United Nations’ Turbulent Aviation Assembly

“There will be challenges reaching agreements” ICAO’s 40th Assembly’s President Nari Williams-Singh cautioned moments after welcoming 193 member states, UN recognised countries from all corners of the globe to one large United Nations assembly hall in Montreal. The International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO — a specialised United Nations agency for aviation) 40th general assembly is a global-policy making summit that occurs every three years, aimed at tackling the challenges facing the global aviation industry today on a worldwide, regional and national level. 

While previous ICAO assemblies may have focused on working towards eternal aviation growth and economic development — this is 2019, the year the world declared ‘climate emergency’ status. Air transport is increasingly under attack for its contribution of 2% of all global man-made CO2 emissions, a figure that is likely to grow as the flying population increases. “Let me be clear, our overwhelming focus will be on Climate Change resolutions” a member of the ICAO board added ahead of the unplanned arrival of Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old Swedish environmentalist who’s leading what many consider an ‘uprising’ — attacking governments for their lack of actionable climate change measures. 

Just 3 days into the ICAO assembly, the hallways of the UN building were empty. The previously packed assembly hall, now deserted. “Why isn’t there a live stream of today’s ICAO activities?” a person asked on Twitter. The UN organisation had informed delegates of 193 countries not to arrive at the headquarters the following day. In light of a 500,000 person ‘Climate Strike’ protest led by Greta Thunberg, ICAO decided it would close for the entire day, cancelling all assembly sessions and forcing countries to re-schedule their work agenda, on the grounds of ‘security.’ Protesters marched outside the headquarters as part of Canada’s largest protest in history. A billboard on the front of the ICAO building displayed a message from UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres, recognising “My generation has largely failed until now to preserve justice in the world, and to preserve the planet”  

The 40th assembly was already off to a shaky start. 

Sanna Marin, Minister of Transport for Finland caught the attention of the assembly, breaking a stream of monotone speeches with a promising, passionate opening address to the ICAO assembly. “We need to share unity and ambition, nothing less” she urged. Marin went on to highlight the importance of sustainable fuels available to the world’s airlines today, before adding “we have to ensure aviation is considered an acceptable form of transport” —a timely and appropriate statement, given Marin’s country Finland is in the very region home to the phenomenon known as ‘flight shaming’ (or flygskam), which emerged in Sweden and encourages people the feeling of being ashamed to fly on commercial aircraft because of the environmental impact. The chief executive of Scandinavian Airlines has blamed the “flight shame” movement for a 5% fall in passenger numbers in Sweden. 

At centre stage of one of ICAO’s most unprecedented cases, Qatar’s Minister of Transport and Communications, H.E Jassim Bin Saif Al Sulaiti addressed the UN organisation. Most of ICAO’s member countries recognise how, in ICAO’s 75-year history, the organisation has not dealt with a situation quite like the sudden (and continuing) air blockade of the peninsular Gulf nation by its neighbours, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, as well as Egypt. During the assembly, Al Sulaiti submitted a working paper hailed as “completley necessary” by one delegate. The document revealed the heavy environmental impact of the blockading states’ decision to keep their airspaces closed to Qatari-registered jets, violating ICAO’s Chicago Convention and Transit Agreement (which state that states can only close airspace without distinction of nationality to aircraft”) and forcing the aircraft to fly lengthy, polluting detours on several routes. 

Seeking election, the UAE’s representative to ICAO maintains the vision of having ‘the environment’ at the core of the country’s aviation agenda — contradictory to the reality of forcing aircraft detours of a neighbouring country’s fleet, therefore aiding in the release of additional, harmful carbon into the atmosphere. “This UAE position is an example of the problem with ICAO. In the assembly hall, some countries are nodding their heads in agreement on key global issues, but the reality is countries like this are not practising what they preach, instead they are doing just the opposite” a member of a European delegation present at ICAO told me, on the condition of anonymity. 

As the ICAO assembly pressed on, four countries each lost a major airline. United Kingdom’s travel group and airline, Thomas Cook, the world’s oldest travel company, ceased operations and declared bankruptcy amid lack of funds. On the same evening, Slovenia’s long-time financially struggling flag carrier, Adria Airways flew its final flight. It’s investors admitted there wasn’t anything more financially they could do for the debt-ridden carrier. In France, XL Airways faced a similar reality, closing down during the second week of the ICAO assembly. On a smaller scale, but arguably just as significant; Peru’s Peruvian Airlines failed to secure funds required for the future of its operation, leading to an immediate collapse. Once again, the industry demonstrated how it is truly survival of the fittest.

