UN General Assembly Special Session: Transformation or Continuation of the Status Quo?
By Elena Marmo
The General Assembly (GA) will host its 31st Special session in response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on 3 and 4 December 2020. The UN Charter (Chapter IV, article 20) provides for the General Assembly to meet in special sessions which can be “convoked by the Secretary-General at the request of the Security Council or of a majority of the Members of the United Nations.”
UN special sessions are unusual, this will be 31st in the life of the UN and only the sixth since 2000. As the COVID-19 pandemic’s widespread effects range across development, peace, security, and socioeconomic affairs, there is no doubt about the special measures that the global community must address to confront the global pandemic.
This Special Session has been called at the level of Heads of State and Government to examine the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will feature a presentation and interactive dialogue led by the World Health Organization Director-General. The programme will consist of an Opening Session & General Debate on 3 December, and an interactive dialogue and 3 panels on the following topics: The UN System Response to COVID-19; The Road to a COVID-19 Vaccine – a Global Public Good; Resilience and Recovering Better from COVID-19. The meeting will be webcast on UNWebTV for live and on-demand viewing, with translation in the six official UN languages. Statements from the General Debate on 3 December can also be found on the UN Journal.
Throughout the year, Member States have been presented with the challenge to decide whether to postpone or press on. The pandemic has exposed major structural inadequacies compounding those of climate degradation, rising inequalities, a rollback on women’s rights worldwide, and inadequate social protection and fiscal space due to austerity measures and unsustainable debt. As news regarding vaccine development becomes more promising, this Special Session is expected to discuss distribution, within which inequalities have been exposed and will likely be exacerbated if the international community fails to deliver a global public good, free, accessible and available to all.
COVID-19 Vaccine: A Global Public Good?
The issue of a vaccine as a global public good will be a main feature of the agenda of the Special Session. The meeting will host, on 4 December, a dialogue with WHO Director-General and a thematic segment titled, “The Road to a COVID-19 Vaccine – a Global Public Good”.
The Special Session will receive various inputs to the process, including a statement by the Secretary-General as requested in Resolution 75/4. This statement must include “information about the implementation of the relevant General Assembly resolutions on the COVID-19 pandemic, including but not limited to, access to vaccines and medical equipment to face the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Among the resolutions adopted thus far is the COVID-19 Omnibus Resolution (A/74/306) titled “Comprehensive and Coordinated Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic”. It was adopted in September 2020 by a recorded vote of 169 in favor to 2 against (Israel, United States), with 2 abstentions (Hungary, Ukraine). These discussions are expected to continue at the Special Session of the General Assembly on 3 and 4 December.
The Omnibus Resolution highlights, on the role of Intellectual Property Rights and accessibility to vaccines and therapeutics, citing the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement), “which recognizes that intellectual property rights should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of the right of Member States to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all, and notes the need for appropriate incentives in the development of new health products”.
This comes despite calls from Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and UN Leadership for a People’s Vaccine, free from Intellectual Property Rights but rather classified as a global public good. A CSO Sign-on letter called on decision-makers to waive certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement to ensure any vaccine could be a Global Public Good, also known as a People’s Vaccine. A proposal by South Africa and India has been brought to the WTO but is currently being met with resistance from many states. To this end, Winnie Byanyima, Director of UNAIDS recently noted, “we are seeing at least 9 candidate COVID-19 vaccines, but the rich countries are booking them out for themselves and leaving just crumbs for the poorer countries. That’s why we need a People’s Vaccine”. This call has also been bolstered by a statement by UN Human Rights Experts calling for universal access to vaccines is essential for prevention and containment of COVID-19.
Joint ECOSOC & GA meeting – Calls for a global public good
At the joint ECOSOC and GA meeting on 1 December, calls for a vaccine to be deemed a global public good were made by the President of ECOSOC, Argentina, Antigua and Barbuda on behalf of the Latin America and Caribbean Group, and Guyana on behalf of the Group of 77 and China. Comments also called on the upcoming Special Session to take action in this regard.
The President of ECOSOC highlighted, “We must make the world’s financial trade and technology regimes more fair and equal unless the poorer countries are helped to control COVID and revive economic growth. The world will be unable to overcome the triple challenge it confronts: the virus, the recession and the existential threat posed by climate change. I hope that a special session of the General Assembly later this week will effectively address the COVID crisis in all its dimensions.”
The Permanent Representative of Argentina reiterated the call for a global public good: “We must implement measures for the vulnerable groups who are suffering situations of structural inequalities that preexisted the pandemic in the same spirit of solidarity. It’s crucial that the vaccine produced to prevent the disease must be a global public good, accessible to all nations on an equal footing.”
In closing the meeting, the President of the GA urged: “I believe that in the international community, in our hearts, we all know what we have to do. It is up to us collectively to do it.”