Third Committee holds course on death penalty, makes historic gains on SOGI rights


The 67th session of the General Assembly’s (GA) Third Committee saw the re-hashing of a number of by now predictable debates between States, including on religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual and reproductive health and rights, traditional values, and the death penalty. Fragile gains were consolidated and setbacks avoided, though significant achievements were minimal.


The 67th session of the General Assembly’s (GA) Third Committee saw the re-hashing of a number of by now predictable debates between States, including on religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual and reproductive health and rights, traditional values, and the death penalty. Fragile gains were consolidated and setbacks avoided, though significant achievements were minimal.

Thematic Developments

Reference to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) survives attempted deletion in extrajudicial executions resolution

This year’s resolution on extrajudicial executions added ‘gender identity’ to the list of vulnerable groups that States were specifically urged to protect. Two attacks on the SOGI language were waged in negotiations. Some States[1] proposed deleting the entire list of vulnerable groups, in a bad faith attempt to ‘streamline’ the text with generic language referring to all of them. Other States[2] proposed to simply delete the SOGI language. In the end, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) tabled an amendment to delete the SOGI language, which was overwhelmingly defeated.[3]

Hard fought consensus prevails on violence against women resolution

As expected, negotiations on the violence against women resolution were lengthy and difficult, against the backdrop of the traditional values debate at the Human Rights Council (HRC).[4] New language on sexual and reproductive health, and reproductive rights was retained in the end, though only in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which, amongst other things, states that abortion should not be promoted as family planning.[5] Notably, Chile withdrew its co-sponsorship of the text this year, due to the language on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. Efforts by the co-sponsors (France and the Netherlands) to further expand the language on custom, tradition, and customary practices to include language on 'modifying social and cultural patterns of conduct' were not successful.

GA adopts new resolution on female genital mutilation (FGM)

A new resolution on FGM was passed by consensus. Though the resolution urges States to pursue education and training that incorporates a social perspective and is based on human rights and gender-equality principles, the resolution falls short of categorising FGM as a human rights violation, as some Western European and Others Group (WEOG) States and human rights defenders had hoped.

Somewhat surprisingly, discussions around several sensitive issues were relatively uncontroversial. The resolution refers to sexual and reproductive health and not the more divisive ‘reproductive rights’. In addition, though previous UN resolutions have referred inconsistently to FGM as a harmful ‘traditional’ practice, the language on traditions was not included in the initial draft, nor accepted during negotiations.[6]

Global momentum continues for abolition of the death penalty

The GA adopted its fourth resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty[7] reaffirming the UN's growing commitment towards abolition. The text was adopted by vote, with a slightly larger margin than in 2010.[8] New improved language this year includes additional safeguards for the application of the death penalty, including for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age and for pregnant women. 

The passage of the resolution was tense, though less acrimonious than in previous years. Retentionist States argued throughout the negotiations that there was no international consensus on the abolition of the death penalty, that the death penalty was not prohibited under international law, and that its application was a matter for individual States to decide.[9] Key detractors[10] proposed hostile amend­ments along these lines in the Third Committee to weaken the text but all were defeated.[11]

Third Committee grapples with potential revival of defamation of religions

It was unclear this year whether the GA would find consensus on two texts related to religious intolerance following the release of an inflammatory video "The Innocence of Muslims" prior to the GA session. An overriding concern was that the OIC might bring back a defamation of religion text. However the OIC remained committed to the cooperative approach that first prevailed in the HRC in March 2011 and GA in 2011. The GA this year adopted another consensus resolution on combating intolerance and incitement to violence against persons, based on religious beliefs that omitted any specific references to defamation of religion or blasphemy. 

As in previous years, the GA also adopted an EU-sponsored resolution on freedom of religion and belief without a vote. [12] However maintaining consensus came at a price; in exchange for the OIC dropping defamation language from its own resolution, the EU also had to make multiple concessions, including giving up new language on protection of religious minorities, and on the right to conversion.

Country Resolutions

This session saw some fairly significant developments in the country resolutions. The Third Committee again took up four country-specific resolutions on human rights:MyanmarIran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and Syria.[13]However, in a marked departure from previous years, the Third Committee adopted two of the four resolutions by consensus: Myanmar and the DPRK. This marks the first time since 2006 that the Third Committee adopted a country-specific resolution by consensus.

