FEATURE: The UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee – special political and decolonization issues

2 January 2013

Established in 1945, at the end stages of World War II, the United Nations General Assembly serves as the world body's principal policy-making and deliberative organ, providing a forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the UN Charter.

The Assembly makes a big splash every year in late September when world leaders come to UN Headquarters in New York City to present their views about pressing world issues over a number of days, in what is known as the General Debate.

However, the issues and themes under discussion by the General Assembly lend themselves to more effective discussion in smaller settings covering different topics. So, once the Debate is over, the General Assembly’s six Main Committees select their officers and get down to dealing with the items on the Assembly’s agenda – in 2012, the Assembly had nearly 170 items on it, most of which were carried over from previous years.

All Member States take part in each of the Committees’ discussions and the agenda is divided up thematically. The issues are debated, corresponding resolutions are voted on and then forwarded to all UN Member States – in the so-called General Assembly Plenary – for a final decision.

Here, in the fourth of a series providing a snapshot of the Main Committees, the UN News Centre takes a look at the Fourth Committee.



The UN Under-Secretary-General for Field Support, Susana Malcorra, briefs the Fourth Committee on the work of her Department. (October 2011) UN Photo/Mark Garten

The past, present and future pepper debate in the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee, which deals with special political and decolonization issues over a timeline that arguably makes it the most versatile of the six Main Committees of the UN General Assembly.

Yet the Committee’s thematic name – Special Political and Decolonization – offers just a hint of its many responsibilities.

Initially mandated to address decolonization in the post-World War II era, the Fourth Committee has taken on ‘Special Political’ duties in 1990 after the independence of most colonies and all UN trust territories. However, the Committee continues to address a mix of political issues and the contentious issues of decolonization which still raises tempers and inspires heated debate.

If the ‘decolonization’ tag clearly indicates the Committee’s commitment to seeing the world’s remaining colonial territories liberated, the ‘special political’ designation is distinctly more wide-ranging.


Alongside actor Javier Bardem, film director Alvaro Longoria addresses the Fourth Committee on the issue of Western Sahara, a disputed territory on the north-west coast of Africa. (October 2011) UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Under the latter can be massed a group of issues related to Palestinian refugees and human rights, peacekeeping, mine action, outer space, public information, atomic radiation and the so-called University for Peace. But it is precisely this eclectic spectrum that has led to the committee’s temporal elasticity.

The modern colonial era stretches at least back to the 1500s, when European powers began establishing empires made up of colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia. While most of the former European possessions are now independent UN Member States, 16 territories remain classified by the UN as ‘Non-Self-Governing Territories.’

The list is not universally endorsed, making for lively exchanges in the Fourth Committee, where states with claims to the territories, sometimes with the backing of their allies, spar with one another over the merits of their respective arguments.


Nasser Al-Kidwa, Palestine's representative to the United Nations, addresses the Fourth Committee, which approved resolutions to do with the UN agency providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees. (November 2003) UN Photo/Evan Schneider

At the other end of the temporal spectrum is the Committee’s eye to the future in its consideration of how to use outer space. UN interest in things celestial began in 1958 when the General Assembly, acting a little more than a year after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite in the form of Sputnik 1, resolved to create a Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Today, the UN’s architecture for dealing with celestial governance includes the Vienna-based UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, which supports the intergovernmental discussions of both the Fourth Committee, as well as the 71-member Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

The annual space debate in the Fourth Committee has taken on increasing significance as emerging space exploring nations join the space-faring pioneers, thereby rendering the space environment more congested, but also creating opportunities for technology cooperation and transfer.

Various committee members regularly raise questions about how to handle the mounting space ‘junk’ that has been accumulating above Earth since space flights began, while some argue for a comprehensive legal framework governing oversight of humankind’s ‘final frontier.’

In addition, the committee annually discusses the activities of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA). Created by the General Assembly in 1949, the agency is the main provider of education, health, social and other basic services to the five million registered Palestine refugees, who trace their roots to those displaced amid the fighting that followed the division of the former British mandate for Palestine.


The Fourth Committee's Chairman, Ambassador Jonathan C. Peters of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, takes part in discussions on Morocco-Polisario negotiations for cease-fire and self-determination referendum for Western Sahara. (October 1988) UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata

The Fourth Committee’s focus on peacekeeping has regularly produced debate over many of the great questions surrounding the evolution of UN peacekeeping operations. Those questions include looking for ways to deploy peacekeepers more rapidly; enhance the protection of civilians; and develop police, judicial and other institutions in war-torn countries to advance peacebuilding capacity.

The atomic radiation consequences of Japan’s 2011 earthquake- and tsunami-related accident at its Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, and the contributions of the UN’s University for Peace to helping bring about a peaceful world are just two of the additional recent considerations that make the Committee’s debating schedule a full one.


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FEATURE: What does the UN General Assembly do when the General Debate ends?

The United Nations General Assembly.

Some have called it the world’s largest talking shop; others have called it a parliament of mankind. Often, there are a range of views inbetween and around those two perpectives.