“A giant petri dish where everyone’s colliding.” “Like Model UN, but for grown-ups.” “A lot of people in suits who think they’re important.” “An absolute shitshow.” “At 75… it’s got too many underlying pre-existing conditions to make it through this next period.” “The general debate.” “A vapid platform for endless speechifying.” “A two-week do-gooder festival with the most powerful people in the world.” “Dead. It’s the sideshows that really matter.”
The United Nations General Assembly, also known as the UN General Assembly or UNGA, has been called a lot of things. But, for better or for worse, it’s the only place in the world where 150 heads of state and government gather together to debate international policy issues and make key decisions.
But first, let’s rewind a little.
What exactly is the United Nations General Assembly?
The United Nations General Assembly is a forum that takes place every September at the United Nations’s headquarters in New York at which each of the 193 members of the UN has a representative.
The UNGA was set up in 1945 in the aftermath of the Second World War to be the “deliberative, policymaking, and representative organ of the United Nations.” In other words, it’s the UN’s main shindig.
At this annual get-together, countries debate and vote on international political issues like peace and conflict, economic development, and humanitarian aid. Each nation has one vote.
The UNGA also makes some key decisions for the UN, including appointing the Secretary-General, electing the non-permanent members of the Security Council (that’s the UN's chief proponent of global security and peace), and approving the UN budget. The UN is funded by its member countries — if a nation doesn’t pay it can lose its right to vote in the General Assembly.
This year, the UNGA starts on Sept. 12 and will be presided over by veteran diplomat Dennis Francis from Trinidad and Tobago.
The main event at the UNGA, which generates most of the headlines, is the General Debate, this year scheduled from Sept. 19. It’s not really a debate, however, but an opportunity for member states to take turns delivering speeches and raise topics which reflect an issue of importance to them.
After the opening debates, discussions continue in smaller committees that focus on specific areas such as peace and disarmament, or social and humanitarian issues.
The committees examine issues then present draft resolutions and decisions for consideration to the General Assembly where member nations can vote on the recommendations.
Does anything ever get done at the UNGA?
Great question. Although the UNGA has a reputation for “generating more hot air than real action,” it has seen some successes.
One of the UNGA’s earliest achievements was to agree on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, outlining global standards for human rights.
In 1968, the UNGA approved the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and called for its ratification.
Eleven years later, the General Assembly adopted a resolution on eliminating discrimination against women.
More recently, in 2015, the assembly scored a major win in negotiating the UN Global Goals (or SDGs) — 17 goals that provide a roadmap to ending extreme poverty through tackling its systemic causes, such as hunger, lack of education access, inequality, lack of access to water and sanitation, and more.
What should we look for at this year’s UNGA?
In addition to the General Debate, the weeks of the UNGA include a long list of meetings and side events. The 78th Session includes an SDG Summit (Sept. 18-19) to review progress towards achieving the Global Goals.
On Sept. 22, there is a high-level meeting on the Fight Against Tuberculosis.
Are there any no-shows?
Some leaders don’t bother with the UNGA at all. Vladimir Putin, for one, is a regular no-show. The Russian President only tends to make an appearance every other decade and the last time he attended was in 2015.
Rishi Sunak is to become the first UK prime minister in a decade not to attend the UNGA, drawing strong criticism, particularly from environmental campaigners.
Who runs the General Assembly?
Although it’s the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, who gets the limelight for most of the year, the UNGA gives the President of the General Assembly, elected each year by the member states, a chance to shine. This year it’s Trinidad and Tobago’s Dennis Francis.
What about the sideshows?
This is the world’s biggest summit and it attracts a lot of side events because of the proximity and potential participation of world leaders. The most sparkly of these events is the Goalkeepers conference run by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where celebrities, activists, and politicians talk about global inequality.
This year, there’s also a major climate march in New York City on Sept. 17 demanding a rapid, just, and equitable end to fossil fuels.
So does the UNGA even matter?
Over the last three years, humanity has experienced some of the biggest challenges of our lifetime — the pandemic, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its global impacts, the climate emergency — and, for the first time in a generation, extreme poverty is rising.
We urgently need to see action to drive transformative change now for a world that's equal, just, and free from extreme poverty — and the UNGA, for all its flaws, is one of our best shots.
So, yes, it does matter.
You can help us call on world leaders to make sure this year’s UNGA really counts by taking action now, for equity, for the planet, for food, and for jobs.