Third Committee Approves Six Drafts on Pandemic Response, Refugees and Persons with Disabilities, amid Contentious Debate around Consensus Language
In a half day of intense action, held in-person, the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) approved six draft resolutions, including two on the advancement of women, which touched on the topical theme of the pandemic.
The Committee approved, without a vote, a draft that proposes to enlarge the Executive Committee of the Programme of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which would increase the number of members from 106 States to 107 States. Further, it would request the Economic and Social Council to elect the additional member at a meeting of its management segment in 2021.
When passing two resolutions on the theme of advancement of women and girls, in the context of the pandemic, the Committee found itself amid a quagmire of proposed amendments, almost all of them it proceeded to reject.
A draft resolution on strengthening national and international rapid response to the impact of COVID‑19 on women and girls was approved without a vote, after it was orally revised to accommodate one proposed amendment, and after two other amendments were rejected by Member States. All amendments were proposed by the representative of the United States, who sought to delete references to WHO and sexual and reproductive health care services. By the draft, the Assembly would urge Member States to take effective measures to prevent and respond to the increase of violence against women and girls amid the COVID‑19 pandemic by integrating evidence-based prevention, response and protection measures.
On similar lines, the Committee also approved a draft resolution on women and girls and the response to COVID‑19. Before doing so, it tackled — and summarily rejected — six amendments brought forth by delegates from the Russian Federation and the United States. By its terms, the Assembly would urge Member States to prevent, respond to and eliminate violence — including sexual and gender-based violence, in particular domestic violence and, including in digital contexts, harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage, female genital mutilations and trafficking in persons — by designating protection and health care services as essential services for all women and girls.
The representative of Spain, introducing the draft, said it provided guidance for urgent action on a crucial subject, which has not been covered elsewhere in the United Nations. It underscores the role of women and girls as agents for a solution to the pandemic and addresses the need to strengthen their human rights. Paraphrasing the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, he said women’s rights are the first to be called into question during a crisis, including a health crisis, and called on everyone to “remain alert” and not allow the pandemic to reverse hard-won progress on gender equality.
Among other drafts approved by consensus was one on the “Follow-up to the Second World Assembly on Ageing”, introduced by the representative of Guyana on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China. By its terms, the Assembly would urge Member States to develop, implement and evaluate policies and programmes that promote healthy and active ageing and the highest attainable standard of health and well-being for older persons.
Also approved today were draft resolutions on the follow-up to the twentieth anniversary of the International Year of the Family and on inclusive development for and with persons with disabilities.
The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Monday, 16 November, to continue its work.
The Committee then took up the draft resolution titled “Follow-up to the Second World Assembly on Ageing” (document A/C.3/75/L.2), which the Chair noted has no programme budget implications.
The representative of Guyana presented draft “L.2” on behalf of the Group of 77, noting that its purpose has become even more relevant, as the COVID‑19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, discrimination and challenges faced by older persons. The text highlights that older persons have long been subjected to inadequate protection of their human rights and overlooked in national policies and programmes, increasing their vulnerability. This draft testifies to the importance of age-inclusive implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, she asserted.
The representative of the United States, noting that his country joined consensus on “L.2”, read out a statement that applies to all agenda items. “All resolutions are non-binding documents that do not create rights or obligations under international law,” he said, noting that the United States’ co-sponsorship of draft resolutions or joining of consensus does not imply endorsement. The United States leads the global response to COVID‑19, having allocated $20.5 billion to the development of vaccines and therapeutics, preparedness efforts and foreign assistance. The United States is committed to promoting women’s equality and does not consider the outcome from the sixty-third session of the Commission on the Status of Women a product of consensus. Also, there is no international right to abortion. The United States has the right to restrict access to its territory in accordance with its national laws and does not endorse the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, he said, also noting that his country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change took effect on 4 November and that any references to that accord are without prejudice to the United States’ position. Finally, the right to development does not have an agreed international meaning, thus the United States opposes any reference to this right.
The Committee then approved “L.2” without a vote.
