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International Law

6 things to know about the UN General Assembly

MD Staff

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Every year, in September, global leaders and change-makers gather at United Nations Headquarters in New York for two weeks, to discuss the burning issues of our time and set the global agenda for the year ahead. The 73rd session of the UN General Assembly opened this week and the body’s annual high-level segment – formally known as the ‘general debate’ – begins on Tuesday, 25 September, where every country’s leader gets to address the world.

The busy agenda covers the full spectrum of international issues, including sustainable development, climate change, peace and security, human rights, public health concerns and gender equality.

Here are six things you might not know about the General Assembly (or “the GA” as it’s referred to around the UN’s many hallways) and this year’s high-level week:

1. The UN General Assembly: one country, one vote

Today, the UN is made up of 193 Member States (there were only 51 back when it was created in 1945), 40 per cent of which are lower, or lower-middle income countries. Each Member State has an equal voice, and a single vote. To name only a few of its critical functions, the GA discusses and votes (as necessary if there is no consensus) on a vast array of international policy matters; decides on the UN’s budget, and elects the non-permanent members of the Security Council, together with formally choosing whoever occupies the top job of Secretary-General.

2. This is only the fourth time that the General Assembly is being presided over by a woman

Ahead of each session of the GA, a new President is elected. The President of the 73rd General Assembly is María Fernanda Espinosa, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador. Out of 73 Presidents, she’s only the fourth woman and the first Latin American woman ever to hold the office.

3. The general debate this year will focus on global leadership and shared responsibilities

Every year, the President elect, in consultation with Member States and the Secretary-General, chooses a theme for the week of the general debate where Heads of State and Government make statements. The official theme for 2018 is Making the United Nations relevant to all people: global leadership and shared responsibilities for peaceful, equitable and sustainable societies.

In her letter explaining this year’s choice, Assembly President Espinosa invited world leaders to comment on the “continuing relevance” of the UN and “the importance of a shared vision”. The debate will start on 25 September and run for six days.

4. During the general debate, Brazil speaks first, the United States speaks second and then…

The general debate, is not actually a debate. Member States take turns delivering speeches and are given a right of reply when required. Since 1947, the first country to speak has been Brazil because, according to the UN Protocol and Liaison Services, during the Organization’s early years, no one ever wanted to be the first to speak, and Brazil always ended up volunteering to go first. This has now become a tradition.

The second spot goes to the host country (the US), and then the order of speakers follows a complex algorithm reflecting level of representation, geographical balance, the order in which the request to speak was recorded, and other considerations.

Though speakers are kindly asked to keep their statements to under 15 minutes, world leaders often go well beyond that. The longest speech made during the General Assembly, to date, was made by Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who spoke for four and half hours in 1960 (although that wasn’t during the General Debate).

5. A Political Declaration for peace is expected to be adopted in honor of Nelson Mandela

In December 2017, the General Assembly voted to hold a high-level plenary meeting on global peace in honor of the centenary of the birth of South Africa’s first democratically-elected President and world icon, Nelson Mandela. On 24 September, the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit will be taking place, and Member States are expected to adopt a Political Declaration which was drafted throughout the year.

The text declares 2019-2028 the “Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace,” and calls on all world leaders to “make the impossible possible” and “redouble efforts to pursue international peace and security, development and human rights”.

6. The General Assembly will address dozens of other critical global issues and bring them to the forefront of the global geopolitical scene

In addition to the General Debate and other plenary sessions, the weeks of General Assembly include a long list of meetings and side events.

The 73rd session will include a high-level meeting on Financing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on 24 September; an event to renew international commitment and Action for Peacekeeping on the 25th; a high-level side event on Violence Against LGBTI Individuals, also on 25 September; a high-level event on Ending Tuberculosis on the 26th, a series of humanitarian-themed events including the Yemen and South Sudan responses, and many more.

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International Law

National Interest surpassing human rights: Case study of Kashmir

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Authors: Rizwan Malik and Areeja Syed

The Indian government revoked the exceptional status accorded to Indian-occupied Kashmir in Indian constitution. This sudden development is the most sweeping political move on the disputed region in seventy years. A presidential pronouncement issued on August 5 revoked Article 370 of Indian constitution that ascertained the special rights to the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, including the rights to have her own constitution and autonomy to make laws on all affairs apart from communication, defence, and foreign policies. This shocking move literally shook Kashmir and Pakistan at their cores. Now It has been more than one month now since Indian forces started a lock down in Indian administered Kashmir. Due to continuous threat of mass protests against this illegal action, additional troops were deployed in already heavy militarized valley. Crippling curfew was imposed and Internet services were suspended. Indian security forces have also arrested all the political leadership of the valley. Different International media outlets have published news regarding the brutal suppression of local Kashmiri people by Indian forces.