Consensus on the Myanmar resolution was expected, and the result of intense negotiations between the sponsors of the text (EU) and the country concerned. The resolution continues to call for reforms but also acknowledges positive steps taken in the last year. The ongoing violence against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State threatened the fragile consensus, as some OIC states (including Qatar and Iran) threatened to call a vote due to insufficient language addressing the issue. While human rights defenders were pushing for stronger wording,[14] many still see the resolution as having proven its worth as an important tool for engaging with the government of Myanmar to encourage further reforms and improve the human rights situation in the country. Whether this will in fact be the last resolution, as stated by the representative of Myanmar at the adoption, remains to be seen. Notably, the usual language referring to the continued consideration of the question at the next session of the GA has been replaced by a more vague formulation to ‘remain seized of the matter’.

Some viewed the unexpected consensus on the DPRK as a positive development, presuming that the DPRK did not call a vote for fear of an embarrassing defeat in the face of an ever greater number of States supporting the resolution. Others are concerned that the DPRK’s disassociation from the consensus after the adoption is simply indicative of a new form of rejection by the State of the resolution.

This was the first time that the DPRK resolution was adopted by consensus since it was first introduced in 2005. The resolution on Myanmar was first adopted in 1991 and was adopted by consensus until 2006 when the Human Rights Council was created — which many States regarded as the proper venue for country specific resolutions. The move to consensus of these two resolutions therefore begs several questions, including whether States are moving beyond the debate on whether it is appropriate for the GA to consider country specific resolutions. Some would point to the spate of GA resolutions this year and last on Syria as evidence of the GA’s relevance in addressing country-specific human rights situations. Some would also point to the absence of no-action motions on resolutions.[15]

Two of the four resolutions continued to be voted: Iran and Syria. The resolution on Iran was passed by 86 YES votes, 32 NO votes and 65 abstentions.[16] The resolution on Syria passed with 135 YES votes, 12 NO votes and 36 abstentions.[17]

The resolution on Syria was led by Morocco, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with strong regional co-sponsorship.[18] As was the case in the Third Committee last year, no Arab country voted against the resolution. However, in contrast to last year’s Third Committee resolution, Russia and China moved from abstentions to voting against the resolution. Several States who voted for the resolution expressed unease about the resolution’s one-sidedness insofar as it inadequately condemns human rights violations by the opposition.[19]

Votes in favour of the resolution on Iran (86) stayed constant compared to Third Committee last year (86) but unfortunately decreased compared to the 2011 GA plenary (89). Overall, the vote count in Third Committee reflects a large number of shifts in position. In terms of backsliding, changes of note include: the shifting back from abstaining to NO by Egypt and Kuwait and from YES to abstaining by Tunisia, Rwanda, Gambia, Tanzania, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Saint Lucia. There is some speculation that the backsliding is due—at least in part—to the fact that Iran is now chairing the non-aligned movement (NAM), an organisation that maintains a principled position against country-specific resolutions at the GA. More positive developments include the shift from abstaining to YES by Serbia, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Saint Kitts and Nevis, from NO to abstain by Algeria and Comoros, and from NO to being absent by Myanmar.

Institutional Developments

Three treaty bodies made requests for, and were granted, additional funding this year: the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the Committee Against Torture (CAT), and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC). CAT[20] again received an additional week per session in 2013 and 2014, for a total of four additional weeks.[21] CRPD[22] was granted two pre-sessional weeks plus two additional regular session weeks bringing the total number of weeks to five. CRC[23] was also granted the additional meeting time it requested.[24] However, the necessary funds for the CRPD and CRC requests were rolled into the regular budget for 2014-2015, delaying implementation.[25]

Though consensus was achieved on all three requests, these were not well received by some of the traditionally fiscally conservative States. The United States disassociated from the consensus on all three, while the UK singled out the CRC in particular for disassociation. Japan did not disassociate from consensus, but made statements after each adoption expressing its concern about the budgetary implications.