By the text, the Assembly would urge Member States to develop, implement and evaluate policies and programmes that promote healthy and active ageing and the highest attainable standard of health and well-being for older persons. It would also call upon Member States to promote equitable and affordable access to sustainable basic physical and social infrastructure for all, without discrimination. Further, it would call upon Member States to develop their national capacity for monitoring and enforcing the rights of older persons, in consultation with all sectors of society, including organizations of older persons. It would also request the Secretary‑General to provide all necessary support to the Open-ended Working Group on Ageing for the organization of its eleventh session, of four days, in March‑April 2021.
The representative of Argentina said the COVID‑19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on older people, who face a significantly higher risk of mortality and serious illness after infection, and they have also faced a greater risk of discrimination, violence, mistreatment and negligence because of a lack of economic resources and social protection. The draft contains references to international human rights instruments.
The representative of the Russian Federation said the international community must find optimal forms of cooperation in order to fully protect older persons. The Open-ended Working Group Ageing could make important contributions. She cited a provision proposing a change in the format of this Working Group, noting that such recommendations are premature, given that there is no consensus. This step could paralyze the discussion format and endanger the Working Group’s outcome documents. She disassociated from operative paragraph 52, which envisions a change in the Working Group’s format.
The Committee then took up the draft resolution titled, “Follow-up to the twentieth anniversary of the International Year of the Family and beyond” (document A/C.3/75/L.3), which the Chair noted had no programme budget implications.
The representative of Guyana, introducing draft “L.3” on behalf of the Group of 77, reiterated the importance of the International Year of the Family and its follow-up processes, which remain relevant amid COVID‑19. These objectives can significantly contribute to ending poverty and hunger and promoting the well-being of all people of all ages, ensuring better education outcomes, achieving gender equality and eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.
The Committee then approved “L.3” without a vote.
By its terms, the Assembly would call on Member States and United Nations bodies, in consultation with civil society and other relevant stakeholders, to continue to provide information on their activities related to the International Year and its follow-up processes, for inclusion in the report of the Secretary‑General. Further, it would request that the focal point on the family within the Department of Economic and Social Affairs enhance collaboration with the regional commissions, funds and programmes. It would also request the Secretary‑General to submit a report to the Assembly’s seventy-seventh session, through the Commission for Social Development and the Economic and Social Council.
The representative of the United States strongly supported the irreplaceable primacy of the family as the foundational institution of society, and vital to the health of a nation. “The family is our foundation, a pillar of our past and a key to our future prosperity,” he said. The United States understands references to violent disciplinary measures as rising to the level of child abuse.
The representative of Mexico joined consensus, stressing that the family has many variables, depending on the social, cultural and legal context, as well as the political system. In Mexico, many different forms of family are recognized and protected, she said, drawing attention to national legislation that fully respects sexual and gender diversity. Various types of family are protected by the State, and she rejected any discrimination against them, expressing regret that the draft does not specify the different types of family.
The representative of the United Kingdom stressed the important role of families, calling for inclusive policies. “Families can have an endless variety of definitions, all deserving equal respect,” she said, acknowledging that families can be multigenerational and comprise unmarried or same-sex couples, and underscoring the value of intragenerational cooperation.
The Committee then took up the draft resolution titled “Inclusive development for and with persons with disabilities” (document A/C.3/75/L.9/Rev.1), which the Chair noted had no programme budget implications.
The representative of the Philippines, presenting the draft resolution also on behalf of the United Republic of Tanzania, highlighted the disproportionate impact of COVID‑19 on persons with disabilities, exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, violence and exclusion. Persons with disabilities also face barriers to accessing protections, medicines, vaccines and health-care services, he said, calling on States to include persons with disabilities in all stages of policymaking related to COVID‑19 response and recovery, and to eliminate such barriers.