With the evolution of United Nation and other international institutions, rights violation and other disputed issue that could undermine peace and stability are paid umpteen attentions by the international community. Time to time we have witnessed intervention on humanitarian bases by International Community .Even force was used in many states to stop oppressive regimes from committing atrocities.

India claims herself to be the largest democracy in the world and champion of human rights protection. But this is absolutely contrary and devious to the ground realities. Especially since BJP came into power in 2014 with an expansionist agenda, it is actively involved in different crimes and often violated the sovereignty of many states. BJP government has conducted military operation in Myanmar in 2015 without taking into confidence the local government. Later, Pakistan was targeted in February 2019 though it resulted in shooting down of one of Indian fighter jets. This shift has deteriorated the already-heightened tensions with neighboring Pakistan, which relegated its diplomatic relations with India.

Kashmir has been a bone of contention and a disputed region between Indian and Pakistan since 1947. Pakistan and India claim Kashmir in full but rule it partially. The nuclear-armed neighbors remain at daggers drawn over this issue and have fought three wars over this territory but Kashmir issue is still unresolved. A rebellion in Indian-administered Kashmir has been continuing for past 30 years. United Nations General Assembly passed resolutions on Kashmir and has given Kashmir citizens the right of self-determination .UN instructed both India and Pakistan to withdraw their troops from disputed region and to organize plebiscite there. Though India did not agree to these demands and never held a plebiscite but a special status was granted to Indian occupied Kashmir which made it a semi-autonomous region. Different round of talks were arranged between India and Pakistan to solve this dispute which means that India recognized Kashmir as international dispute.

But on August 05, 2015 BJPs government removed this special status of Kashmir and directly imposed the rule of central  India.BJP has established a stance that Kashmir is integral part of India and vowed to attack even Pakistani administered Kashmir.

This illegal move of Indian authorities is accompanied by the brutal use of force in the valley. International community which asserts it as the protector of International law and human rights round the globe has basically done nothing against this inhuman/illegal occupation of Kashmir. Reason is that international community is following real politik .According to realist school of thought , International relations states only protect their own national interests. They do not have much appetite for human rights and International Law. This is best depicted in response of international community on Indian moves in Kashmir. If we analyze the international reactions to this recent development one by one we can see that these great powers have their own vested interest in India that is why they are not willing to take any concrete step. For example due to changing geopolitical situation in Asia-Pacific region United States considers India as its strategic ally against the regional power of China. According to US, Indian will contain expanding Chinese influence in south Asia and will act as balancing forces. Moreover Indian with its huge population and large economy is very good trading partner of United States .That is why US will not take any concrete steps against Indian aggression. Countries like France and Russia are huge arms exporters to India so they will not try to lose a client by taking any concrete steps against India. States like Saudi Arabia and UAE which have influence on India because to their oil exports and other trade relation will not take any action .Reason they have very strong trade ties which they do not want to threaten .Secondly they themselves are oppressing regimes so promoting human right in any other region will jeopardize their own position as international actor.

With this realpolitik prevailing at international politics Pakistan is left with pauce options. Pakistan has very strong religious and cultural bonding with Kashmir people and she considers it her legal and moral responsibility to help Kashmir people who are facing wrath of Indian forces. it is the responsibility of the International community to speak for the human rights violations in Kashmir instead on just focusing on their own vast national interests.

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International Law

A bird’s eye view of Asia: A continental landscape of minorities in peril

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Many in Asia look at the Middle East with a mixture of expectation of stable energy supplies, hope for economic opportunity and concern about a potential fallout of the region’s multiple violent conflicts that are often cloaked in ethnic, religious and sectarian terms.

Yet, a host of Asian nations led by men and women, who redefine identity as concepts of exclusionary civilization, ethnicity, and religious primacy rather than inclusive pluralism and multiculturalism, risk sowing the seeds of radicalization rooted in the despair of population groups that are increasingly persecuted, disenfranchised and marginalized.

