Report on the Second Thematic Meeting of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the Work of the General Assembly

By Alex Maresca
May 2014

On the 4th of April 2014, the Ad Hoc Working Group (AHWG) on the revitalization of the General Assembly held its second thematic meeting of the 68th session. The subject of the meeting was the working methods of the General Assembly.

During this session, representatives of the Main Committees were invited to brief the working group on their working methods. Following these presentations, several member states and regional groups delivered statements on the subject of working methods. This article first describes the presentations of the Main Committees and the ensuing discussion between member states and the committee representatives. Then it summarizes the major points addressed by member states and regional groups during the session.

As Co-Chair of the Ad Hoc Working Group, Ambassador Sinhaseni announced that the session would be devoted to improving the General Assembly’s working methods. He noted that last year’s decision to create a webpage on the revitalization of the Assembly had been implemented, and stated that the webpage must be continuously improved to make it more useful and user-friendly.

The Co-Chair observed that many nations stress that the Assembly should streamline and rationalize its agenda. However, he noted that each state must still be allowed to add or maintain items on the agenda.

In accordance with resolution 67-297, the Co-Chair informed member states that representatives from the Main Committees of the Assembly had been invited to brief the group on their working methods. The chairs of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth committees, as well as the Vice-Chairs of the Fifth and Sixth committees, were in attendance.

The Co-Chair explained that presentations by the representative of each committee would be followed by a question and answer session, making it possible for Member States to interact with the committees directly. The meeting would then proceed to general statements by Member States and regional groups, which will be described below.

Briefings by the Committee Representatives

With the exception of the Fifth Committee, every committee had addressed the reform of working methods during the 68th session. The First and Second Committees held meetings to discuss working method improvements, and the Sixth Committee had an annual exchange of ideas on the subject.

Several committees made use of papers and other documents to assist in the reform process. The First Committee created a non-paper to focus their discussion, and circulated a summary of the issues that had been addressed during their meeting. The Fourth Committee prepared a conference paper on working methods, which could be updated as needed at future sessions. Due to its heavy meeting schedule for the session, the Second Committee decided to develop a non-paper on working methods rather than schedule a series of meetings in-person.

Technology was used by many of the committees to improve communication. The Fourth Committee posted formal and informal documents on its password-protected website, including voting sheets and lists of the scheduled speakers of upcoming meetings. The Fourth Committee also utilized its own mailing list to forward documents, information on the timing of actions, and schedule changes. The First Committee posted unabridged versions of statements to an online “webportal.” The Third Committee created a full report on its working methods, which has been uploaded to the committee’s webpage. The Sixth Committee used a password-protected “e-room,” as well as Papersmart, to make documents electronically available for all committee members.

The committees also took steps to rationalize and streamline their agendas. The Second Committee made use of clustering, biennialization, triennialization, and omnibus resolutions. The Chair of the Third Committee noted that some resolutions had recently been biennialized and that further biennialization was likely; the Third Committee also clustered items on its agenda and planned to cluster additional items. The Sixth Committee had biennialized only certain items. The First and Fourth committees also made use of some of these devices.

The First, Third, and Fourth Committees mentioned that they had established time limits for speakers in order to improve the efficiency of their meetings.

The Fourth Committee informed the working group that it held interactive segments with high level members of the Secretariat in order to encourage more active participation and more lively debate. However, it also observed that levels of participation in these segments varied widely.

The Fifth Committee explained that acquiring necessary documentation was the greatest impediment to the committee’s work. The fact that documents were only provided in English could make it difficult to meet deadlines and ensure that meetings began and ended on time.

The Sixth Committee expressed concern about overlaps between the release dates of reports, which often require the attention of the same legal experts at the same time. For instance, the release of the latest ICC report coincided with other reports; this made it difficult for the committee to address these reports in a timely manner.

Questions for the Chairs and Vice-Chairs

Following the briefings, Member States and regional groups had the opportunity to pose questions to the representatives of the committees.

Greece asked whether there was any room for improvement in the relationship between the Secretariat and the Main Committees. It asked further if there were any recommendations that the AHWG could make that would enhance this relationship.

The European Union commended efforts towards rationalization, and asserted that streamlining the agenda had a clear positive impact. It asked how rationalization and streamlining could be achieved in a transparent, inclusive way, and in which venue it would be most appropriate for discussions about rationalization measures to take place. The EU further asked how the agenda could be streamlined in order to avoid duplication with other bodies in the UN system. In response to the presentation by the Vice-Chair of the Fifth Committee, the EU also felt that the working group should take a close look at the Fifth Committee’s working methods.