Negotiations on the OHCHR strategic framework follow smooth course despite initial concerns

The human rights component (Programme 20) of the UN’s proposed strategic framework for the period 2014-2015[26] was taken up by the Third Committee this year.[27] In past years, several States[28] have used the process to press for more oversight of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) by the Human Rights Council, while others have vigorously defended the High Commissioner and her Office's independence. Though it was anticipated that Programme 20 negotiations might centre around this divisive issue, fortunately no standoff occurred.[29] Positively, a number of attempts by Russia, Cuba, and China to significantly weaken language relating to the OHCHR's role and mandate were roundly rejected by OHCHR and supportive States,[30]including a Russian proposal to remove all references to OHCHR's cooperation with civil society or NGOs. However, some minor changes were made to the text relating to OHCHR's engagement with Member States, OHCHR's relationship with civil society, the treaty-body strengthening process, and legislative mandates.

Despite consensus on these changes, the resolution containing Programme 20 was adopted by vote because Israel, along with the US and Australia, disagreed with the emphasis on the Durban Declaration and Programme for Action (DDPA) in the text.[31]

[1] Holy See, Swaziland, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

[2] Russia and Syria.

[3] The vote count was 44:86:31 (for:against:abstentions).

[4] See here for more information.

[5] Egypt (on behalf of Arab Group), Holy See, Iran, Pakistan and the Russian Federation opposed these references.

[6] See here for more information on the traditional values debate at the UN.

[7] Led by Chile and Micronesia on behalf of a cross-regional task force.

[8] The vote count was 111:41:34 (for:against:abstentions). The Central African Republic (absent in 2010) voted YES this year. and did South Sudan (which did not exist in 2010). (In Third Committee the vote was 110:39:36). The resolution is a biannual one, last seen in 2010 at the 65th session. In 2010, resolution was adopted by a vote of 109:41:35 (in the GA plenary).

[9] Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Japan, Botswana, China, Egypt.

[10] Egypt, Singapore, Antigua and Barbuda, Trinidad and Tobago, and Botswana.

[11] The amendments attempted to either remove new language from the resolution (the call for States to provide  specific death penalty statistics), reaffirm State sovereignty, or assert a State's right to chose its own legal justice system.

[12] The EU changed the name of the resolution this year from "elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief" to "freedom of religion and belief" which is consistent with HRC resolutions by the EU on the same issue. 

[14] Particularly on: freedom of expression, association and assembly; the situation of prisoners; and the National Human Rights Commission.

[15] Human rights defenders have long decried the use of no-action motions, which prevent the continuation of a debate and allow States to avoid taking a position on politically sensitive issues.

[16] The vote in the Third Committee was 83 YES votes, to 31 NO votes, with 68 abstentions.

[17] The vote in the Third Committee was 132 YES votes, to 12 NO votes, with 35 abstentions,

[18] By Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.

[19] Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Brasil, and Jamaica. As a result of the resolution's perceived one-sidedness, Nigeria moved from supporting the text to abstaining and Ecuador continued to vote against the resolution.

[20] This resolution was run by Denmark.

[21] The CAT was previously granted an additional week per session in 2010, for 2011 and 2012.

[22] This resolution was run by New Zealand, Mexico and Sweden.

[23] This resolution was run by Slovenia and Costa Rica.

[24] The request was to work in two chambers at one pre-sessional working group meeting in 2013 and at one regular session to be held in 2014.

[25] At issue with the CRC request was the fact that the budget division at the UN had included the cost of 10 common core documents in the budget implication document, while the CRC is not the only committee that would benefit from those documents.

[26] The strategic framework is the principal policy directive of the UN, which serves as the basis for programme planning, budgeting, monitoring and evaluation, with effect from the biennium 2014-2015.

[27] The Strategic Framework was reviewed in June by the Committee for Programme and Coordination (CPC) of the GA. However, negotiations in the CPC broke down, and consideration of the report was deferred to the GA's Third Committee.  A summary of some of the developments that led to this breakdown is available in ISHR's Alert: A forecast of the 67th GA session, p.11, here.

[28] China, Cuba, Russia, among others.

[29] Egypt and Mexico co-facilitated the negotiations.

[30] EU, Australia, US, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

[31] 161 countries voted in favour of the resolution, 3 voted against (US, Israel, Canada) and 7 abstained.



  • LGBT rights
  • Committee against Torture (CAT)
  • Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • UN General Assembly
  • Third Committee of the UN General Assembly
  • Iran
  • Myanmar
  • North Korea
  • Syria