Leaders like China’s Xi Jingping, India’s Narendra Modi, and Myanmar’s Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi, alongside nationalist and supremacist religious figures ignore the fact that crisis in the Middle East is rooted in autocratic and authoritarian survival strategies that rely on debilitating manipulation of national identity on the basis of sectarianism, ethnicity and faith-based nationalism.

A bird’s eye view of Asia produces a picture of a continental landscape strewn with minorities on the defensive whose positioning as full-fledged members of society with equal rights and opportunities is either being eroded or severely curtailed.

It also highlights a pattern of responses by governments and regional associations that opt for a focus on pre-emptive security, kicking the can down the road and/or silent acquiescence rather than addressing a wound head-on that can only fester, making cures ever more difficult.

To be sure, multiple Asian states, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have at various times opened their doors to refugees.

Similarly, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) disaster management unit has focused on facilitating and streamlining repatriation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

But a leaked report by the unit, AHA Centre, in advance of last June’s ASEAN summit was criticized for evading a discussion on creating an environment in which Rohingya would be willing to return.

The criticism went to the core of the problem: Civilizationalist policies, including cultural genocide, isolating communities from the outside world, and discrimination will at best produce simmering anger, frustration and despair and at worst mass migration, militancy and/or political violence.

A Uyghur member of the Communist Party for 30 years who did not practice his religion, Ainiwa Niyazi, would seem to be the picture-perfect model of a Chinese citizen hailing from the north-western province of Xinjiang.

Yet, Mr Niyazi was targeted in April of last year for re-education, one of at least a million Turkic Muslims interned in detention facilities where they are forced to internalize Xi Jinping thought and repudiate religious norms and practices in what constitutes the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history.

If past efforts, including an attempt to turn Kurds into Turks by banning use of Kurdish as a language that sparked a still ongoing low level insurgency, is anything to go by, China’s ability to achieve a similar goal with greater brutality is questionable.

“Most Uyghur young men my age are psychologically damaged. When I was in elementary school surrounded by other Uyghurs, I was very outgoing and active. Now I feel like I have been broken… Quality of life is now about feeling safe,” said Alim, a young Uyghur, describing to Adam Hunerven, a writer who focuses on the Uyghurs, arrests of his friends and people trekking south to evade the repression in Xinjiang cities.

Travelling in the region in 2014, an era in which China was cracking down on Uyghurs but that predated the institutionalization of the re-education camps, Mr. Hunerven saw that “the trauma people experienced in the rural Uyghur homeland was acute. It followed them into the city, hung over their heads and affected the comportment of their bodies. It made people tentative, looking over their shoulders, keeping their heads down. It made them tremble and cry.”

There is little reason to assume that anything has since changed for the better. On the contrary, not only has the crackdown intensified, fear and uncertainty has spread to those lucky enough to live beyond the borders of China. Increasingly, they risk being targeted by the long arm of the Chinese state that has pressured their host countries to repatriate them.

Born and raised in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, Rahima Akter, one of the few women to get an education among the hundreds of thousands who fled what the United Nations described as ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, saw her dreams and potential as a role model smashed when she was this month expelled from university after recounting her story publicly.

Ms. Akter gained admission to Cox’s Bazar International University (CBIU) on the strength of graduating from a Bangladeshi high school, a feat she could only achieve by sneaking past the camp’s checkpoints, hiding her Rohingya identity, speaking only Bengali, dressing like a Bangladeshi, and bribing Bangladeshi public school officials for a placement.

Ms Akter was determined to escape the dire warnings of UNICEF, the United Nations’ children agency, that Rohingya refugee children risked becoming “a lost generation.”

Ms. Akter’s case is not an isolated incident but part of a refugee policy in an environment of mounting anti-refugee sentiment that threatens to deprive Rohingya refugees who refuse to return to Myanmar unless they are guaranteed full citizenship of any prospects.

In a move that is likely to deepen a widespread sense of abandonment and despair, Bangladeshi authorities, citing security reasons, this month ordered the shutting down of mobile services and a halt to the sale of SIM cards in Rohingya refugee camps and restricted Internet access. The measures significantly add to the isolation of a population that is barred from travelling outside the camps.

Not without reason, Bangladeshi foreign minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen, has blamed the international community for not putting enough pressure on Myanmar to take the Rohingyas back.