Policymaking on important aviation issues aside, the assembly would elect 36 out of 193 countries to serve a 3-year term on the ICAO council, the highest executive body of the UN’s aviation agency. The council is the table everyone wants to be seated at. With candidates split into 3 groups, the third and final group seeking the election of the final 13 seats would be critical — given the first two groups’ elected countries are almost set in stone, such as aircraft manufacturing county heavyweights UK, France, US and China. 

In line with the recent pattern of unstable, uncertain elections riddled with collusion and conflict that we’re witnessing all over the world, the ICAO election would go on to prove it was no exception. The board began the afternoon’s election session…with an apology. 

The assembly hall fell silent, as delegates from 193 nations, many of whom should have been voting by now, were instead listening to the board explain how Saudi Arabia, an existing member of the council now seeking re-election for another three years, had been widely circling a false list outlining candidates seeking election to the council. The document distributed by Saudi deliberately removed the State of Qatar’s candidacy from the candidates list. ICAO went on to explain that due to a ‘mishap,’ the list had successfully reached the email inboxes of all of ICAO’s member countries, on multiple occasions, in addition to being handed out physically, in between daily sessions. Turkey interjected, publicly accusing Saudi Arabia of “manipulating the election” over the distribution of the false-list, with intent to deliberately mislead voters. The Secretary-general, Dr Fang Liu, the President of ICAO Dr Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, and the President of the 40th Assembly Nari Williams-Singh were visibly uncomfortable. 

Despite the revelation, the ICAO board quickly decided that the election would take place imminently, as planned — promising an investigation into the ‘mishap’, while taking responsibility for how the false list was able to reach inboxes of delegations. “It shouldn’t have happened.”

Moments later, Saudi Arabia proceeded to be elected to serve as a council member, along with the UAE, despite the two states being among the only ICAO member countries to continue to violate ICAO’s treaties. It raised eyebrows.

As the final ICAO sessions drew closer, and the temperature in Montreal dropped, a final assembly session on climate change was held. China took to the floor, explaining the country takes issue with ICAO’s climate change goals, while continuously hinting that other countries in the assembly room also shared China’s views against ICAO, but were too afraid to make it known publicly. ICAO’s President Aliuhit back. With a stern tone, he reminded China’s representative to ICAO that China ought to speak only for itself, and no other member countries. 

India, Russia and Saudi Arabia also went on to inform their reasons for being against either different parts of, or all of ICAO’s Climate Change Resolutions, including CORSIA, an instrument designed to force airlines to limit their environmental impact. A secret, immediate ballot called by China revealed that over 15 countries were against ICAO’s resolutions, despite less than five admitting so publicly. However, with the majority of countries voting for the climate change resolutions, ICAO will move forward to develop, by 2022, a roadmap for a long-term climate goal for international aviation.

For longer-term goals, the assembly concluded with member states failing to adopt an aviation-specific emissions target for 2050. Instead, the 2050 conversation will continue at the next ICAO general assembly in 2022. IATA vice-president Paul Steele told the ICAO assembly that the meeting had been “unprecedented” and “a step backwards.” He added that “sadly, I think we are going to have to move faster than ICAO is going to be able to move” on environmental matters.

Elsewhere at the headquarters, Somalia formally informed ICAO of violations from Kenya, detailing how a Kenyan aircraft flew into and landed in Somalia despite seeking prior permission from Mogadishu.  

In the shadows, Taiwan — not present at ICAO – used the opportunity to launch an online campaign demonstrating their contributions to the global aviation industry despite a lack of ICAO recognition. Amid pressures from China, ICAO still does not to recognise Taiwan, even despite it being home to a major airline, EVA Air, who operate non-stop services to Europe and North America. In the weeks of the ICAO assembly, various Canadian politicians and lawmakers called on ICAO to welcome Taiwan to the UN body.

The next time all of the UN aviation agency’s 193 countries will reconvene for this type of assembly will be in 2022. Until then ICAO is left to manage and continue to address the issues concerning several of the 193 member countries amid a climate crisis. 

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One thought on “United Nations’ Turbulent Aviation Assembly

  1. How ironic is that! Saudia Arabia, UAE et al are accused of blocking Qatar from their airspace. Turkey who has been blocking Cypriot companies and registered aircraft for the last 45 years (affecting ALL North-Westerly, Northerly, and of course North-Easterly routes) amongst other measures, has absolutely no right to comment on the Qatari issue.

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