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COVID-19 pandemic disrupts UN meetings

The wave of postponements and cancellations of UN meetings around the world is affecting preparations for the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, and the fifth UN conference on the least developed countries (LDCs), as well as efforts to reach agreements on new frameworks for biological diversity and chemicals and waste management beyond 2020.

António Guterres
António Guterres. UN Secretary General

In some areas, work is shifting to alternative virtual formats, such as the UN’s Fifth Committee on administrative and budgetary matters.

By early March, several announcements regarding the postponement or cancellation of meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic had been made. The UN Commission on the Status of Women held a historically short meeting for its 64th session, convening for a half-day on March 9, 2020 to adopt a political declaration before suspending. The CSW usually brings together thousands of participants the world for a two-week session and hundreds of side events.

Also acting early to adjust major plans were the World Bank and IMF, which transitioned the annual Spring Meetings scheduled for mid-April to a virtual format. The World Bank announced that it would cancel or postpone “all major events and conferences until further notice,” including the cancellation of the 2020 Land and Poverty Conference scheduled to hold from March 16 to 20.

In cancelling the 19th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, which was scheduled for April 2020, members of the Forum noted the “already precarious health situation that many indigenous peoples live in, and the imperative to avoid adverse impacts.”

On March 10, the ECOSOC Youth Forum and a Youth Plenary in preparation for the UN’s 75th anniversary were postponed. On March 11, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted to postpone the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC 4) on an international legally binding instrument under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), with new dates to be determined (decision 74/543). IGC 4 had been scheduled to convene from March 23 to April 3.

UNGA President, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, also announced that two high-level events would not go forward: the High-level Interactive Panel on Anti-microbial Resistance, scheduled for April 14, 2020; and the High-level event to commemorate and promote the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, scheduled for April 24, 2020.

On March 11, the President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) circulated a list of proposed changes to the Council’s meeting calendar, inviting Member States’ views. She subsequently announced instead, “we need to remain flexible.”

On March 17, the UNGA President announced that in-person, formal meetings of the UNGA “should not be organised at this time.” He suggested that the UNGA adopt any essential decisions via silence procedure, and agreeing on a simple procedure for postponing meetings.

By a separate letter, he said he had decided to cancel all in-person meetings of the UNGA’s mandated processes for the 74th session that are scheduled to be held up to April 17, 2020, stating: “These processes will conduct their activities via alternative mechanisms.” On mandated UNGA events scheduled for after April 17, 2020, he said discussions are ongoing.

The UNGA President said officials are considering alternative ways to adopt key decisions (instead of in-person meetings), and that the UNGA’s Fifth Committee has “successfully started conducting informal meetings via the UN’s Video Conference Tool (VCT).” ECOSOC, too, is exploring virtual options and solutions, according to the President’s statement on March 18.

Additional ECOSOC meetings and events have been postponed or cancelled, as follows:

  • The 19th session of the Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA), March 30 to April 3: Postponed
  • 2020 ECOSOC Partnership Forum, April 3: Cancelled
  • 2020 ECOSOC Forum on Financing for Development Follow-up (FFD Forum), from April 20 to 23: Postponed until after April 2020
  • SDG Investment Fair, from April 20 to 22: Cancelled

Other ECOSOC meetings that fall within the eight-week timeframe are:

  • The UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), from May 4 to 8; and 
  • The Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI Forum), from May 12 to 13.

Later in May, the ECOSOC Development Cooperation Forum (DCF) is scheduled to hold from May 14 to 15, and the ECOSOC segment on Operational Activities for Development (OAS) is planned to convene from May 19 to 21.

Negotiations on outcome documents of upcoming meetings, such as the ministerial declaration of the HLPF/high-level segment of ECOSOC in July 2020, may not take place in person.

Four out of five of the UN regions have had to postpone their annual regional fora for sustainable development or switch to a virtual format. The exception is the UN Economic Commission for Africa, which convened the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development (ARFSD) from February 24 to 27, 2020. These regional sessions comprise an important part of the preparations for the July session of the HLPF.

The UN Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries, and Small Island Developing States (OHRLLS) has been organising preparations for the fifth UN conference on the LDCs, which will convene in Qatar in 2021 (UNLDC-V). Regional review meetings to inform these preparations have been postponed both for Africa, in Malawi, and Asia-Pacific, in Bangladesh.

On climate change, the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is not organising in-person meetings until the end of April 2020 and official missions have been suspended.

The regional climate weeks have been postponed, as has the 2020 NAP Expo among other planned meetings. The Adaptation Committee will meet virtually instead of its in-person meeting from 24-27 March.

On biodiversity, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has announced the postponement of several meetings, including the 24th Meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice of the CBD and the third Meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Implementation of the CBD.

Both meetings are expected to feed into the preparations for the UN Biodiversity Conference, which is scheduled to take place in October 2020, in China and is expected to adopt a global biodiversity framework for the post-2020 period.

On chemicals and waste management, the fourth meeting of the intersessional process for Considering the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) and the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste Beyond 2020 was postponed, having been scheduled to convene in Bucharest, Romania, from March 23 to 27, 2020. The meeting will feed into the fifth International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5), which is scheduled to take place from October 5 to 9, 2020, in Bonn, Germany.

The Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm has announced that an upcoming meeting in Ottawa, Canada and an upcoming meeting in Rome, Italy have been suspended, while the first meeting of the small intersessional working group on the strategic framework for the implementation of the Basel Convention for 2012–2021, scheduled to hold from March 31 to April 2, 2020, will take place online.

Preparations are continuing for the 2020 COP meetings of each convention, and a final decision will be made five weeks before the scheduled dates. These meetings, all scheduled to convene in Geneva, are:

Meeting of the Bureau of the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention, June 9, 2020

Meeting of the Bureau of the Conference of the Parties to the Stockholm Convention, June 10, 2020

12th meeting of the Open-ended Working Group of the Basel Convention (OEWG-12), from June 22 to 25, 2020

Meeting of the Bureau of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention, June 26, 2020

Fourteenth meeting of the Basel Convention Implementation and Compliance Committee, from June 26 to 30, 2020

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN’s (FAO) Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific in Bhutan was postponed in late February. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGR) will have the first-ever electronic meeting of the Treaty Bureau in April. 

On trade, the World Trade Organisation’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference (WTO MC12) was scheduled to take place from June 8 to 11, 2020, in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. On March 12, it was announced that this plan is no longer feasible, and Members will deliberate on the way forward.

By Faye Leone (Content Editor, SDGs and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development)

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