The United Nations is holding its 78th General Assembly this week, at its New York headquarters. But what does that mean? Who’s at the Assembly, what do they discuss, and what rules govern them?
What is the UN General Assembly?
As its name implies, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is the UN’s main gathering – a place at which its members can meet, debate and construct policy.
It decides UN budgets, elects the UN Secretary-General and appoints the non-permanent members of the Security Council. By considering reports from other UN departments, it can also make recommendations via resolutions – decisions voted on by all members.
How did it begin?
The first session was in January 1946, straight after World War II, in London. The UN decided to build a headquarters in New York, which was completed by the early 1950s, and most General Assemblies have been held there since.
Who is allowed to speak at the UN General Assembly?
The UN has 193 member states – and at the assembly, just about every one of them gets a chance to speak (145 heads of state or government are expected this year). For some countries, it’s a rare chance to address so many of their peers at once, and on something like an equal footing.
Officially, the speeches are supposed to only be 15 minutes or less, but that’s an advisory that is often broken. Last year’s speeches averaged around 19 minutes, with Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova ending within 12 minutes by drily noting “Since obeying even the smallest of rules matters, let me finish here to respect the agreed time limit.”
(Caputova would presumably not approve of the longest speech on UN record – a seat-shuffling 269 minutes, from Cuban President Fidel Castro in 1960.)
What sorts of topics are aired?
To some extent, that depends on events. Recent years have been dominated by the pandemic and then the conflict in Ukraine, as well as the global economic instability brought about by those global shocks.
Other themes – poverty, inequality, climate chaos – recur regularly, along with a well-intentioned desire to improve the future. The theme for this year’s debate sums it all up: “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.”
It’s also worth noting that while at the UN for the Assembly, many nations take the opportunity to meet on the sidelines in smaller groups, often finding common ground and allies with which to pursue mutually advantageous ideas.
Is it a debate?
The General Assembly (this year, starting on September 5) includes the General Debate (this year, starting on September 19). But according to the UN itself, it’s “not actually a debate”– it’s more of a turn-taking exercise in speech-making than the sort of rapid back-and-forth that typifies, for example, a parliamentary debate such as the UK’s Prime Minister Questions.
One exception is that member states are given the right to reply, in which they can rebut criticism voiced during the debate. As direct responses, these rebuttals are often the fiercest parts of the process, in which countries with longstanding frictions can make their cases.
So is everyone equal?
Technically, yes. Effectively, perhaps not. Firstly, not all decisions are equally important. Assembly resolutions usually require a simple majority – one more vote than 50 percent. But if the Assembly deems the issue at hand to be an “important question” – such as ones dealing with warfare and security, budgets or UN membership (either being granted or removed) – then the resolution must be approved by a two-thirds majority.
More importantly, the real power at the UN lies with the Security Council. The only UN body with the capacity to issue binding resolutions on member states, the Security Council is a group of 15 members, but only five are permanent: China, France, Russia, the UK and the U.S..
The other 10 members – currently Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, Gabon, Ghana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, Switzerland and UAE – are elected on a regional basis for a two-year term. However, only permanent members can veto any Security Council resolution, including new UN members or Secretary-General nominees.
Those five permanent members reflect the immediate post-World War II global power balance, but many countries say the in-built predominance of the Security Council no longer reflects a multipolar world order.
But while the five nations’ Security Council veto remains a bone of contention, the General Assembly will continue to be one of the world’s most important meetings.
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