Responses from the Committees

Regarding Greece’s question, the Third Committee praised the Secretariat for its assistance to the committee, but stated that issues with the internal coordination of the Secretariat had occasionally led to delays. The committee felt that the most room for improvement could be found in the coordination between committees with similar priorities. The First Committee noted that while the committee was in daily contact with the Secretariat, he believed that new procedures could allow the committee to take better advantage of the Secretariat’s institutional memory.

The First, Second, and Fourth committees drew attention to the contentiousness surrounding the streamlining of the agenda. The First Committee explained that the main concern was that biennialization and triennialization would infringe on the sovereignty of member states by restricting their right to raise concerns in the Assembly. The Second Committee observed that although biennialization saves time, many states felt that it was vital for their country to be able to bring issues to the Assembly’s attention.

The Fourth Committee noted that the purpose of the General Assembly is not simply to tally votes; rather, the Assembly serves as a forum for discussions of importance to the international community. The committee suggested that the General Committee could contribute to the process of streamlining the agenda.

The Fourth Committee agreed with the EU that duplication should be eliminated, but believed that this could be done by restricting ECOSOC to “technical” issues in the area of economic and social affairs. The First Committee additionally demonstrated concern that resolutions were being passed in the Human Rights Council and other bodies before being brought to the General Assembly. The committee stated that it was illogical for concerns to come before these subsidiary bodies prior to being addressed in the “main” body, the General Assembly.

The First Committee supported side events, particularly those which brought in experts. It was observed, however, that this was not provided for in the budget. However, the Second Committee was concerned that there were too many side events, which repeated the same material.

The First, Second, and Third Committees were in favor of holding elections earlier for committee chairs. The Second Committee emphasized that incoming bureaus should be established as soon as possible in order to coordinate with outgoing members, and proposed June as a deadline for determining the incoming bureaus. The Third Committee observed that the lateness of elections during the last session had been a “major handicap” to the committee’s work.

The First Committee noted that specific agenda items were often responsible for delays, and suggested that addressing these issues at the beginning of the session could be a “game changer.” For instance, while the budget of the Fifth Committee was only dealt with at the end of the session, it might be better to set the budget at the beginning.

The Third Committee noted that discussions sometimes took longer than the anticipated time and expressed concern that when discussions started to run late, some member states would propose that the conversation continue entirely in English. This contradicted the equality of languages in the UN.

The Second Committee believed the time had come to establish a working group to resolve the issue of the status of the European Union in the Assembly. Noting that legal counsel would be required to interpret the relevant resolution, it was proposed that a small committee of legal counsel be established. Such a committee could generate a proposal within four to five meetings.

The Fifth Committee emphasized that it was reluctant to speak because it had not formally addressed working methods. However, receiving documentation late as well as having a broad spectrum of issues falling under its purview were obstacles to the committee’s work.

Following these responses, the Co-Chairs turned to the list of speakers for the session. An account of the statements made by member states and regional groups during this session is provided below.

Prior to the second thematic meeting of the ad hoc working group, co-chairs and Ambassadors Sinhaseni and Ružička circulated a letter offering suggestions for topics to be considered within the second cluster. Several representatives thanked the co-chairs for this letter, describing it as a “platform for discussion”. During the second half of the session, twelve speakers took the floor to state their positions on these and other topics pertaining to working methods.

The NAM welcomed the practice of inviting the chairs of the main committees to brief the Assembly, stating that it led to more interactive discussions. The NAM, the EU, the Russian Federation, Uruguay and Japan supported the proposal to hold Security Council and ECOSOC elections earlier than October. The EU and Japan felt that working methods was the area most likely to make substantive progress as a result of the ad hoc working group.

There was some dispute over practices which remove items from the agenda, such as biennialization and triennialization. The EU, US, Russian Federation, and Japan valued the streamlining effect of these measures on the agenda; however, there was a lack of consensus among the states affiliated with the NAM. While Malaysia stated that it would consider biennialization and triennialization, India and Cuba emphasized that no item could be removed from the agenda without the consent of the sponsoring state. Claiming that resolution 301 had already resolved the question of biennialization, Cuba asserted that agenda items should not be removed “arbitrarily” for the sake of brevity.

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)

Speaking on behalf of the NAM, Algeria argued that working methods were of a “political,” rather than purely “technical,” nature. It urged that deliberations on this issue be as inclusive as possible.

The NAM observed that debates in the Assembly give visibility to nations. It emphasized that the scheduling of side events should be undertaken carefully, so that these do not overshadow debate in the Assembly.

The NAM expressed concern about the use of electronic, paperless technologies such as Papersmart to distribute official documents. Although the NAM acknowledged that Papersmart could reduce waste, it insisted that hard copies continue to be distributed by both mail and fax to ensure that all states had access to the necessary materials.

Following this statement, six states affiliated with the Non-Aligned Movement also delivered remarks in their national capacity. These nations were Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Guyana, Belarus and Cuba.

