Multilateralism and international cooperation are needed to ensure less developed countries can adequately address the enormous challenges posed by the COVID‑19 pandemic, experts told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates engaged with them in animated virtual discussions covering the right to development and the use of unilateral coercive measures.
During the virtual dialogues, which spanned half a day, delegates broke into two camps, with some emphatically denouncing the use of unilateral coercive measures under the pretext of supporting human rights, while others steadfastly advocated for their continued use.
Alena Douhan, Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, underscored her commitment to the goal of minimizing the impact of unilateral sanctions, which could hamper the delivery of, and access to, medical equipment needed to combat COVID‑19. Companies and banks around the globe refuse to deal with sanctioned countries, fearing the secondary impact of these measures, she said, touching on their adverse effects in Cuba, Syria and Iran, leading to fewer resources and inadequate medical equipment.
Turning to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, she repeatedly insisted that humanitarian exemptions do not work, and that calls to lift sanctions have regrettably had little impact. Many countries have refused to lift them, while others have actively enlarged them, including the United States through its Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (Caesar Act), she explained, stressing that the common use of these measures does not make them legal.
When the floor opened for questions and comments, many delegates took the opportunity to excoriate sanction-imposing countries, notably the United States. Syria’s representative characterized humanitarian exemptions as “mere propaganda” and rejected the notion that coercive measures imposed by Washington, D.C., against his country were “targeted” in nature. The representative of Zimbabwe, noting that his country has long been a target, said the imposition of sanctions during the pandemic has exposed the hypocrisy of the “self-appointed human rights referees of the world”.
Meanwhile, Zamir Akram, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the Right to Development, said that he outlined a draft legally binding instrument on the right to development, with the help of a new “drafting group” comprising five internationally recognized, diverse experts. Upon a review by representatives from across the world’s geographical regions, a second iteration was developed. This draft convention is now available on the website of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), he said.
Also presenting his report before the Committee was Saad Alfarargi, Special Rapporteur on the right to development, who discussed the international dimensions of financing for development policies through the lens of the right to development. His report includes a survey of international and multilateral responses to the global economic impact of COVID‑19, enumerating steps taken by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Monday, 19 October, to continue its consideration of the promotion and protection of human rights.
Interactive Dialogues — Right to Development
In the morning, the Committee heard three presentations on the broad theme of human rights, beginning with a discussion on the right to development. It first heard a video presentation by Zamir Akram, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the Right to Development, and subsequently held an interactive discussion.
Mr. AKRAM said that, while the Working Group was unable to meet as scheduled in May because of the COVID‑19 pandemic, it is due to meet in November. Recalling that it was tasked in 2019 with developing a draft legally binding instrument on the right to development, he said it has put together a new “drafting group” comprising five internationally recognized, diverse experts representing a strong gender and geographic balance. The group received input from Member States in response to a detailed questionnaire they received, seeking their views on various elements of the right to development. The group’s initial draft was reviewed by a set of representatives from across the world’s geographical regions, and a second iteration was developed. That draft convention is now available on the OHCHR website.
Expressing his hope that the Working Group will begin its consideration of the draft instrument at its November session, he said the current draft contains a preambular section, as well as 36 articles divided into five parts. Among other things, he said, it contains a series of definitions, including of the draft principles to be covered by the convention and of the responsibilities of duty-bearers. It draws significantly from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the nine related human rights conventions, and focuses more on laying down rights and general obligations, than on details that may be subsequently elaborated by a future Conference of States Parties. Describing the draft as a “work in progress”, he noted that both the convention and the principles to be contained therein remain controversial. As such, he pledged to consider all views and voiced his hope that a draft convention will be ultimately sent to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly for their approval and adoption.
In the ensuing dialogue, many speakers noted that the poorest countries have been among the hardest hit by COVID‑19, which continues to widen inequality. Several delegates pointed out that developing countries are now facing increasing debt, collapsing trade and other serious challenges. Many expressed hope that, despite all those challenges, the pandemic may ultimately lead countries to look more favourably on the elaboration of a legally binding instrument on the right to development.
