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GA/L/3620
19 October 2020
Seventy-fifth Session, 7th Meeting (AM)

Electronic Registration of Treaties Critical in Addressing Geographical Imbalance, Speakers Stress, as Sixth Committee Concludes Debate on Strengthening Framework

Delegates Take Up Report on United Nations Rule of Law Activities

As the Sixth Committee (Legal) concluded its debate on strengthening and promoting the international treaty framework today, speakers highlighted the importance of developing online tools to facilitate the treaty process and the need to correct the geographic imbalance in the registration of these instruments.  (For background, see Press Release GA/L/3619.)

The representative of Egypt pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the importance of a tool that allows electronic submission of certifying statements, observing that from February 2019 to June 2020 80 per cent of such submissions were in an electronic format.  He also noted that the Secretary-General’s report exposed a geographic imbalance in treaty registration, attributing this discrepancy to a lack of capacity in many developing countries.

The Federated States of Micronesia’s representative concurred, observing that the Asia Pacific region was particularly ill-represented.  While an online registration tool could help alleviate this issue, the international community must be sensitive to information and communications technology challenges faced by small island developing States.

The representative of the United Kingdom also emphasized the vital role of an efficient treaty process.  Due to its withdrawal from the European Union, her country was presently engaged in a burst of treaty-making, particularly in the field of trade.  With the United Kingdom a party to over 14,000 international agreements, she said that the expeditious processing, registration and publication of treaties was critical to maintaining the treaty framework and advancing international law.

However, the representative of Cyprus sounded a note of concern regarding the registration of agreements that fail to satisfy the necessary criteria for registration under Article 102 of the Charter of the United Nations.  Pointing to a recent registration by the United Nations Treaty Office of a bilateral memorandum of understanding, he called for a clarification of the framework and criteria for the registration of treaties and international agreements.

The Committee also took up the report of the Secretary-General, “Strengthening and coordinating United Nations rule of law activities” (document A/75/284) and the session’s subtopic on combating corruption, with delegates emphasizing that strengthening the rule of law on the international level included respecting principles of sovereign equality and differences in law on the national level.

The representative of Nicaragua emphasized that the sovereign equality of all States is a fundamental principle of the United Nations.  However, some great Powers were undermining other States’ right to self-determination and political independence through the use of unilateral coercive measures.  Such actions, he stressed, deepen poverty and inequality, violate international law, and when imposed in times of pandemic, constituted crimes against humanity.

Singapore’s representative took issue with the Secretariat’s Rule of Law Unit over its treatment of the death penalty in the Secretary-General’s report.  That topic was considered in a manner that was inaccurate, misleading and biased.  There is no international consensus on this issue, she stressed, and by trying to unilaterally impose its own agenda on Member States, the Unit ignored the fact that all countries have the sovereign right to develop their own legal systems.

The representative of Liechtenstein, focusing on the subtopic of fighting corruption, pointed to a growing body of evidence that showed corruption was both a cause of and a tool to carry out human trafficking.  Corruption facilitated the exploitation of vulnerable individuals.  With profits of $150 billion per year being generated, an estimated 40 million people — 71 per cent of them women and girls – were trapped in modern slavery.

The Sixth Committee will next meet at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 October, to continue its consideration of the Secretary-General’s report on the rule of law at the national and international levels.

Strengthening Treaty Framework

The representative of Egypt, called attention to the Secretary-General’s report which noted the increased use of electronic submissions of certifying statements.  About 80 per cent of submissions from February 2019 to June 2020 were in electronic format.  The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how important this tool could be, he said, expressing support for the idea to develop such a system.  On the issue of extended backlogs in registration and publication of treaties owing to translation, he said that multilingualism should be upheld with the Secretariat carrying out the necessary translations of treaties as per the current practice.  Indeed, innovative solutions that guarantee functionality, uphold multilingualism and do not overburden Member States are possible.  The report also clearly exposed geographical imbalance in treaty registration, where developing countries are the minority.  This is primarily due to the lack of capacity in many developing and least developed countries, he said, stressing the importance of enhancing capacity‑building activities performed by the Secretariat.

