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Report Subcommittee on Definitions

Represented by David Stein

The United Nations World Conference was a remarkable experience. The task of the “Definitions Subcommittee” was to find a definition on “Unilateral Acts of States”. Unilateral Acts are a category of international law meant to make international relations more predictable and stable. Therefore, most importantly, we had to determine who could express unilateral acts on behalf of a state and how. Our draft articles were to be handed to the other two subcommittees as they needed our work, which was inevitably the basis of the treaty.

It had not been easy to find information on Bangladesh’s position towards the topic of ‘Unilateral Acts of States’. However, as Bangladesh has repeatedly been victim of unilateral acts – for example India is unilaterally channeling water from the Ganges River onto its territory – we concluded that Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are extremely vulnerable to unilateral action. Bangladesh is also concerned by unilateral nuclear test by India and Pakistan. This illustrates that third states can be subject to a unilateral act, even though the state performing the act did not intend to affect a third party. Therefore, we had concluded that immediate action in order to remedy a harmful unilateral act would be a main priority for Bangladesh.

I was excited to find out whether our demanding preparation had been fruitful or not: From the beginning I tried hard to find partners with whom I could formulate a common position. In order to do so, I had prepared letters which I sent to the other delegates, hoping to obtain as much attention as possible. This was, however, not as easy as I had assumed – unfortunately, many potential partners were not represented at all. Nevertheless, I managed to gather some delegates and we exchanged our standpoints and found a compromise. Then we began to negotiate with other countries and tried hard to persuade them to support our definition.

Unfortunately, I had the impression that some delegates were not well prepared. I had some difficulties explaining basic legal principles or the results achieved by the International Law Commission. Consequently, I had to clarify the distinction of already existing legal instruments and unilateral acts. This was a time-consuming and challenging task. But I was not discouraged. On the contrary, it was an excellent occasion to negotiate with other delegates and to explain Bangladesh’s position. In fact, I am proud to say, that it was in part due to my commitment in explaining and clarifying the legal framework of the UN that a satisfactory definition was agreed upon.

During the negotiations, we especially tried to approach India and Pakistan, as we assumed that their consent would be a major step towards the ratification of the convention. As they were not as much interested in a restrictive convention as we were, we tried to find a compromise. And our negotiations were successful: We managed to convince both states that a balanced agreement would have a positive impact on all countries. With India and Pakistan as our partners, it was quite easy to convince other South Asian states to support our proposals.

On the second day, the UNWC committees had the opportunity to hear two Harvard academics on the topic, lecturing International Law at Harvard University. Obviously, the chair had deemed it necessary that experts elucidate the topic. They gave a short introduction to international law and then discussed the role of unilateral acts in the existing legal structure. It was a great experience for us to participate in this workshop and certainly a highlight of the conference. However, contrary to its intention, the workshop created some confusion and encouraged delegates to abandon the definition which we had put forward beforehand.

On the last day, all delegates from all three subcommittees came together in order to vote on the articles, to put them together as a treaty and to sign it.

Bangladesh’s efforts to be legally precise and to attach adequate significance to existing international law had an immense impact on the final version of the treaty. However, we only accepted to sign the treaty with reservations, as some clauses obviously contradicted international law or were insufficient.

The challenging task of organizing and conducting a three-fold committee which had to coordinate and match whatever was said in one of the subcommittees, may have been underestimated by HNMUN staff, maybe also because some knowledge of international law was essential to dealing with this topic. Unfortunately, many lacked this knowledge – a fact that was difficult to bear for those who were thoroughly prepared. So, I have to admit, that my expectations were not fulfilled.

But must expectations always be fulfilled? I learned a lot, not only about diplomacy, (mediation) and the United Nations but also about other (Nations’) approaches to rhetoric, international relations or conflict resolution. The more I consider my disappointment about the Conference the more I realize that it was an indispensable experience which helped me to gain insights and which will undoubtedly remain precious for the rest of my life – more than any successful outcome of the Conference.

David Stein