The UN “should go to Myanmar, especially to Rakhine state, to create conditions that could help these refugees to go back to their country. The UN is not doing the job that we expect them to do,” Mr. Abdul Momen said.

The harsh measures are unlikely to quell increased violence in the camps and continuous attempts by refugees to flee in search of better pastures.

Suspected Rohingya gunmen last month killed a youth wing official of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party. Two refugees were killed in a subsequent shootout with police.

The plight of the Uyghurs and the Rohingya repeats itself in countries like India with its stepped up number of mob killings that particularly target Muslims, threatened stripping of citizenship of close to two million people in the state of Assam, and unilateral cancellation of self-rule in Kashmir.

Shiite Muslims bear the brunt of violent sectarian attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Malaysia, Shiites, who are a miniscule minority, face continued religious discrimination.

The Islamic Religious Department in Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state, this week issued a sermon that amounts to a mandatory guideline for sermons in mosques warning against “the spread of Shia deviant teachings in this nation… The Muslim ummah (community of the faithful) must become the eyes and the ears for the religious authorities when stumbling upon activities that are suspicious, disguising under the pretext of Islam,” the sermon said.

Malaysia, one state where discriminatory policies are unlikely to spark turmoil and political violence, may be the exception that confirms the rule.

Ethnic and religious supremacism in major Asian states threatens to create breeding grounds for violence and extremism. The absence of effective attempts to lessen victims’ suffering by ensuring that they can rebuild their lives and safeguard their identities in a safe and secure environment, allows wounds to fester.

Permitting Ms. Akter, the Rohingya university student, to pursue her dream, would have been a low-cost, low risk way of offering Rohingya youth an alternative prospect and at the very least a reason to look for constructive ways of reversing what is a future with little hope.

Bangladeshi efforts to cut off opportunities in the hope that Rohingya will opt for repatriation have so far backfired. And repatriation under circumstances that do not safeguard their rights is little else than kicking the can down the road.

Said human rights advocate Ewelina U. Ochab: “It is easy to turn a blind eye when the atrocities do not happen under our nose. However, we cannot forget that religious persecution anywhere in the world is a security threat to everyone, everywhere.”

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International Law

Chinese ‘Darning’ in South China Sea and International Apathy

Prof. Pankaj Jha

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India has asked for the renewal of the contract with regard to exploration rights in Block 128 which is located in Vietnamese Exclusive Economic Zone(EEZ). The contract for exploration had expiredin June 2019. This effort to renew the contract is meant to give a signal to China that India would not succumb to Chinese bullying tactics and is a legitimate stakeholder in South China Sea/East Sea. China has threatened the joint exploration initiatives of Russia, India and Vietnam near Vanguard Bank. Chinese undertook assertive posture by deploying its advanced coastguard ships and even latest bombers. Chinese strategy in the months of July and August was to bring about a media fatigue in reporting so that major tensions or even ships cruising close to each other can be passed off as routine affair.

Many strategic commentators have stated that Chinese have been using the ‘salami slicing’ tactics in South China Sea/ East Sea but it is more of a darning in which the Chinese have been pinching the corners of South China Sea/ East Sea to create a Chinese strategic space through a critical grid. The expansion of Chinese activities in those areas which are not contested is meant to first get the resource profile of the region under the garb of research activity and also thwart any economic activity in adjoining areas of the contested waters. The biggest challenge is that the geographic coordinates of the nine-dash line is not clear, and the international response has only been a strong rhetorical statements. It is only when India has been intimidated and the US has started freedom of navigation sail that some responses are seen from the two countries. It needs to be noted that when a UN Security Council member(China) tries to undermine international regulations, and respect for international peace and stability in those contested waters then it is appropriate to raise the voice at the P-5 high table.