The representative of Colombia stated that the real challenge is updating the treaty publication and registration process so that it becomes an incentive, not an obstacle, to giving effect to Article 102 of the Charter of the United Nations.  Although Member States are asked to provide courtesy translations of treaty instruments into English and French, the Treaty Section of the Office of Legal Affairs should take responsibility for this process.  Further, the practice of translating into these two languages is an unnecessary obstacle, he said, suggesting that translation into either English or French be accompanied by a brief explanation in the other language.  This would free up the Treaty Section’s resources and would allow it to focus on other important tasks, such as updating the summary of practice of the Secretary-General and enhancing the virtual platform used to store treaties.

The representative of Chile said that the registration and publication of treaties reinforces the relevance of these instruments in international relations, contributing to States’ good-faith compliance with their agreed obligations and their understanding of the duties that bind them with other States.  He also took note of the COVID-19 pandemic and the development of digital resources, calling for the continued development of modern technological tools that enable consultation by States and the legal community in general.  Referencing the geographic differences in the registration of treaties, he encouraged States in underrepresented regions to reflect on the causes for this disparity, assisted as appropriate by the Office of Legal Affairs.

The representative of the Federated States of Micronesia said a geographical imbalance in registration of treaties and international agreements persists, with the Asia Pacific region being a particular laggard.  An online registration tool based on standardized registration requirements could aid in correcting that imbalance.  However, it should be sensitive to the information and communications technology challenges small island developing States like Micronesia face.  The same reasoning about information and communications technology would apply to the suggestion of adapting the Treaty Series into a digital format.  A maritime boundary treaty registered with the Secretariat is immutable, absent formal amendment by the Parties to the treaty, even if it is premised on the identification of maritime baselines and other features that change due to sea-level rise and other adverse impacts of climate change.  However, changes in underlying maritime features due to sea-level rise and other adverse impacts of climate change cannot be deemed to be errors under article 79 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

The representative of the Republic of Korea said simplified procedures for registering and publishing treaties play an important role in strengthening the international treaty framework.  She particularly welcomed the amendment to regulations on using electronic submissions, which make the registration process more transparent and accessible to Member States.  However, potential additional amendments to the regulations must be based on careful and thorough consultations among Member States.  She also noted her concern about the growing backlog in publications in the Treaty Series, partially due to limited resources and capacity of Member States, as well as the Secretariat to provide timely translations in English and French.  Without undermining the importance of multilingualism in United Nations work, Member States must actively engage in finding an effective solution to ensure swift publication of treaties.  This effort should not result in new obligations for Member States and international organizations regarding the responsibility of translating treaties.

The representative of Greece, highlighting how electronic submission of treaty registration requests has been greatly helpful to Member States, observed that it was increasingly replacing hard-copy submissions.  The proposed development of an online registration tool should be actively supported.  Such a standardized procedure could replace other means of submission, including surface mail, email or USB key.  Thus, this would provide uniformity to the filing and processing of relevant requests for registration.  As well, the backlog in the publication of the United Nations Treaty Series is primarily due to delays in translating treaties.  Removing translation in English and French of the treaties published in the Treaty Series should not be an option, given that those two languages are the working languages of the Secretariat as well as those of the International Court of Justice.  In addition, she said that her country was gravely concerned about the recent registration of a Memorandum of Understanding which did not satisfy the necessary criteria for registration.

The representative of Belgium voiced his support for an accelerated process for the registration and publication of treaties.  However, that should not be achieved to the detriment of the principles of transparency and multilingualism.  Any revisions to the relevant regulations should not generate new obligations for Member States.  He also noted his rejection of any modification that would remove the requirement for translation of those instruments into both English and French, as the Secretary-General and the International Court of Justice require access to treaties published in their working languages.

The representative of the United Kingdom noted that her country is at present engaged in a burst of treaty‑making, particularly in the field of trade, mostly as a result of its withdrawal from the European Union.  Thus, the need for processes which facilitate proper treaty‑making has never been so important.  As a party to over 14,000 international agreements, the United Kingdom continues to benefit from the stability afforded by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, as well as the wider international treaty framework.  The expeditious processing, registration and publication of treaties and treaty related action is critical to the maintenance of this framework and to the advancement of international law.  Voicing appreciation for the role played by the Treaty Section, she said that her country’s practice is to register a treaty with the Secretariat after entry into force and after publication of the treaty in the country’s Treaty Series.

