Global Policy Forum

General Assembly Reform:

Mission of the Netherlands to the United Nations
October 26, 2003


The number of resolutions is consistently around 300. A very modest trend shift can be established: downwards from 1990 until 1995 and from 1996 until 2002 upwards again. The percentage of resolutions adopted by consensus remains by and large the same overtime, between 75% and 80%. The Chart shows the number of resolutions over the years. This picture together with the average "age" of resolutions suggests a rather static resolution pattern. Of course quantitative observations fall short of a qualitative appreciation of GA-resolutions. However, a static resolution pattern is likely to be at odds with the rapidly changing world during the years covered in the chart.

On the basis of the statements in the recent General Debate and earlier reform efforts, we have drafted this paper around three clusters of problems with GA-resolutions: 1) quantity, 2) quality, and 3) impact.

1. Quantity

Too Many Resolutions

There is a prevalent impression that the number of General Assembly resolutions is growing or, at least, is at an unmanageably high level. Smaller delegations tend to be especially sensitive to this issue, given the challenges inherent in trying to track so many resolutions, agenda items, and committees simultaneously.


  • Past initiatives have focused on 1) informal restraint and consultations among the President, the General Committee, and the Chairmen of Main Committees, 2) the clustering of Agenda items and the production of omnibus resolutions, and 3) the biennialisation and triennialisation of Agenda items/resolutions. See for example, A/Res/45/45, 48/264, 51/241, and 55/285. One place where consolidation has yielded results is in the "co-operation" resolutions concerning the UN's interactions with regional and other bodies (55/285 and Non-paper by President of June 15, 2001).


  • In the recent General Debate a Member State called on the Assembly to "review all of the resolutions before us, and determine those that need to be consigned to the record books and those that merit the continued attention of the Assembly." Here the Assembly could charge the General Committee or consider the creation of its own "eminent persons group" to prepare such an assessment of the list of resolutions before the GA. This could be a one time exercise, but it could also be periodic, for example every five years.


  • Since there is a clear correlation between the number of items on the Agenda and the number of resolutions, consideration could be given to a suggestion in the Greentree report to consider the Agenda of the GA as a gross list of Agenda items. Each GA could draw upon that list to compile its program of work for that specific year's session. The General Committee could prepare the decision of the GA on such a program of work.

    Too Little Time

    One Member State urged a review of "the idea of concentrating the negotiation of dozens of resolutions into a few weeks," while another complained of the resulting "three-month frenzy of activities."


  • From time to time, experts and individual delegations have called for consideration of a broader spacing of debates and resolutions, but in the past the idea has not gained much traction in inter-governmental bodies. However the call to employ a year-round calendar for the Assembly could gain momentum, especially because the GA-rules do not restrict the calendar of the work of the GA in any way.

    2. Quality

    Redundant Content

    The Greentree Report, the Secretary-General, and others through the years have lamented the repetitive content of Assembly resolutions. Some delegations, of course, claim that resolutions have to be reiterated annually because they have not been implemented. But if the lack of follow-through is the problem (see below), then repeating such an ineffective device is not the answer and simply serves to feed doubts about the credibility and gravity of the forum.


  • The President could initiate a consultation with the General Committee and the chairmen of the Main Committees on establishing a rule clarifying that a decision/resolution of the Assembly stands unless and until the Assembly acts explicitly to rescind it. Though it has been said before, the President could underline that the purpose of resolutions should generally be to address new developments or concerns, not to rehash old ones.


  • A similar approach could be to agree on a review cycle as part of the adoption of a resolution. This would avoid bringing the resolution to a vote again next year, since the subsequent year would focus on review. Only if new developments or improved insights merit substantial change, the review could lead to the adoption of a substantially changed or new resolution on the item under consideration. The review could also conclude the removal of the item from the Agenda.

    Vague assertions

    One Member State complained of "rhetoric-filled resolutions confirming the status quo," while another pointed to resolutions that were just "a long list of wishes, but with no real impact." Relatively few resolutions, the critics note, either specify follow-up steps or state who should be responsible to carry them out.


  • New proposals have been made to give a role to the (co-)sponsors of the resolution regarding its implementation or follow-up. Instead of simply repeating the resolution, (co-)sponsors could report to the GA on the follow up and advise on the further handling of the item by the GA.

    Too many reports

    In many resolutions, the only "actionable" items are mandates for more reports from the Secretariat, adding to the flood of paper that inundates the Assembly and diverts the Secretariat from more operational tasks.


  • Past proposals called for the rationalisation, integration, biennialisation, and triennialisation of such reports, as well as for all bodies to exercise restraint in making such requests.


  • To break this cycle, the President, in consultation with the General Committee and the chairmen of the Main Committees, could set an annual cap on the number of reports mandated from the Secretariat. If such a ceiling held, it might compel some sorting out of priorities among the Main Committees and agenda items.

    Watered-down consensus

    The Greentree Report cautioned that the search for consensus too often leads to lowest common denominator results, adding to the problems of vague and/or ambiguous language. The Greentree Report points out that consensus doesn't require absolute unanimity and that Member States should not be too reluctant to dissent from time to time. Consensus can be overused and even perverted into a veto right of very few. The question of when or how often consensus should be sought would seem to be a matter more of political judgement than of institutional reform. Elements for this discussion could be that: (a) consensus should at least require the unanimity between the majorities within the regional groupings or (b) the obligation of the few singular member states opposing a consensus to motivate their positions and to clarify the national interests that are apparently at stake.

    3. Impact

    Lack of follow-up

    Quite a few member states stressed implementation shortcomings. As one Member State put it, "the Assembly has a profusion of items and resolutions, most of which remain unimplemented." Other than frequent assertions of the need for political will and for the developed countries in particular to give greater weight to Assembly resolutions, there have been few suggestions in the past about what could be done about this widely acknowledged shortcoming.


  • Rather than focusing on the routine reintroduction of time-worn resolutions, the President could urge the Assembly to institute a procedure for periodic reviews – perhaps every 3-5 years – of progress toward implementing key past resolutions, perhaps by issue clusters. One possibility would be to convene panels of secretariat officials and independent experts to assess what progress has been made, what the principal obstacles have been, and how the Assembly might want to proceed in the future. A number of states have called for a more interactive process than the current serial debate style allows, and this could be a step in that direction.

    Relating resolutions to the Assembly's purposes

    Recent Presidents have identified the following "core tasks" for the Assembly: "(a) To debate and take action in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations on international political, economic, social and legal questions and to consider and debate on reports from the Economic and Social Council, the Secretary-General and the Security Council; (b) To negotiate and approve international conventions; and (c) To discuss and adopt the budget" (57/861, Annex). Substantive resolutions, at best, only address the first of these three purposes. Yet their negotiation absorbs a substantial portion of delegations' time during the critical Fall months, and they have come to be identified in the public's mind as the chief product of the Assembly.


  • The President could call for a sweeping revaluation of the ways in which the Assembly could best fulfil the "debate and take action" clause in its first purpose. If repetitive resolutions have proven as ineffective a means of moving governments and publics as the Secretary-General and Member States claim, then it would make sense to begin to explore alternative ways of engaging these key constituencies. Issues on which there is something close to a consensus within the Assembly or which are emerging and will require concerted action in the years ahead are likely candidates for this new approach. In essence, means should be found to direct the Assembly's attention to the challenges ahead, rather than continuing to devote so much effort to rehashing old issues and tired resolutions. Inspiration for this approach could be found in the forthcoming report on the relationship between the UN and Civil Society.




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