THE COMMITTEES: General Assembly’s Sixth Committee, handling the ‘nuts and bolts’ of international law

28 December 2018

The Sixth Committee’s work, as the primary forum at the United Nations considering legal questions and matters in the General Assembly, is at the very core of living. From getting married to getting a speeding ticket, everything we do in our daily life is based on some kind of local, national and regional law. 

And a good deal of what we do locally, nationally and regionally is based on some type of international agreement which, in turn, helps build a rules-based international order – one where nations around the world agree to uphold shared commitments and enact laws that engender shared goals – like global peace, security and a sound and healthy world. 

Every session, the Sixth Committee seeks ways to build common ground for that rules-based international order. During six weeks of meetings, representatives from 193 Member States convene to examine and develop language – the very DNA of any document - that can then become a part of that rules-based order – be it a treaty, declaration, model law or guideline.    

‘Nuts and bolts’ of international law

Along with tackling the nuts and bolts of developing and codifying international law and building that rules-based international order, the Committee also seeks ways of ensuring that, as the world changes, so does its legal architecture. Law, as the Committee sees it, is a living thing – responding to and supporting the world’s ever-changing needs. 

An example of this can be found in the work of the Sixth Committee’s review of the report of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL).  As it does every session, UNCITRAL presents its work to the Committee.  Trade – critical for development – requires agreements that incorporate every aspect of business dealings, from cross-border insolvency to mediation. 

However, with the advent of the Internet, trade agreements also need to be revised and/or developed to cover electronic commerce.  The Commission’s presentation ensures that feedback from Member States which have diverse capabilities for electronic trade are taken into consideration.   

The matter of electronic capabilities was also spotlighted in the 73rd session as the Committee introduced a new agenda item on strengthening and promoting the international treaty framework.  Treaties are the very foundation of a rules-based order and their registration and publication not only promote transparency in international relations, but also establish a central source of international agreements that can be used for practical purposes as well as for academic research. 

During the debate on the matter, several representatives emphasized the importance of using electronic communications in the registration of treaties. However, others pointed out that developing countries often encounter challenges in accessing such technologies, thereby possibly limiting the accessibility of information and treaty texts. 

Nonetheless, it was observed that the Treaty Section of the UN Office of Legal Affairs registers some 1,300 treaties per year and undertakes double that amount of treaty actions. Despite that fact, treaty registration is geographically imbalanced and in need for a review of the regulations that govern its framework, a crucial consideration in promoting development and a global rules-based order.

Political Advisors to the General Assembly's Sixth Committee from Rwanda, Egypt and Gambia in discussions duirng the Committee's 2018 session at UNHQ.
UN Photo/Kim Haughton
Political Advisors to the General Assembly's Sixth Committee from Rwanda, Egypt and Gambia in discussions duirng the Committee's 2018 session at UNHQ.

Experts on international law

The Sixth Committee also reviews the International Law Commission’s report every session, discussing and giving feedback on the Commission’s elaboration of legal concepts that are critical to supporting a peaceful and secure world.  The Commission, or ILC, is an expert-body tasked with the promoting the development and codification of international law.

The interchange between the Committee and the International Law Commission, as with UNCITRAL, is a crucial component of creating a rules-based international order, for it is here that UN Member States highlight areas that call for clarifying existing legal concepts or developing new ones where there is a lack of legal structures and oversight.   

An example of the importance of this relationship can be found again in the 73rd session where Member States underscored the importance of the Commission taking up in its future programme of work the international legal implications of sea‑level rise, including the consequences of statelessness from sea-level rise and the ensuing humanitarian repercussions. In addition, maritime zones in which States generate significant revenue are being impacted by the phenomenon of climate change and legal constructs are needed to address the matter.

The Commission’s conclusions would begin the process of developing laws that could protect affected States and address the crises resulting from climate change.

Following the Sixth Committee’s 35 meetings during the 73rd session, it recommended to the General Assembly for adoption 23 resolutions and 7 decisions covering wide-ranging topics including criminal accountability of United Nations officials and experts on mission, rule of law at the national and international levels, protection of persons in the event of disasters and requests by intergovernmental organizations for observer status in the General Assembly. 

Those draft resolutions and decisions were first approved in chamber by consensus (without a vote) – a tradition the Sixth Committee has upheld for decades.  That tradition models the ideal of a world engaged in a rules-based international order – sharing commitments and goals that bring forth peace and prosperity, security and safety to all citizens of all nations.  

Despite several delegations disagreeing about the inclusions of language in certain texts, the Sixth Committee Chair stressed: “We were able to guard the spirit of consensus over and above any differences between the delegations and the groups.  We have fought the good fight.” And the Sixth Committee will continue that fight - taking the DNA of language and striving to build international law for a better world.

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


♦ Receive daily updates directly in your inbox - Subscribe here to a topic.
♦ Download the UN News app for your iOS or Android devices.