The representative of Venezuela described the right to development as an ethical obligation that has been made all the more urgent by COVID‑19. Noting that the pandemic stands in the way of realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, he called for a response led by “true multilateralism”, which does not include any politicization or double standards. Underlining Venezuela’s rejection of unilateral coercive sanctions, he asked Mr. Akram for his views on that matter in the context of COVID‑19, pointing out that sanctions are preventing his country from accessing the resources needed to combat the pandemic and continue to block people around the globe from fully realizing their right to development.
The representative of Cuba echoed those sentiments, stressing that unilateral coercive measures imposed against his country by the United States for decades have hampered Cuba’s development. Indeed, some rich countries — including the United States — continue to deny the very existence of the right to development, which threatens their status.
The representative of Malaysia was among those speakers who warned that decades of development progress are being eroded by COVID‑19. He called on the United Nations human rights system to continue to pursue a legally binding instrument enshrining the right to development, and called on all Member States to engage fully in that process.
China’s representative also welcomed the elaboration of a convention on the right to development, describing it as a universal, inalienable and basic human right. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner and treaty bodies should incorporate the right into their work as a top priority, he said.
Also speaking were representatives of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria and Azerbaijan.
Financing for Development
SAAD ALFARARGI, Special Rapporteur on the right to development, said his report (document A/HRC/45/15) addresses the international dimensions of financing for development policies and practices from the perspective of the right to development. He outlined key areas explored in the report: the incorporation of participation, consent and information access into the practices of development finance institutions and multilateral development banks; issues pertaining to domestic and international resource mobilization, including illicit financial and public-private partnership; and fostering international cooperation through intergovernmental dialogues on financing for development and tax cooperation, held by the United Nations. Further, the report surveys international and multilateral responses to the global economic impact of COVID‑19, enumerating steps taken by the IMF and the World Bank, and touching on concerns about their scale and effectiveness. He went on to underscore the urgent need for financing in developing countries, in particular African countries, “which lack the fiscal space for an adequate health and financial response”.
In the ensuing dialogue, several delegates professed their support for the Special Rapporteur’s mandate, with many expressing their frustrations with unilateral coercive measures, which impede countries’ abilities to exercise their right to development. The representative of Cuba said the United States is politicizing the COVID‑19 crisis, by withdrawing from the World Health Organization (WHO) and continuing to impose unilateral coercive measures on his country. He asked for an analysis of the short- and long-term impact of such measures.
Echoing such concerns, the representative of Syria said sanctions by some countries contravene principles outlined in the Charter of the United Nations and constitute “economic terrorism”. The United States’ imposition of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act during the pandemic is one such example, she said.
The representative of the Russian Federation said he did not entirely agree that the principles of multilateralism need to be renewed at the United Nations. “They are not outdated, some individual States just interpret the law according to their narrow geopolitical interests,” he said, urging the Special Rapporteur to pay attention to such behaviour.
Meanwhile, speaking out against such concerns, an observer for the European Union said human rights standards remain important. It is not advisable to ignore differing views on the issue, moving ahead with a legal instrument that does not enjoy wide support. Noting her opposition to a strong legal instrument on the right to development, she asked about what might promote consensus and lead to a mutually agreeable outcome on the issue.
The representative of Cameroon, speaking on behalf of the African Group, said it is necessary to “remove all obstacles” so States can exercise their inalienable right to development. Welcoming the Special Rapporteur’s comments on issues related to foreign debt, he asked if cooperation could be enhanced between the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and others, including the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights.