The representative of the United States, underscoring his country’s commitment to promoting the rights of all persons with disabilities, urged the international community to take a rights-based approach to this issue. Persons with disabilities enjoy the same rights as those without disabilities, and Governments should ensure that they are fully included in society. He welcomed the paragraph on the importance of including persons with disabilities as decision makers in COVID‑19 response and recovery efforts. He expressed concern over attempts to revert back to the charity or medical model, walking back progress on the human rights‑based model. Referencing operative paragraph 33, he said any data collected must be streamlined and in line with the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy. The United States does not understand the draft to imply that States must join international instruments to which they are not a party, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The Committee then approved draft resolution “L.9/Rev.1” without a vote.
By its terms, the Assembly would urge Member States, United Nations agencies, international and regional organizations, regional integration organizations and financial institutions to integrate the principles of non-discrimination, accessibility and inclusion into the monitoring and evaluation of the Sustainable Development Goals. It would urge States and others, in cooperation with women and girls with disabilities, to ensure that the implementation of the 2030 Agenda is inclusive of and accessible to women and girls with disabilities. Further, the Assembly would call on States and others to eliminate barriers and discrimination against persons with disabilities in accessing support and health-care services on an equal basis with others.
The Committee then took up the draft resolution titled “Strengthening national and international rapid response to the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID‑19) on women and girls” (document A/C.3/75/L.6/Rev.1), which contained no programme budget implications.
The representative of Egypt, introducing the draft on behalf of the Core Group, said it highlights the devastating impact of the COVID‑19 crisis, as well as the role of developing countries in pursuing the common goal of strengthening pandemic response. The present text accommodates most comments made in six informal meetings held over three weeks, he said, adding that he regretted amendments proposed by one delegate, which had not been raised during the protracted negotiation process. However, in the “spirit of agreement”, he suggested an oral amendment to operative paragraph 5.
The representative of the United States said he withdrew amendment “L.75”, as it had been addressed by the oral revision. Regarding the remaining amendments, he noted that “L.76” wishes to delete references to WHO, which his country has withdrawn from, while “L.72” deletes the mention of reproductive health services as essential services. He expressed regret that the Core Group was unable to address these concerns, which are “well known”.
The representative of New Zealand, speaking on behalf of a cross-regional group of countries, expressed regret over the proposed amendments, which go against the Committee’s work methods, as well as the principles of multilateralism. She expressed disappointment that they sought to compromise health care standards, adding: “Only by investing in the health of those who are vulnerable can we universally meet the health needs of all.” While acknowledging that health care is a sensitive issue, the terms referred to in the draft have been used since the mid‑1990s and encompass a “wide range of perspectives”. Any change in this language constitutes “an attempt to upset balance on these issues,” she said, expressing regret that delegates are being forced to vote on these matters, and stressing that New Zealand will vote against the proposed amendments.
The representative of Mexico expressed concern about “parallel process on the same topic”, as demonstrated by proliferating resolutions, and said she had hoped for one consolidated robust text. On the amendments, she said Mexico supports a human rights focus, which guarantees women and girls access to sexual and reproductive health services. “International cooperation is the only way to address global emergencies,” she said.
The Committee then took up draft amendment “L.72”, which deletes the words “services, including sexual and reproductive health care services” from operative paragraph 6. The draft amendment was rejected by a recorded vote of 134 against to 10 in favour, with 17 abstentions.
The Committee then took up draft amendment “L.76”, which deletes the reference to WHO from preambular paragraph 22. Draft amendment “L.76” was rejected by a recorded vote of 161 against to 2 in favour (Brazil, United States), with 5 abstentions (Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, Honduras, Lesotho, Tonga).
The representative of Germany, speaking on behalf of the European Union in explanation of vote, expressed regret that the amendments were proposed at a late stage, instead of in open negotiations. In particular, he objected to the proposed amendment to operative paragraph 6, noting that as WHO has pointed out, disrupted access to reproductive health services has a significant impact on women’s lives during the pandemic. Such language risks reversing decades of progress on maternal mortality, he said, adding: “We can’t turn a blind eye on this.” He also objected to the proposed deletion of references to WHO, which is counterproductive to an effective pandemic response.
