Explanation: What does a UN General Assembly emergency special session entail and why is it significant?
What does an emergency special session entail?
If the UN Security Council is incapable of fulfilling its main duty of upholding global peace and security, which is currently the situation after the recent Israel-Palestine conflict that began on October 7th, the General Assembly has the option to address the issue promptly through an emergency special session.
UN Member States can request the Assembly President to convene such a session, with a view to making appropriate recommendations for collective measures, including calling for ceasefires, and in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression, as a last resort, the use of armed force when necessary.
During the initial plenary gathering of a special session called in emergency circumstances, or during its continuation, as is currently the case with the tenth session, the Assembly usually receives statements from the affected country or countries. Subsequently, member states engage in discussions and cast votes on a proposed resolution.
If a two-thirds majority approves, the non-binding resolution from the General Assembly offers suggestions for countries. Previous resolutions from past sessions have included requests for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and for a UN-led force to intervene in order to ensure and supervise an end to hostilities.
What causes emergency special sessions to occur?
A prompt emergency session is called when the UN Security Council is unable to reach a decision. This happens when any of the five permanent Council members (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States) exercises their veto power as outlined in the UN Charter to reject a proposed resolution.
Although veto use can be promptly reviewed during a standard General Assembly meeting, the UN membership has the choice of holding emergency special sessions to discuss pressing issues related to peace and security.
This week saw developments in the Israel-Palestine crisis. The Council’s inability to reach a consensus on several resolutions prompted a group of UN Member States to make a formal request to the Assembly President.
What sets these sessions apart?
In the past 73 years, there have been a total of 11 emergency special sessions. The most recent one was organized six days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, due to a veto from the Security Council. This led to the adoption of a widely supported resolution addressing the crisis.
The unique aspect of this situation is that even with disagreement among Council members, countries can still come together to tackle urgent global issues of peace and security. Upon request from Member States or the Council, the President of the Assembly will organize an emergency session within 24 hours.
The protocols and principles for these meetings were established following the outbreak of the Korean Peninsula conflict in 1950. This was in response to the Assembly’s adoption of the significant “Uniting for peace” resolution.
One distinct feature is that, unlike the 15-member Security Council, the 193-member General Assembly does not allow for the use of vetoes. Instead, a proposed draft resolution can be adopted if it receives a two-thirds majority vote in favor from the Assembly.
What is another contrast between the Council and the Assembly? The Council’s resolutions hold legal weight, while the Assembly’s do not.
Hot spot: Middle East
Out of the 11 emergency special sessions held by the Assembly, six pertain to the Middle East.
The initial session of its kind took place in 1956 to discuss the Arab-Israeli armistice agreements of 1949, which were being ignored due to the presence of foreign military on Egypt’s land near the Suez Canal.
At the meeting, the Assembly passed a group of resolutions which included a request for the Secretary-General to present a plan within 48 hours for the formation of an emergency United Nations Force. This force would be established with the agreement of the involved nations and would work to ensure a halt to hostilities.
In 1958 and 1967, additional emergency meetings were held to discuss topics related to the Middle East. In 1980, the focus was on the issue of Palestine, and in 1982, the discussion centered around the situation in the occupied Arab territories.
Upon the request of United Nations member countries, emergency special sessions can be reconvened at any point in time, a practice that has been observed over the course of several years.
Last week, a group of nations submitted a request to the Assembly President to reconvene the tenth emergency special session due to a deadlocked Security Council.
The meeting, which was first held in 1997, addresses the issue of unlawful actions taken by Israel in Occupied East Jerusalem and the remaining Occupied Palestinian Territory.
At the start of the tenth session on October 26, the Assembly listened to a statement from the UN Permanent Observer of Palestine. Following that, Member States began their discussion of the issue.
The proposed resolution, while not legally binding, strongly advocates for peace.
Are you interested in finding out who voted and the reasons behind their vote on a particular resolution? The UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library has records of voting, explanations of votes, and related resolutions from all emergency special sessions available here.