The representative of Cuba said that treaties are the main source of international law and are the cornerstone of norms-based international relations.  She also highlighted the role that electronic resources can play in overcoming current shortcomings in the treaty publication process.  It is vital to guarantee parity between the six official languages of the United Nations, she stressed.  In that regard, translation of treaty instruments into any of the six official languages would contribute to multilingualism and would save resources for the United Nations and Member States.

The representative of Cyprus called for increased dialogue between the Treaty Section and Member States on matters relating to treaty law and practice, preferably in the margins of the Sixth Committee.  While acknowledging the growing back-log in the publication of treaties, he said that the current practice of translating these instruments into English and French should be continued.  He also expressed concern regarding the registration of agreements that fail to satisfy the necessary criteria for registration under Article 102 of the Charter. Referencing a recent, regrettable registration by the United Nations Treaty Office of a bilateral memorandum of understanding, he stressed that this ultra‑vires instrument contravenes well-established rules of international law, including the international law of the sea.  He called for a clarification of the framework and criteria for the registration of treaties and international agreements.

Rule of Law

The representative of Iran, speaking for the Non-Aligned Movement, said that international relations were based on the rule of law, including the principle of sovereign equality of States.  All States should equally respect and comply with their obligations under treaties, as well as customary international law.  Selective application of international law must be avoided.  The principle of the prohibition of the threat or use of force in international relations of States and peaceful settlement of disputes should constitute the cornerstone of the rule of law at the international level.  The General Assembly must play a leading role in promoting and coordinating efforts towards strengthening the rule of law at the global level.  However, the international community must not replace the national authorities in the task of establishing or strengthening the rule of law at the national level.  There is no single agreed definition of the rule of law.  The data‑gathering activities of the Organization’s bodies must not lead to a unilateral formulation of rule of law indicators and ranking of countries in any manner.  Those indicators of rule of law, which have not been agreed upon by Member States in an open and transparent discussion and consultation are not acceptable.  In that regard, he welcomed the General Assembly’s adoption of a resolution on 29 November 2012 that accorded to Palestine the status of non-member observer State in the United Nations.

The representative of South Africa, speaking for the African Group and associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, said that the dissemination of international law can strengthen the rule of law at the international level, serving as a preventative tool facilitated by technology and multilateral cooperation.  Turning to the topic of combating corruption, he called for coordinated, integrated efforts to address this phenomenon that weakens institutions, exacerbates inequalities and erodes public trust.  He encouraged further efforts to build capacity to counter corruption, including the establishment of anti-corruption bodes and the development of codes of conduct that promote transparency and accountability.  Illicit financial flows undermine the ability of developing countries to mobilize resources for development, severely impact domestic revenues and threaten financing for implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Further, such illicit flows reduce the availability of vital measures to respond to and recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, he pointed out.

The representative of Cambodia, speaking for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said that, as a rules-based intergovernmental organization, ASEAN has long been committed to stability and security in the region.  Important treaties, declarations and instruments have paved the way for its success, including the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia of 1976, the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone of 1995 and the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea of 2002, among others.  Moreover, ASEAN member States continue to work with China towards the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea within a mutually agreed timeline.  All 10 ASEAN member States have ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption.  Successful anti-corruption efforts include strengthening of cooperation and sharing of information among partners, particularly enhanced law enforcement cooperation, such as extradition, mutual legal assistance and the recovery of assets and proceeds of corruption.  As well, ASEAN members look forward to active engagement in the process leading up to the General Assembly’s special session on corruption in 2021, he said.

The representative for the European Union delegation noted that the bloc had adopted several legislative acts to tackle corruption at the regional level, including the Directive 2017/1371, which is premised on the understanding that corruption constitutes a serious threat to the Union's financial interests.  Its member States have now harmonized definitions, sanctions and limitation periods of criminal offences affecting their financial interests.  The Union’s legislation in other areas, such as anti-money‑laundering, public procurement, corporate tax transparency and whistle-blowing, include important anti-corruption provisions.  An independent and decentralized prosecution office is currently being set up and will be operational by the end of 2020, marking a milestone in the development of criminal law within the bloc.  In addition, the Council of Europe has also adopted a number of legal instruments on the fight against corruption, she said, expressing unwavering support to all international mechanisms fighting against impunity, including the International Criminal Court and other international tribunals.