The representative of the United States opposed the proliferation of multiple resolutions on the pandemic and expressed regret that the Core Group did not incorporate a “stronger human rights component” in the draft. He expressed disappointment that the amendments did not pass, and therefore disassociated from preambular paragraph 21, and operative paragraph 6, which contains controversial language that has an “accumulated” meaning that amounts to the promotion of or the right to abortion.
The representative of Qatar said sexual and reproductive health care services, denoted by operative paragraph 6, are administered in line with national laws and policies in her country.
The Committee then approved draft resolution “L.6/Rev.1” without a vote as orally revised.
By the text, the Assembly would pledge to take further action to ensure the full, effective and accelerated implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development during the response to the pandemic. It would urge Member States to take measures to prevent and respond to the increase in violence against women and girls amid the COVID‑19 pandemic by integrating evidence-based prevention, response and protection measures. It would also urge Member States to allocate resources for universal access to health care services, including sexual and reproductive health care, such as family planning and maternal health care for women to prevent high levels of maternal mortality and morbidity, as well as the exposure of pregnant women to the virus in health facilities, including while accessing antenatal care and delivery.
The representative of Saudi Arabia, speaking in explanation of position, expressed his condolences to people who have lost their lives as a result of the pandemic. The draft resolution highlights the devastating impact of the pandemic on women and girls, which challenges achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The pandemic also has an impact on medical personnel, a large percentage of whom are women, he said.
The representative of El Salvador, speaking in explanation of position, said progress is impossible to achieve if half of humankind is denied opportunities. While supporting the contents of the resolution, he called for a human rights approach, and emphasized the need for data disaggregated by sex, age, income, ethnic origin, geographic location and other relevant characteristics. He disassociated from preambular paragraph 19 and operative paragraph 14, which are less adequate than what is agreed on in similar provisions of the 2030 Agenda.
The representative of Australia, speaking in explanation of position, addressing the oral revision, said policies can only be “people-centred” if all persons’ human rights are protected and respected, which must be “appropriately recognized”.
The representative of the Russian Federation, speaking in explanation of position, said the reference to “all ages” in the phrase “women and girls of all ages” in preambular paragraph 2 does not provide added value and is redundant; the same applies to references to “gender-based violence” in preambular paragraphs 16 and 18.
The representative of the United Kingdom, speaking in explanation of position, expressed strong regret over the attempt to weaken language referring to sexual and reproductive health care services, which has been agreed upon by Member States, in the omnibus resolution on the pandemic adopted by the General Assembly in September. Such pushback against rights is concerning. She expressed disappointment in the attempt to remove references to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which have been part of agreed-upon language for many years.
The representative of Peru, speaking in explanation of position, said an effective response ensures that the lives of all people are protected. “Until we address the virus, all other issues are merely palliative,” he said, stressing that Peru would have expected operative paragraph 5 to have used more precise language, referring to “vaccines”, which are a global public good, rather than “immunizations”.
The representative of Germany, associating himself with the European Union and speaking in explanation of position, said he was unable to co-sponsor the text, and expressed deep regret that open consultations were not scheduled. Women constitute 70 per cent of the health and social workforce and play a critical role in pandemic response. He objected to attempts to remove references to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the International Conference on Population and Development, expressing regret over the non-inclusion of the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, despite its importance in addressing the crisis.
The representative of Algeria, speaking in explanation of vote, said women and girls bear the disproportionate burden of the economic and social fallout of the pandemic, and play a major role in response. She emphasized that the advancement of women and girls is “a common and shared endeavour”, adding that the revised text sends a “strong message” about the impact of the pandemic on women and girls.
The representative of China, speaking in explanation of position, underscored the need for strengthened unity and cooperation in responding to the pandemic.
The representative of Tunisia, speaking in explanation of position, said the text is in line with international obligations of Member States that are signatory to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. These States must focus on making their pandemic response measures legal, proportionate and non-discriminatory.