India and Cuba emphasized that working method reforms ought to enhance the role of the General Assembly. Cuba claimed that certain states use the Council to circumvent transparent debate in the Assembly. It argued that this practice also pertains to working methods and ought to be addressed in the working group.

Belarus commended the fourth committee’s practice of inviting Secretariat personnel to informal drafting sessions as well as formal meetings. It felt that other committees could benefit from establishing this practice.

Regarding the establishment of a long term rotation scheme for committee chairs and rapporteurs, Malaysia noted that when a scheme was chosen it should be faithfully adhered to by all, unless some system of swapping positions was devised. Belarus felt that the working group was the best forum in which to develop a long term solution. It noted that the current proposed scheme would not resolve the issue of the rotation of rapporteurs. Indonesia emphasized that although a longer term scheme has benefits, it can also become outdated in the face of changing geopolitical realities. It stressed that any rotation scheme ought to remain flexible.

Guyana suggested that the working group consider an election date for committee chairs of nine to twelve months in advance. This would more closely resemble the election process in ECOSOC, which takes place seven to ten months prior to the start of session.

Noting that it had benefited from the use of technology in its own electoral processes, India stated that the Assembly would also benefit from increased use of technology in this area.

Belarus was concerned about “outdated practices” in the Assembly, and offered two specific proposals on the issue. First, it suggested that all official documents, particularly the Journal of the UN, be made available in all official languages year-round. It asked that the Secretariat comment on the finances and personal needed to implement this proposal. Second, Belarus stated that all high level events in September and October could be moved to the spring.

Guyana encouraged serious consideration of the scheduling of high level events, in terms of both number and distribution throughout the year. It suggested that a means to review proposals for such events be devised in order to prevent overscheduling. Indonesia proposed that a mechanism be established to monitor the success of high level events.

European Union

The European Union observed that the situation in Ukraine has illustrated that the General Assembly requires a more active role in peace and security.

Acknowledging the controversy over biennialization and triennialization, the EU called for “flexibility” from member states on this issue, and proposed that the General Committee be used as a venue for discussion. It further asked that the co-chairs meet with the Secretariat in order to identify the agenda items which are the best candidates for biennialization and triennialization.

The EU proposed that a second high level week could be held in the spring, featuring high level events concentrated around a major theme. This could be accomplished by the 70th session.

The EU emphasized the importance of interaction between the Secretariat and the Assembly’s committees. Greater interaction between these entities would make it possible to assess the costs of proposals earlier. The EU also urged the timely election of committee chairs. Calling for a decision on a permanent rotation scheme, it suggested that the Assembly set a specific date by which the rotation scheme would be determined.

Regarding the internet, the EU stressed the parity of the official languages of the UN. It thanked the Secretariat for creating a multilingual website dedicated to the revitalization of the General Assembly “within existing resources”.

Other Member States

The Russian Federation remarked that although it was often said that working methods were political rather than technical, the Assembly was unlikely to acquire more political authority until it improved its technical performance.

The Russian Federation observed that scheduling too many high level meetings can overwhelm delegations, and proposed that high level meetings be systematically stretched out throughout the session. The Russian Federation would consider the proposal to create a second high level week.

Regarding the early election of Security Council members, the Russian Federation supported the proposal but emphasized that materials must be promptly made available in all official languages.

The Russian Federation expressed concern that when a measure failed to pass the Security Council it was sometimes resurrected in the Assembly. This undermined the division of labor between the Assembly and the Council established by the UN charter.

The United States argued that the Assembly’s overburdened agenda undermines its authority. It underscored the need to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency in the Assembly’s work.

For this purpose, the US offered several suggestions for the working group, including establishing a sunset clause on certain agenda items; discouraging resolutions on dated topics; keeping statements in the Assembly succinct; using clustering and omnibus resolutions to streamline the agenda; adhering to deadlines, starting on time and providing more advanced notice; creating a meeting schedule that allows for broader state participation; and establishing meetings between heads of UN bodies before sessions.

Japan proposed that the working group consider other methods including the General Committee for further streamlining. It was in favor of enhancing the coordination of high level meetings, and believed that the proposal to hold high level meetings in the spring should be discussed.

Japan also stated that the use of electronic services should be encouraged while also ensuring that documents are available to everyone.

Uruguay understood the interim decision 68-505 as a platform on which to work towards a more permanent rotation scheme. Noting that the working group document includes other proposals for a rotation system, Uruguay insisted that any revision to the rotation scheme must be subject to discussion in regional groups before it is addressed in the ad hoc working group.

Following these remarks, Ambassador and Co-Chair Sinhaseni summarized some of the primary issues raised by the member states and regional groups. The next meeting of the ad hoc working group, which will address the process of selecting the Secretary General, will take place April 28, 2014.