What’s the point? All you need to know about this year’s UN talkfest

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

New York: For two years, it was the coronavirus pandemic. Then, it was Russia’s war in Ukraine. Throughout it all, the perils of climate change, poverty and inequality have steadily, increasingly thrummed through each convening of world leaders at the UN General Assembly.

As the 78th session opens, there’s no single clear crisis set to dominate the General Debate, as none of the aforementioned ones have been resolved. The high-level meeting will be set against the backdrop of an ongoing war, new political crises in West Africa and Latin America, a lingering coronavirus, economic instability, widening inequality and fresh natural disasters in the forms of devastating earthquakes, floods and fires.

Prince William shakes hands with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres during a meeting at UN headquarters in New York on Monday.Credit: AP

In the face of this tumult, the theme for this year’s General Debate which opens on Tuesday morning (New York time) will be “Rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity: Accelerating action on the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals towards peace, prosperity, progress and sustainability for all.”

Here’s what to know about this year’s UN General Assembly, presided over by Trinidad and Tobago’s ambassador to the UN, Dennis Francis.

What is the point of the UN General Assembly?

While the effectiveness of the United Nations has been questioned for as long as it has existed, the benefits of attendance are undeniable. From the dais, countries broadcast their agendas, grievances and calls to action to the entire world and for the permanent record.

A UN General Assembly meeting.

The exercise in multilateralism was born in the wake of World War II, and grounded in the hope for lasting peace. This week is a key chance for countries often drowned out by what they decry as a hegemonic world order to grab the attention of a larger audience. It’s also a chance for leaders to engage in meetings on the sidelines in neutral territory.

Who is coming to New York this year?

Heads of state and government from at least 145 countries are expected to take the dais at the river’s edge. Among them will be Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – all expected on the first day. This will be Zelensky’s first in-person appearance at the United Nations since the Russian invasion of his country. In 2022, the general assembly voted to grant him special dispensation to submit a prerecorded speech.

Zelensky suggested on Monday that the world body needs to answer for allowing his country’s invader a seat at the tables of power.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits wounded Ukrainian soldiers at Staten Island University Hospital, in New Yoon rk, Monday.Credit: AP

“For us, it’s very important that all our words, all our messages, will be heard by our partners. And if in the United Nations still – it’s a pity, but still – there is a place for Russian terrorists, the question is not to me. I think it’s a question to all the members of the United Nations,” Zelensky said after visiting wounded Ukrainian military members at a New York hospital.

He will also speak on Wednesday at a UN Security Council meeting about Ukraine. Russia is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the council, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to make remarks.

But the parade of speakers at the general assembly will be marked by some key absences. While they’re all sending representatives, the leaders of the rest of the permanent UN Security Council members — France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia — will not make the trip.

Global movement Avaaz filled the Manhattan skyline with 1000 drones near the UN headquarters displaying Amazon rainforest images and messages calling on governments to save the rainforest. Climate will feature prominently in the general assembly discussions again this year.Credit: AP

The presence of Vladimir Putin would certainly have been surprising, but Emmanuel Macron is a regular attendee and this would have been British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s first opportunity to address the general assembly. Macron cited King Charles III’s imminent visit; Sunak, a busy schedule. Prince William is also in town to promote his Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit and met with Guterres on Monday.

Top leaders from other major countries, including India — who just played host to the G20 summit in New Delhi this month — and Mexico, are also slated to send ministers in their steads.

Is Australia participating?

Yes. Foreign Minister Penny Wong will deliver Australia’s national statement at the 78th session where she is expected to emphasise the government’s commitment to climate change policies and to preventing conflict in the Pacific. Along with Assistant Climate Change Minister Jenny McAllister, Wong leads the Australian delegation in New York from September 18 to 23.

Wong said Australia had a large stake in the success of the UN as it works with other countries to prevent military might from stripping smaller nations of their sovereignty.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in 2022.Credit: Bloomberg

“Australia is committed to reforms that benefit people everywhere and ensure no one is left behind,” she said.

McAllister said global collaboration was key to ensuring a net-zero emissions future and provided economic opportunities for Australia.

“I look forward to promoting Australia’s constructive role on climate change at home, in the Pacific and beyond,” she said.

What does the General Debate look like?

We might be in the midst of US presidential primary debate season, but the structure of the general debate at the United Nations bears little resemblance. It doesn’t lend itself to obvious fireworks — booing or interruptions or immediate rebuttals are not permitted — but that doesn’t mean intrigue and drama are absent.

Each speech alone offers a rich text and the delivery adds subtext. Speeches can be fonts of evocative language, barbs and gauzily veiled messages. They’re supposed to run for 15 minutes, but many miss that mark.

Last year, speeches averaged around 19 minutes, drawing a wry chiding from Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová — clocking in under 12 minutes, her speech ended with: “And since obeying even the smallest of rules matters, let me finish here to respect the agreed time limit.” The longest speech in history ran to 269 minutes, and was delivered by Cuba’s Fidel Castro in 1960.

Security is beefed up outside UN headquarters in New York.Credit: Bloomberg

Member states are also allowed to exercise the right of reply, in which they can rebut criticism voiced during the General Debate.

These are often fiery exchanges at day’s end, but aren’t typically delivered by heads of state or heads of government — rather, lower-level members of a country’s delegation. Last year, there were 21 exercises of the right of reply.

How long does this year’s general debate run?

It’s still six days, as usual, but this year’s general debate ends a day later on Tuesday, September 26. While past debates usually ran from Tuesday through to Monday, with a break only on Sunday, this year there’s a two-day break. A UN spokesperson confirmed that there will be no speeches on the usually final Monday in observance of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.

World leaders have begun to gather for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly with speeches beginning on Tuesday, US time, during the general debate.Credit: Bloomberg

Why does Brazil speak first at the UN General Assembly?

It’s tradition. Early on, Brazil ventured forward when no other country would volunteer to speak first. Decades later, the South American country retains the pole position. As the host country, the United States typically speaks second (though last year, President Joe Biden had to delay his speech by a day because he was attending Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral).

For the scores of speeches that follow, the order is determined by multiple variables, including whom a country is sending to deliver the speech (heads of state precede heads of government, who precede mere ministers and other representatives), countries’ own preferences and geographic balance.

Are non-UN members allowed to attend?

Some. While all member states are invited to speak, not all necessarily take opportunity. But the United Nations also has permanent observers, which have access to “most meetings and relevant documentation,” per the UN website.

The European Union, Palestine and the Holy See (the Vatican) are permanent observers again on the docket this year. Last year, Palestine had the longest speech, with President Mahmoud Abbas clocking in at more than 47 minutes.

While the general assembly is not open to the public, the United Nations streams proceedings live.


Get a note directly from our foreign correspondents on what’s making headlines around the world. Sign up for our weekly What in the World newsletter.

Most Viewed in World

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article