An observer for the Holy See expressed disappointment at the proliferation of pandemic-themed draft resolutions. “This is not the time for diplomatic competition, but to show the world we can work together,” he said, expressing reservations over two concepts contained in the draft resolution: references to sexual and reproductive health care services, which should not extend to access to abortion and abortifacients, and the term “gender”, which should be understood to be grounded in biological sexual identity and difference.
The representative of the Russian Federation, speaking in explanation of position, said her delegation understood references to “gender” in preambular paragraphs 16 and 18 to pertain to women and girls on the basis of biological sex.
Next, the Committee turned to the draft resolution titled “Women and girls and the response to the coronavirus disease (COVID‑19)” (document A/C.3/75/L.13/Rev.1), which contained no programme budget implications.
The representative of Spain, presenting the draft, said it takes into account the majority of feedback made by Member States. The draft underscores the role of women and girls as agents for a solution to the pandemic, as well as addresses their human rights. It provides guidance for urgent action in this regard, which has not been covered elsewhere in the United Nations, he said, adding that to not present a resolution on the subject risked having the effect of restricting the empowerment of women and girls. He quoted the writer Simone de Beauvoir, who said that women’s rights are the first to be called into question during a crisis — he added, including during a health crisis — and must never be taken for granted. He called on everyone to “remain alert” and not allow the pandemic to reverse hard-won progress on gender equality.
The representative of the Russian Federation introduced amendments “L.55”, which reworks preambular paragraph 2 to remove a reference to United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and inserts a reference to the right to development; “L.56”, which aims at making the language “more consistent” with language used in operative paragraph 28; “L.57”, which amends “inappropriate political language” referring to the 2030 Agenda and International Conference on Population and Development from operative paragraph 1; and “L.58”, which, among other changes, replaces the words “be gender-responsive” with the words “take into account the specific needs of women and girls”.
The representative of the United States, introducing amendment “L.66”, which deletes references to reproductive and sexual health care as essential services, added that these are “well-known concerns”. On amendment “L.67”, he said it adds the words “as adopted by the General Assembly”, without which “pronouncements” in operative paragraph 8 would not be accurate.
The representative of Germany, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said negotiations on the text had been conducted in a “diligent, fair manner”, and had made “considerable concessions” to many views, including those expressed by the United States. He was therefore “very surprised” by its last-minute amendments, which sought to exclude longstanding references made in United Nations documents and could undermine access to health services. “No one questioned this language in the omnibus resolution adopted by the General Assembly,” he asserted, adding that he would vote against the amendments, which “undermine consensus and send a negative signal to women and girls.”
The representative of Lebanon, speaking for a cross-regional group of countries, expressed regret over the approach of proposing multiple amendments, which goes against the principles of multilateralism. She said she was “deeply upset by the attempts to undermine the normative framework that underlies our work,” and would therefore vote against amendments on the issue.
The representative of Spain expressed disappointment at the six amendments proposed by the United States and the Russian Federation, which undermine consensus and are aimed at weakening the draft resolution. On preambular paragraph 2, he noted that indigenous women and girls are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Introducing a reference to the right to development would “distort” the draft, while proposed changes to preambular paragraph 9 would further weaken it. Meanwhile, operative paragraph 1 attempts to restrict the scope of the draft by disregarding regional conference discussions. On proposed amendments to operative paragraph 7, he said eliminating references to essential health services to women and girls undermines consensus reached previously, including in the 2030 Agenda. “We cannot accept something presented in the last minute,” he said, urging all Member States to vote against the amendments.
The representative of the United Kingdom rejected the amendments to language on health care services, including sexual and reproductive health care services, which are “vital and life-saving”. She expressed concern at attempts to push back against rights. “We cannot accept attempts to walk back on previous progress,” she said, adding that she would reject the proposed amendments.
The representative of Argentina, speaking in general comment, expressed regret over the last-minute amendments, which undermine consensus language, and said she would vote against all of them. “We can’t accept moving backwards,” she assured.
The Committee then rejected draft amendment “L.55”, by a recorded vote of 85 against to 33 in favour, with 37 abstentions.
The Committee then rejected draft amendment “L.56”, by a recorded vote of 93 against to 28 in favour, with 37 abstentions.
