American journalists like to call the General Assembly’s yearly General Debate, when hundreds of global leaders descend on UN HQ during the third week of September, “the Super Bowl of diplomacy”, comparing it to biggest single sporting contest in the United States. And in those hectic early autumn days, the UN does sometimes seem to be hosting a series of competitions – for attention, for the biggest names, for the largest attendance. For the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), the General Debate is the occasion to focus international interest and energy on different peace initiatives. This year, DPA helped organize a high-level event on Somalia, the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting and the ASEAN-UN Ministerial Meeting. Another high-powered gathering, on Libya, served as the stage to relaunch a stalled political process under UN stewardship. The event only lasted two hours, but took weeks of intense preparation to pull off. Politically Speaking followed the DPA team responsible for the meeting during the preparatory phase. Read on to get a flavor of the efforts, large and small, needed to put together one of the General Debate’s signature events.
“I believe this meeting can have an historic significance,” said Secretary-General António Guterres as he opened a high-level meeting on Libya at UN headquarters on 20 September, the second day of General Assembly’s 2017 General Debate. “It is my deep belief that there is an opportunity for a political solution in Libya,” he added.
The Secretary-General was addressing a widely anticipated meeting convened to relaunch the Libyan political process under the facilitation and leadership of the United Nations and to present a new plan for the country’s transition. A new start is needed because, as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Libya, Ghassam Salamé, put it during the meeting, “A succession of transitions have failed to bring to the Libyan people what they want the most: stable, effective and predictable governance and decent living standards.” Heads of State, Ministers and representatives of 44 countries and three regional organizations took the floor during the event to voice their support for a plan Salamé was presenting formally for the first time. In the wake of the New York discussions, the Special Representative is already helping put the plan into action.
The New York meeting was considered a success. But such an event does not just happen. Weeks of preparation, by the Special Representative and DPA staff in New York, went into putting it together. In July, during his first meeting with the Special Representative, the Secretary-General asked him and DPA to draft an action plan and strategy for UN engagement in Libya. The Secretary-General also asked that the strategy be presented at a high-level event that he would convene on the margins of the General Assembly, recalls Sandra Bitar, DPA North Africa team member. With less than two months to put together a meeting that would eventually bring together French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May, President of Egypt Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, President of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso, Prime Minister of Italy Paolo Gentiloni, and other leaders, the clock was ticking. Loudly.
The DPA North Africa team, six women hailing from six different countries and speaking a combined eight languages, had to get a sense of the key messages and level of support of different Member States and modulated its outreach on that basis. Francesca Jannotti Pecci, DPA’s North Africa team leader, told us about the preparations: “I am very privileged to be able to count on such a strong and diverse team. Preparations for this kind of events, where the entire UN membership is involved, are a very labor-intensive exercise, requiring a lot of coordination among different parts of the UN system, in particular the Secretariat offices and departments, Conference Services, Security, et cetera.” And that was just for the logistical arrangements. Preparations also included liaising with many member States and helping to mobilize international support for the new plan.
The meeting itself followed a traditional script: the Secretary-General made an opening statement, followed by Special Representative Salamé, presenting the action plan, after which Faiez Mustafa Serraj, Prime Minister and President of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord of Libya gave an update on recent political and security developments, as well as on the humanitarian situation in Libya. Global leaders then took the floor to express support for the new UN-facilitate Action Plan on Libya. There was so much interest in the proceedings that time ran out before all those who wanted to speak could be accommodated. All the footwork, sweat and nerves that went into putting the meeting together paid off, participants agreed.
“There have been numerous statements of support and I believe the main objective of the meeting was achieved by somehow re-placing the United Nations at the center of the facilitation of the Libyan political process,” Jannotti Pecci said.
The Libyan delegation said the meeting was “a chance to reunite international community and regional players, and break the political stalemate that the country suffered from for a long period since the signing of the LPA,” Taher EL-Sonni, Senior Political Advisor to the Prime Minister and President of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord of Libya said.
During the high-level meeting, Special Representative Salamé announced his intention to convene representatives of the House of Representatives and of the High Council of State to swiftly start implementing and taking the first step, outlined in the new action plan for Libya.