THE COMMITTEES: From the colonies to the space race - past, present, future converge in Fourth Committee

28 December 2018

A timeline that stretches from the colonial past, through the present, and into the future for the final frontier in space, defines one of the United Nations General Assembly’s most versatile Main Committees – the Fourth Committee.

In this feature series on the work of the General Assembly – the UN body which comprises representatives from all 193 Member States – UN News takes an in depth look into the Fourth Committee.

While its official UN name sketches out its historic role, the agenda before the Special Political and Decolonization Committee, spells out the very diverse range of issues that it covers today.

Initially mandated to address decolonization in the post-World War Two era, the Fourth Committee took on “Special Political” responsibilities in the 1990’s, following the independence of most colonies and all the territories which began under the administration of the UN Trusteeship Council was complete.

That list of territories included Western Samoa, Tanganyika, Rwanda-Urundi, and what was then Togoland, which was split between British and French administration.

The Special Political remit, substantially broadened the scope of the Committee to include international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space, the comprehensive review of UN peacekeeping operations, as well as UN special political missions – which do not have uniformed peacekeepers on the ground. The committee even has the job of looking at ways to “revitalize” the work of the General Assembly.

The original decolonization role continues alongside the newer responsibilities, clearly indicating the Committee’s commitment to seeing the world’s remaining colonial territories liberated.

UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata
At this meeting in November, 1978, the Fourth Committee discussed the matter of the Rhodesian Internal Settlement; the Oil Embargo against South Africa, and adopted drafts on Southern Rhodesia.

Officials

The Fourth Committee started its work on 4 October, following the conclusion of the annual high-level general debate of the General Assembly.

At its first meeting, the body elected Ambassador Dee‑Maxwell Saah Kemayah, Sr., the Permanent Representative of Liberia, as the Chair, and Faisal Nasser M. Alhakbani (Saudi Arabia), Dániel Goldea (Hungary), and Michael O’Toole (Ireland), as Vice-Chairs.

Luis Mauricio Arancibia Fernández (Bolivia) was elected the Rapporteur, tasked with preparing the report of the Committee.

In its meetings, the Committee was supported by the Fourth Committee secretariat, led by Secretary Sangeeta Sharma.

Lesser known fact: Fourth comes after First

It’s counter-intuitive, but in many UN documents, the Fourth Committee is listed after the First Committee.

Historically, an unnumbered “Special Political Committee” used to be listed right after the First Committee, which deals with issues related to disarmament and international security. In 1993, the General Assembly decided to merge the “Special Political Committee” with the then Fourth Committee, with its focus on trusteeship and decolonization.

This merger created what is now known as the “Special Political and Decolonization Committee,” officially listed in the second place of the Main Committees, after the First.

UN Photo/Ariana Lindquist
Dee Maxwell Saah Kemayah of Liberia, Chair of the Fourth Committee, convenes a discussion during a formal meeting in October, 2018.

What was on the agenda this year?

One of the key items on the agenda – decolonization – dates back to the scramble by European powers to carve out empires in the Americas, Africa and Asia.  While most of the former European colonies are now independent UN Member States, some territories remain classified by the UN as ‘Non-Self-Governing Territories.’

The list of these territories is not universally endorsed, and this year, the Committee discussed the status of American Samoa, Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, French Polynesia, Guam, Montserrat, New Caledonia, Pitcairn, Saint Helena, Tokelau, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the US Virgin Islands and Western Sahara. Details can be found here.

The Committee also looked into economic and other activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories, study and training facilities for people living there, and the implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

UN Photo/Manuel Elias
A delegate casts their vote on a report of the Fourth Committee, at a plenary meeting of the General Assembly.

Alongside, the Committee also debated assistance to Palestine refugees, and their properties and revenues; Israeli settlements and activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and the operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), adopting nine texts, which were forwarded to the General Assembly for its consideration. More details here and here.

Concerning, UNRWA, the Assembly voiced “deep concern” over the agency’s critical financial situation, caused by structural underfunding as well as rising needs and expenditures resulting from deteriorating socioeconomic and humanitarian conditions.

In addition, the Committee also looked into the peaceful uses of outer space, recommending that States which have not yet become parties to the international treaties governing the uses of outer space ratify or accede to those instruments and incorporate them into national legislation, as well as urging States, in particular those with major space capabilities, to help prevent an arms race in outer space.

The recommendations, made by the Fourth Committee, in form of draft resolutions and decisions, were tabled before the General Assembly for its consideration. On 7 December, the Assembly adopted 36 resolutions and 4 decisions, which began life in the Committee.

UN Photo/Ariana Lindquist
A stack of documents during a meeting of the Fourth Committee in 2018.

Find resources, navigating the UN system, to reach Fourth Committee resources

The Fourth Committee, like other Main Committees, uses UN PaperSmart, the Organization’s online platform providing delegates access to core documents. For delegates, Committee information, speaker lists, requests (and other resources) are available through the e-deleGATE portal.

On the UN Official Document System, Fourth Committee documents are numbered using the pattern “A/C.4/<session number>/<document number>.” For example, the document A/C.4/73/1, contains the agenda items allocated to the Committee. All official documents are issued in the six main languages.

Official and open meetings of the Committee are carried live in UN Web TV.

Additional information can be found at the Committee’s website, https://www.un.org/en/ga/fourth/

You can read our other in-depth explainers on the crucial work of the General Assembly Committees below:

 

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