Among the international responses on the tensions near the Vanguard Bank,International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) which supports international law under the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) criticized Chinese assertive aggression.Criticizing Chinese ships bullying in waters ofThi Tu island and Luconia Shoals, it released a statement stating that Chinese survey activities undertaken by Haiyang Dizhi 8 in continental shelf of Vietnam was complete disregard for Vietnamese sovereignty of the waters under UNCLOS 1982. IADL further urged the claimant states to sign and ratify the Code of Conduct (COC) and bring a compliance mechanism. European nations- UK, Germany and France also took strong position on the subject and deplored Chinese activities near Vanguard Bank and highlighted that tensions in the South China Sea “could lead to insecurity and instability in the region”. The latent tensions between US and China overflowed during the Indian Ocean Conference 2019 recently held (September 3-4) in Maldives where Harry Harris,US Ambassador to South Korea remarked, “China’s diplomacy seeks to force ASEAN members to define codes of conduct in the region dictated by Beijing and conforming to Chinese standards. You can see intimidation in China’s militarization and defiance of international law”. He added while responding to questions, “That the military bases that China has created…(with) literally a great wall of sand in the middle of the South China Sea are all illegal”.China’s Ambassador of Ocean Affairs Wei Hongtian attending the conference rebutted and said, “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) in the South China Sea and adjacent waters…,” clearly justifying the bullying tactics adopted by his country. 

Looking into international response on the subject is more of a routine affair with India oft repeated stance that it supports freedom of navigation and freedom to explore and undertake commercial activities within EEZ of nations. If one analyses the Chinese annoying tactics then one can observe that it has intimidated countries across region starting with Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam (the three claimants to South China Sea) and Japan (East China Sea) clearly defining the perimeter of the nine dash line. As China has built structures and even placed anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, and few fighter aircrafts, it wants to keep them in active mode through sorties and regular patrols outside the claimed zone. One can use the metaphor the ‘cow tongue is now salivating’. China has been trying hard to somewhat subjugate Vietnamese claims and this can be seen in the context of land borders also. In the India-China border there are non-demarcated pockets, Chinese soldiers regularly visit the contentious territories and express their claim through leaving certain signs. In the maritime domains, the same strategy is being adopted where recurrent visits and patrols would help them define new areas of control. The fishermen militia has been doing their task of forewarning and also collecting data with regard to passing ships and patrols. The fishermen militia of China is equipped with cameras and other equipment to collect as much information possible and report back to the party headquarters. More recently,there have been reports that China has deployed its highly sophisticated surveillance ships in Andaman waters, clearly marking its intent in checking India’s naval preparedness and the utility of the tri services command in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The international response to deteriorating situation in South China Sea has been discussed when Indian defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited Japan and also Indian Ambassador to Vietnam had a detailed discussion with the Vietnamese communist party leadership. The recent provocations in the oil block explored by ONGC, India might force India to deploy itscoast guard ships and also station one of the advanced corvettescloser to the Vietnamese EEZ. As alreadywith the situation getting out of hand, India would like to deploy its P-8I PoseidonMaritimeSurveillanceaircraft to protect its assets. Countries such asUK, Germany, France and Japan have alsoraisedconcernsrelated to the Chineseaggressive moves in the region and the recently conducted US –ASEAN exercisesbetween Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea would reinforce US presence in these waters. The problem with Chineseapproach it that it is extending itself far too wide without thinking about a serious backlash. In a hypotheticalsituation in case Vietnam allows stationing of the US ships around Vietnameseislands then Chinese hegemony would be seriously jeopardized. Also,Vietnam have kept the window open for negotiations and also bringing about peace in the waters as recurrent tensions and dangerousmaneuvers would be detrimental to the long term interest of all fishing communities. Chinahas also made it clearduring the recent visit of PhilippinesPresidentDuterte that the July 11,2016 ruling does not hold any meaning to the communist country. The option of joint exploration proposed by China is only meant to buy time and space so that the increasing rig deployment and operating costs would make smaller nations to wrench out making way for complete control of China even in those areas which are non-disputed and lie in EEZ of other countries.

The challenge is to makeChina accountable for itsactions and make it understand that the prickly attitude would mean that it would be antagonizing too many neighbours at the same time. India hasalready been annoyed because of China’s stance on abrogation of Article 370 and 35A in Kashmir and division of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh as two Union territories, leading the informal discussion in the UN Security Council. PM Modi has been hesitant to start the informal dialogue with President Xi given the recent stance adopted by China on Kashmir issue. The complex equation which is emerging in South China Sea along with recurrent tensions would mean that China would emerge as the trouble maker with no respect for international law and maritime sovereign boundaries. The bullying by China will have identical effect across the region. The problem is what are the options for the international community when major oil companies have been asked not to venture in South China Sea and China is defining its new strategic courtyard. The exercises with US and group sail might become a recurrent feature and also tensions are going to rise. The challenge would be to reduce militarization of the contested waters given the fact that China is known for not respecting agreements and international laws. 

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