By Alex Maresca
On the 4th of March 2014, the Ad Hoc Working Group (AHWG) on the revitalization of the General Assembly held its first meeting of the 68th session. Established by resolution 67-297, the working group will address four “clusters” pertaining to revitalization: 1) the role of the General Assembly and its relationship to other bodies of the UN; 2) the working methods of the Assembly; 3) the process of selecting the Secretary General; and 4) the institutional memory of the Office of the President of the General Assembly.
Ambassador František Ružička of Slovakia and Ambassador Norachit Sinhaseni of Thailand were appointed Co-Chairs of the Ad Hoc Working Group. In this opening session, member states and regional groups discussed their main priorities and concerns to be addressed by the AHWG. This article summarizes the key points made during the session.
At the beginning of the first meeting, the President of the General Assembly, John W. Ashe, delivered a statement in which he emphasized that the Assembly is the “chief deliberative, policymaking and representative organ” of the UN. The President discussed the value of the institutional memory of the Office of the President, and proposed that the Assembly grant the Council of Presidents observer status in order to benefit from its “collective wisdom.”
The president suggested that the working group pay particular attention to two proposals: asking the Secretary-General to present the biennial budget to the Fifth Committee during the first week of a new session; and holding elections for ECOSOC and the Security Council in June rather than October. He also mentioned several of his own initiatives to improve coordination between the Assembly and other organs of the UN system.
After the President concluded his statement, Ambassador Sinhaseni commended the efforts of Ambassador Khalil of Egypt, the chair of the working group during the 67th session. He explained that a thematic debate would be scheduled for each of the working group’s four clusters, and desired that these debates address both general and specific practical concerns.
Ambassador Ružička observed that informal conversations with member states have indicated “encouraging trends.” For instance, many seemed to support earlier elections for ECOSOC and non-permanent Security Council members.
Ambassador Ružička stated that the ad hoc working group would review the current inventory on the status of implementation of mandates as part of its work. He also noted that a webpage for revitalization is now on the General Assembly website.
Following the remarks by the co-chairs, a total of fifteen speakers took the floor. Several representatives, including the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Japan, and the European Union, proposed that the selection of the Secretary-General be made more “transparent” and “inclusive.” Egypt in particular hoped to achieve reform in this area before the election process began, at which point it would become “controversial.” While China and the NAM called for increasing the budget of the Office of the President, Japan and the European Union insisted that the Office of the President be strengthened using existing resources.
The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)
Speaking on behalf of NAM, Algeria underscored the importance of strengthening the General Assembly in its role as the chief policymaking body of the United Nations. The NAM objected to what it perceived as encroachment by the Security Council on topics falling under the mandate of the Assembly, which includes legislative, administrative and budgetary issues. Overall, the NAM called for strict respect for the prerogatives of the General Assembly.
The NAM emphasized that improving working methods is not an end in itself; rather, such reform is desirable only to the extent that it strengthens the role and authority of the Assembly in the UN system. To this end, it called for the continued review of the inventory of mandates. The NAM asked that the inventory on the status of mandates be updated to include new items, and requested that the Secretary General provide updates on mandates which had not yet been implemented.
Regarding the main committees of the Assembly, the NAM stated that committee chairs should be elected three months in advance of the start of their appointment. The NAM sought a more transparent and streamlined regional rotation scheme for the selection of committee chairs. Such a scheme should be adhered to by all member states.
Following this statement, nine states affiliated with NAM also delivered remarks in their national capacity. These nations were Malaysia, India, Belarus, Egypt, Qatar, Guyana, Indonesia, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Qatar, Indonesia, Venezuela, India and Malaysia reiterated the NAM’s concerns about encroachment by the Security Council. Egypt remarked that encroachment by ECOSOC was also a serious problem, particularly on issues of sustainable development.
Egypt, Guyana, and Qatar underscored that existing mandates must be fully implemented.
Guyana emphasized that for smaller states, the General Assembly was often the only venue in which they could voice their concerns. Belarus proposed that the Secretariat create channels for the dissemination of information, and suggested that it conduct an analysis of the consequences of adopted decisions.
Cuba asserted that the NAM represented the views of the majority of member states. It condemned what it described as efforts by “certain member states” to circumvent the General Assembly by raising issues in the Security Council, describing this as a flagrant violation of the UN charter.
The European Union
The European Union welcomed efforts to improve the visibility of the General Assembly, as well as transparency in how the Assembly operates and how its resources are used. It suggested that building stronger relationships with the private sector and the media could be a means to achieve this end.
The EU underscored the importance of rationalizing the Assembly’s agenda, and was particularly concerned with eliminating duplication with other UN bodies. The EU suggested that cooperation between the incoming and outgoing Presidents of the Assembly could be beneficial in order to strengthen the Office’s institutional memory.
Regarding the election of committee chairs, the EU expressed support for the regional rotation scheme in place for the next five years. The EU was also in favor of the early election of ECOSOC and Security Council members.
Other Member States
The United States prioritized efforts to make the General Assembly more “focused” and “relevant.” It encouraged the Assembly to “work smarter” by setting hard deadlines and possibly clustering agenda items at longer intervals.
The US further asked that the working group consider previous US proposals, such as discontinuing the practice of adopting resolutions on “dated” measures. It called for follow-up on mandates that have not yet been implemented.
The Russian Federation stated that revitalization proposals should concentrate on the Assembly’s own working methods and agenda. It asserted that the Assembly should not try to change the working methods of other organs of the UN, particularly the Security Council.
The Russian Federation encouraged the practices of biennialization and triennialization in order to streamline the agenda. It also suggested that the number of high level events during the busiest times of the year be restricted, and that these events be distributed more evenly throughout the year.
China stated that the Assembly should bring its policy-making role to the forefront in order to better fulfill its mandate. In particular, the Assembly should focus on issues of development, which China claimed were widely shared among the Assembly’s membership.
China proposed that coordination between the Assembly and the Security Council on peace and security issues be strengthened. It expressed the desirability of fostering an “action-oriented culture” within the General Assembly.
Japan felt that improving working methods was the area in which the most progress could be achieved this session. It hoped to rationalize the work of the Assembly and the Main Committees, and to streamline the agenda through measures such as clustering, biennialization and triennialization.
Japan also observed that the Assembly can play a complementary role to the Security Council on peace and security issues when the Council is unable to carry out its duties.
Following these statements, the co-chair of the AHWG summarized the major themes of the discussion. The first thematic meeting of the AHWG, regarding the role and authority of the General Assembly, would be held on the 21st of March.