vision of living in harmony with nature by 2050. Missing were key countries including Australia, Brazil, China, India, Russia and US.   

Comment:  Even as multilateral cooperation has been stalemated on most issues, climate change and other environmental concerns are  resurfacing as priorities on the global agenda. The next substantive steps, will like much else in the multilateral sphere, also depend on the outcome of US Presidential elections.  

Independent Panel starts probing Pandemic 

The thirteen member Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response led by Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia had its first meeting on 17 September. In accordance with its mandate, the panel will strive to establish the timeline and events which culminated in COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic, and make recommendations aimed at safeguarding human health and economic and social wellbeing in the face of future global health threats. According to a readout by the Co-Chairs, the meeting was devoted to discussing the program of work and the methodologies to be adopted to make “evidence-based, practical, and people-centred recommendations” that will “make a real difference for the future of global health security”.  

Comment: The panel is keen to emphasize on its independent nature and transparent working. Its report, to be submitted next May, will be eagerly awaited.  

David Overcomes Goliath

Elections at the UN rarely attract attention, unless there is an upset. China, which has been a member of the 45 member Commission on Status of Women (CSW) continuously since 1980 lost its re-election bid for a 4 year term at elections which were initially scheduled to be held at the 54 member Economic and Social Council in April but were delayed until September due to Covid-related restrictions. For the two seats allocated to the Asia-Pacific region Afghanistan which has never been a member of the CSW  polled 39  votes and India which was in the CSW until 2018  and was seeking to join after a gap got 38 votes.Both were declared elected. China was last of the three candidates with 27 votes and lost. 

Comment: Afghanistan’s victory is a reflection that Davids can and do overcome Goliaths. Such outcomes where the shadows of the Permanent Members loom over all activities, makes the UN a place that never ceases to amaze. 



(The views expressed are personal)


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About the Author

Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin

Former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations and Former Spokesperson, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin ended his diplomatic assignment as the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations on 30th April 2020 and has recently returned to India.

In a diplomatic career spanning more than three decades, he represented India's interests in important capacities, promoting friendly ties across the globe.

As the Official Spokesperson of India's Ministry of External Affairs during 2012-2015 he is credited with the effective use of social media tools to considerably expand public diplomacy outreach.

An experienced multilateral diplomat prior to his assignment at the UN, Ambassador Akbaruddin, played a key role as the Chief Coordinator in the organization of the India-Africa Forum Summit held in October 2015 in New Delhi. All 54 African States that are members of the United Nations and the African Union participated in this milestone event in India-Africa ties.

Ambassador Akbaruddin also served as an international civil-servant at the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna from 2006-2011 as Head of the External Relations and Policy Coordination Unit and the Special Assistant to the Director-General of the IAEA.

Ambassador Akbaruddin has previously served at the Indian Mission to the United Nations as First Secretary(1995-98) during which he focused on UN Security Council Reform and Peace-Keeping. He was a member of the UN’s apex body the Advisory Committee on Administrative & Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) during 1997-98.

Ambassador Akbaruddin served as Counsellor at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad (1998-2000). During 2000-2004 he was the Consul General of India, Jeddah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and prior to that was First Secretary in Riyadh and Second Secretary/Third Secretary in Cairo, Egypt. He is proficient in Arabic.

Since his retirement Ambassador Akbaruddin has written extensively on issues of global governance, international order and multilateralism.

Ambassador Akbaruddin has a Master's Degree in Political Science and International Relations. He is married to Mrs. Padma Akbaruddin and they have two sons.

He is an avid and passionate sports enthusiast.