The Committee then rejected the draft amendment pertaining to operative paragraph 1 “L.57”, by a recorded vote of 96 against to 29 in favour, with 32 abstentions.
The Committee then rejected the draft amendment pertaining to operative paragraph 3 “L.58”, by a recorded vote of 96 against to 24 in favour, with 33 abstentions.
The Committee then rejected the draft amendment pertaining to operative paragraph 7 “L.66”, by a recorded vote of 111 against to 13 in favour, with 29 abstentions.
The Committee then rejected the draft amendment pertaining to operative paragraph 8 “L.67”, by a recorded vote of 103 against to 24 in favour, with 29 abstentions.
The representative of Peru, speaking in explanation of vote, said reversals to progress must not be allowed, especially during a pandemic. He voted against “L.55”, as the modification to preambular paragraph 2 substantially curbs the rights of indigenous peoples, many of whom are Peruvian. “Their culture is part of our national identity,” he stressed, adding that he recognizes the right to development although its proposed addition to the text is not suitable.
The representative of Tunisia underlined her attachment to multilateralism and consensus on the resolution. However, while she abstained from voting on “L.55”, this must not be interpreted as an objection to the right to development, which her country supports, especially during a health crisis that exacerbates inequalities and impacts marginalized groups.
The representative of Qatar said although her country wishes to ensure the sexual and reproductive rights of women, any reference to them must be understood to align with the country’s tradition.
The Committee then approved the draft resolution A/C.3/75/L.13/Rev.1 as a whole, without a vote.
By the text, the Assembly would call on Member States to fully respect and implement their obligations under international human rights law and existing commitments related to the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. Further, the Assembly would urge Member States to prevent, respond to and eliminate violence, including sexual and gender-based violence — in particular domestic violence, including in digital contexts — harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation, and trafficking in persons by designating protection and health care as essential services for all women and girls. It would also call on Member States and other stakeholders to take steps to bridge the digital divide, including the gender digital divide, as part of efforts to ensure the empowerment of all women and girls.
The representative of the United States said he opposed the proliferation of multiple resolutions and expressed regret that the proposed amendments did not pass. He disassociated from operative paragraphs 7 and 8, stating that the phrasing included “controversial terms”, which held “accumulated connotations” suggesting the right to abortion. He proposed replacing an article with “and with” in operative paragraph 1, which would “fully communicate the need for strong consensus”. Moreover, he disassociated from preambular paragraph 6, which mentions WHO.
The representative of Germany, speaking on behalf of the European Union, reiterated the need to address specific challenges in crisis situations, reaffirmed support for civil society organizations and stressed that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”.
The representative of Guatemala disassociated from operative paragraph 8, stating that “reproductive rights can be erroneously interpreted as a right to abortion or abortive practices, which run counter to the legislation of my country”.
The representative of the Russian Federation disassociated herself from “problematic passages” contained in the text. She expressed surprise that concerns were regarded as a violation of the Committee’s working methods. “My [proposed] amendments, and those of another country, are precisely reflections of multilateralism,” she stressed. She disassociated from preambular paragraphs 2 and 13, as well as operative paragraphs 1 and 3. “Furthermore, we are puzzled by a certain group given special status, specifically women peacekeepers,” she said. “To single out some people is not fair.” She also disassociated from language in preambular paragraph 14 and operative paragraph 4.
An observer for the Holy See objected to the seeming “proliferation of drafts” related to the pandemic and said virtual meetings cannot replace in-person negotiations. He expressed reservations with the language about sexual and reproductive rights, stating that it must not extend to access to abortion, and said the word “gender” must be understood to be grounded in biological difference.
The Committee then took up the draft resolution titled “Enlargement of the Executive Committee of the Programme of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees” (document A/C.3/75/L.21), approving it without a vote.
By its terms, the Assembly would decide to increase the number of members of the Executive Committee of the Programme of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 106 States to 107 States. Further, it would request the Economic and Social Council to elect the additional member at a meeting of its management segment in 2021.