The United Nations General Assembly began its yearly session on 17 September under the leadership of Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility of Ecuador. In her opening statement she called for stronger global leadership to ensure more peaceful, equitable and sustainable societies. She said that her priorities were contained in the acronym DARE meaning delivery, accountability, relevance and efficiency. The President of the General Assembly is elected for one year. Thus President Espinosa will provide leadership until September 2019, facing continuing challenges to the world society such as climate change, migration, persistent poverty, and armed conflicts. In addition, she said “I am also prepared to facilitate quick and effective responses of the General Assembly to emergency situations as they arise – unfortunately they will arise.”
In fact, emergency situations arise more quickly than expected. Both deal with the same structural issue – how does the U.N. General Assembly deal with agreements among Member States in which the General Assembly played no role. Nevertheless, the agreements have an impact on States that were not party to the agreement. Now that the agreements are in danger, what is the role of the General Assembly and its President?
The first test starts Monday 24 September and will consider the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) more commonly called the Iran Nuclear Deal. The crux of the compromise agreement was that Iran would restrain its nuclear program – especially aspects that could have military uses in return for the relaxation of economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.
The US Government, a major player in the agreement, has now withdrawn, seriously weakening the whole agreement. The other U.N. Security Council members and Germany, parties to the agreement, have indicated a willingness to continue the agreement, but all recognize that the application of the agreement is on unsteady ground.
To make matters even more complicated on 5 November, an aspect of the U.S. sanctions policy will come into force: any firm in the world trading with Iran will be unable to use U.S. financial institutions or trade in U.S. dollars. Since a large number of firms deal with the USA and use U.S. financial facilities, the U.S. sanctions policy can have wide application. Already in anticipation of the 5 November start, firms have withdrawn trade agreements with Iran. How the U.N. General Assembly deals with this issue will be a test case for both the General Assembly leadership and for “world public opinion”.
The second test case is the agreement between Russia and Turkey concerning a demilitarized zone near Idlib in Syria close to the Turkish frontier. Both Iran and the Syrian Government led by Bachar Al-Assad are directly impacted by the agreement. The U.N. General Assembly played no direct role in the negotiations of the agreement: Iran, Turkey, Russia being the chief negotiators. The United States and France which have military operations in Syria are concerned as is Israel which is concerned with all that goes on in Syria.
Idlib Governorate has a fairly dense population which has increased considerably with people displaced from other cities and combat zones. In a number of cases, ceasefire agreements had been reached to allow some of the population in these other zones and insurgents to withdraw to Idlib.
There is a wide-spread fear that if there is an attack by Russian and Syrian Government forces within Idlib, there could be a large flow of refugees toward Turkey. To prevent this potential flow toward Turkey, the Turkish government has heavily increased its troops in the frontier zone. Turkey then entered into negotiations with Russia to create a “safe-demilitarized zone” into which the insurgents, having put down their arms, could enter.
However, the different insurgent, opposition movements were not directly involved in the negotiations, and today say that they are not bound by the agreement among governments.
Thus, in a dramatic way, the role of non-governmental armed groups comes to the fore. The United Nations was created to facilitate negotiations and agreement among Member States. A small door was opened through the Charter for a consultative status with ECOSOC for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs had to be accepted by a committee of government representatives. Such consultative status was to be for well-established NGOs and not opposed by the government in which they had their headquarters.
However, since the 1990 end of the Cold War, the role of armed non-governmental forces has grown. U.N. mediators and Special Rapporteurs of the U.N. Council on Human Rights have recognized this fact and have discussed at times with the representatives of armed groups. Nevertheless, the U.N. General Assembly is still government-focused. Syria and Idlib is a crucial example of the new forms of armed conflict. What will be done – or left undone – by the General Assembly needs to be watched closely.
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