Mr. ALFARARGI, responding briefly to questions about mitigating the impact of the pandemic and helping States from the global South recover, said his report outlines good measures taken by some multilateral development banks, adding that they should align with the 2030 Agenda and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development. Public development banks should deliver policies that ensure harmonization with gender equality, direct their resources towards productive sectors at national and global levels, improve social and human rights safeguards, and promote stability by playing a counter-cyclical role. To questions about how the United Nations can play a role in financing development, he pointed to a recommendation in his report that calls for establishing an inclusive intergovernmental United Nations tax body, with resources to address illicit financial flows in order to foster domestic resource mobilization. “Developing countries more than ever need to rely on a global financial safety net,” he stressed, adding that he will further expand on guidelines that address the practical implications of the right to development.
Also participating in the debate were representatives of Malaysia, Venezuela, Iran, China, Algeria and Ethiopia.
Unilateral Coercive Measures
ALENA DOUHAN, Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, introduced her first thematic report to the Committee, which focuses on the impact of unilateral sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights in the course of the COVID‑19 pandemic (document A/75/209). “The pandemic is challenging the whole system of human rights,” she said. Since taking up her post earlier this year, she has stood committed to the goal of minimizing the impact of unilateral sanctions, which might hamper the delivery of, and access to, medical equipment needed to combat the pandemic. She repeatedly insisted that humanitarian exemptions do not work. Regrettably, those calls have had little impact and many countries still refuse to lift their sanctions. The United States has even enlarged its unilateral measures, including by attempting to accuse China of causing COVID‑19 and expanding its Caesar Act.
Describing the challenges faced by countries including Cuba, Syria and Iran as a result of sanctions, she said in recent months those have included scant resources, limited medical equipment and few testing supplies. Companies and banks around the globe refuse to deal with sanctioned countries, fearing the secondary impact of sanctions, which in turn impedes their ability to combat the pandemic and protect their populations. Women, children, refugees and migrants remain the most affected. Turning to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, she said humanitarian exemptions to sanctions must not be administered based on a “permission” standard, but should instead place the burden of proof on States that seek to block aid. “I call on all States to make the right choice between saving lives and pursuing political interests,” she stressed.
In the ensuing dialogue, many delegates voiced deep concern over the spiralling negative impact of sanctions amid the COVID‑19 pandemic and expressed frustration that — despite repeated pleas from many corners of the international community — States remain unwilling to lift sanctions, even as an extraordinary compassionate measure. Many asked Ms. Douhan to outline what can be done next to compel or force those States to change their policies.
The representative of Zimbabwe, noting that his country is among those long targeted by sanctions, said the pandemic has exposed the hypocrisy of the “self-appointed human rights referees of this world”. Instead of improving living standards, sanctions drive millions of people deeper into poverty and prevent them from realizing their rights. He asked what can be done — given the long-standing intransigence of those countries that impose sanctions — to move beyond such measures in the future.
Syria’s representative rejected the notion that the coercive measures imposed by the United States against his country are “targeted” in nature. Similarly, so-called humanitarian exemptions are mere propaganda, serving as a pretext to impose sanctions against an entire population, she said.
The representative of Venezuela echoed those concerns, calling for a resolution to be adopted in the General Assembly on the negative impact of unilateral, coercive economic sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights during the COVID‑19 pandemic.
Ms. DOUHAN replied that she and other Special Rapporteurs face challenges related the Human Rights Council’s budget, and called for its appropriate financing. Noting that people living in countries targeted by sanctions are often not aware of the conditions affecting them, she said sanctions are usually introduced under the guise of “punishing someone bad” and making the situation better for people on the ground. Therefore, her mandate requires a significant amount of awareness-raising. While she cannot answer the question of why States refuse to lift their sanctions, she said the United Nations seeks to ensure that ignorance of their negative impact cannot serve as an excuse. She also raised the possibility of using the United Nations as a “platform for dialogue and negotiation” between sanctioning and sanctioned countries, with full respect for the provisions of international law.
Also speaking were representatives of the Russian Federation, Cuba, Iran, Belarus, Malaysia, Azerbaijan, Nicaragua and China.