Russia and Allies Refuse to Support High Level UN Declarations on Health and Sustainable Development Goals

Eleven conservative countries have declared that they will not support the adoption of the political declarations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), pandemic prevention, preparedness and response (PPPR), universal health coverage (UHC), and tuberculosis (TB) on the United Nations agenda this week.

Although the countries did not raise their objections during Monday’s SDG Summit, the first in this week’s series of high level meetings, they declared in a letter to the UN General Assembly President that they “reserve the right to take appropriate action” during the subsequent UN General Assembly debate and formal vote on the declarations, which must follow the HLM convocations.

“Our delegations oppose any attempt to pretend to formally adopt any of the draft outcome documents in question, during the meetings scheduled for 18, 20, 21 and 22 September 2023, respectively. In addition, we reserve the right to take appropriate action upon the formal consideration of these four (04) draft outcome documents in the coming weeks, after the conclusion of the High-Level Segment of the
78th Session of the General Assembly, when they must all be considered by the General Assembly in accordance with its rules of procedures.”

It was unclear what the practical implications of their reservations would be. Typically, the UNGA formalizes the declarations of high level political meetings in a vote on the Assembly floor after the meetings are over. The letter opens the door for further debate and deliberations, however, before the close of the 78th GA session, now scheduled for 26 September – along with the possibility that the declarations may have to be approved by a vote count, rather than unanimously, as has been the tradition.

Oppose the removal of language on unilateral sanctions

In their letter to UN president Dennis Francis, dated Sunday 17 September, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe alluded to a “political stalemate” relating to “unilateral coercive measures (UCMs)” as the motive for the reservations.  The claimed that their objections had been ignored or set aside at various stages in the development of the declarations, contrary to UN procedural rules. 

According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights Commission (OHRHC), UCMs “usually refers to economic measures taken by one state to compel a change in the policy of another state”, including trade sanctions,  embargoes, asset freezing and travel bans.

One of the issues that has apparently angered the 11 countries is that earlier drafts of the health and sustainable development declarations initially had language calling on countries to refrain “from promulgating and applying any unilateral, economic, financial or trade measures not in accordance with international law”. However, this has been removed from the final drafts.

the United States, Europe and its allies have slapped a range of trade and economic sanctions on Russia as a result of the Ukraine war; Iran has faced a variety of US-led sanctions since 1979 and more recently, as a result of its nuclear programme, and Latin American countries such as Cuba have faced a US trade blockade for even longer.

However, Lucica Ditiu, Executive Director of the Stop TB Partnership (STBP), told a webinar last week that long-held health rights had also been contested during the negotiations on all three political declarations on health.

“I was in the room and I could hear with my own ears and see with my own eyes Member States literally saying ‘we don’t want to see any language around gender’; ‘can you remove everything that is about the rights of the key and vulnerable populations’. Bodily autonomy and integrity is like up there in the sky,” said Ditiu.

“Even as weak, as watered down as these declarations are, as far as I understand, none of them is actually fully endorsed.” 

Four grievances

In the Letter to UNGA 17 September 2023, sent on a letterhead from the Venezuelan Representative to the UN, the countries outline four key grievances.

First, a small group of developed countries were unwilling to “engage in meaningful negotiations to find compromises, forcing unfair practices which pretend to impose a kind of ‘veto’ on certain issues, and pretending to even prevent their discussion within the framework of intergovernmental negotiations”.

Second, “negotiations were not conducted in a truly inclusive, fair and balanced way”, including the draft outcome of the SDGs Summit being “reopened with the purpose of exclusively accommodating the priorities of a few delegations from developed countries” while “nothing was done to reflect and accommodate the legitimate concerns of delegations from developing countries that, in addition, had broken silence repeatedly, including the Group of 77 and China”.

Third, there were attempts to “ignore formal communications of delegations from developing countries, including from the Group of 77 and China, on behalf of its 134 Member States, indicating strong reservations and objections.”

Finally, the letter claims that the UNGA president had attempted to “force consensus” when it is” evident that no consensus has been reached on any of these processes”.

The delegations conclude by saying that they will “oppose any attempt to pretend to formally adopt any of the draft outcome documents in question, during the meetings scheduled for 18, 20, 21 and 22 September 2023, respectively”. 

Despite the formal objections, the Political Declaration on the SDGs was adopted at Monday’s SDG Summit.  See related story.

Global Leaders Sound Alarm on Sustainable Development Goals at UN SDG Summit

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