The representative of Denmark, also speaking for Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, highlighted a continuing negative slide towards weaker rule of law in many parts of the world.  “The pandemic has done nothing to improve” the situation, he said, observing how corruption and lack of transparency might thrive in such an environment.  Promoting rule of law ensures that the unjust rule by the powerful be avoided.  Turning to the subtopic for this year’s debate, “Measures to prevent and combat corruption”, he said corruption exacerbates poverty and inequality and has a disproportionate effect on those in the most vulnerable situations.  Corruption obstructs technological breakthroughs and affects economic growth and development nationally, as well as globally.  Corruption promotes uncertainty, which is the exact opposite of the rule of law.  Corruption was a threat to the norms and principles embedded in the rule of law — namely, democracy, human rights and sustainable development.  Expressing commitment to the Convention against Corruption, he called attention to the work done by civil society in the fight against corruption.

The representative of Nicaragua, associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, said that full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States facilitates the necessary measures for the sustainable development of peoples.  Sovereign equality of all States is a fundamental principle of the United Nations.  However, some great Powers are putting new modalities into practice that undermine other States’ right to self-determination and political independence.  Given the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is urgent to eliminate unilateral coercive measures that deepen poverty and inequality.  He stressed that the use of these measures violate the principles of international law and the Charter of the United Nations, and when imposed in times of pandemic, constitute crimes against humanity.

The representative of Liechtenstein said that a growing body of evidence shows that corruption is both an underlying root cause and a facilitating tool to carry out and sustain modern slavery and human trafficking.  In other words, corruption allows exploitation of vulnerable individuals as part of a low‑cost, low‑risk, high-profit illicit trade.  Profits of $150 billion per year are generated by modern slavery.  Estimates also suggest that 40 million people — 71 per cent of them women and girls — are trapped in different forms of modern slavery.  He also noted that Liechtenstein has launched a public-private partnership that aims to engage the financial sector to tackle modern slavery through the promotion of sustainable and innovative financing, responsible lending and investment, and compliance and regulation.

The representative of Singapore expressed disappointment with paragraph 74 of the Secretary-General’s report, which considers the death penalty in a manner that is inaccurate, misleading and biased.  There is no international consensus on the use of the death penalty, she pointed out.  Further, the paragraph states that United Nations accountability mechanisms will not share evidence in their possession for proceedings that may impose the death penalty, with no distinction drawn between inculpatory and exculpatory evidence.  This suggests that even evidence exonerating the innocent will not be shared, which could undermine the rule of law.  By trying to unilaterally impose its own agenda on the death penalty on Member States, the Rule of Law Unit has chosen to ignore the fact that all countries have the sovereign right to develop their own legal systems.  This, she emphasized, includes a State’s right to determine the legal penalties most suitable for its respective circumstances.

The representative of Slovenia, aligning herself with the European Union, said that emphasizing the rule of law helped reduce inequalities in the prevention and mitigation of disease outbreaks such as COVID-19.  In addition, the fight against impunity was one of the foundations of international law.  She expressed support for the principle of universality, which allows for all States to assert jurisdiction in cases involving certain atrocities.  Further, she highlighted the importance of a strong International Criminal Court that can intervene if countries prove unable to prosecute the perpetrators of serious crimes.

The representative of the United States said that corruption is a corrosive force that erodes trust in institutions, increases the imbalance between those with power and those without, and goes hand in hand with the defiance of international norms.  In post-conflict scenarios, the United Nations and other international actors faced the challenge of providing assistance without inadvertently supporting the networks of corruption that may have contributed to the conflict in the first place.  He pointed out that the first clause of the preamble to the Convention against Corruption draws a direct connection between corruption and the erosion of the rule of law.  When delegates gather in the Sixth Committee, they do so on the basis of an implicit understanding that, at its best, legal discourse is a substitute for more dangerous ways to approach problems.  That same understanding, he stressed, is fundamental to preserving the rule of law.

Also speaking today were the representatives of Spain, Russian Federation, France, Mexico, Malaysia, Iran, Netherlands, China, Philippines, Turkey, Austria, Argentina, Syria, Honduras, Saudi Arabia and El Salvador.

For information media. Not an official record.