Every year on the second Tuesday in September, the world’s governments come together in New York for the annual session of the UN General Assembly. They represent the 193 member States of the UN (as well as a few observer States). In UNGA, as the yearly conference is popularly known, all members, from the largest to the smallest, enjoy equal rights and privileges. Thus, Tuvalu’s vote formally counts the same as Russia’s, China’s or the United States’. There is no veto, unlike in the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body. In comparison to the Council the Assembly has occasionally been portrayed as merely a talking shop. In fact, the Assembly, as the main deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the UN, has extensive responsibilities. It can even step in and act in cases when the Council is deadlocked. As the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly opens today, 12 September, Politically Speaking takes a closer look at some of what’s in store and at a few of the lesser known aspects of the Assembly’s work.
The most visible part of each General Assembly session is usually the high-level general debate, which will start a week after today’s formal opening. New Yorkers become acutely – and often painfully – aware of the Assembly during this period, as traffic in the city is diverted and access to the UN headquarters area is strictly controlled. This year again, from 19 to 25 September, the Assembly will host dozens of world leaders – and their motorcades – to focus attention on some of the major peace and security issues of the day. During this period, DPA is helping organize high-level events on Libya and Somalia, as well as on supporting accountability and justice for post-ISIL Iraq. DPA will also co-host a meeting of the leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum and the ASEAN-UN Ministerial Meeting.
The Assembly’s provisional agenda for this session includes 36 matters of peace and security, including issues as diverse as the situation in the Middle East; Afghanistan; the situation in Central America; the question of Palestine; Cyprus, and the Comorian island of Mayotte. It will also look at the prevention of armed conflict, the role of diamonds in fuelling conflict, the peaceful uses of outer space, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and peacebuilding and sustaining peace, among other questions.
Syria also figures on the Assembly’s agenda. Discussion of the brutal conflict in the country has shed light on a relatively little known but very important power of the Assembly, namely the ability to call an emergency special session in order to overcome deadlock in the Security Council. A number of member States and a coalition of civil society organizations called during the 71st session for the Assembly to act under resolution 377 (V), entitled, “Uniting for peace”. The resolution, adopted in 1950 as a means to circumvent Soviet vetoes on the matter of Korea, states that where the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, the General Assembly shall seize itself of the matter. The Assembly can then call an emergency special session at the request of the Security Council or of a majority of Assembly members. The procedure has been used 10 times. The first time during the war between Israel and Egypt in 1956 and the British-French attack on the Suez Canal zone. The tenth emergency special session, on the “Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory”, was opened in 1997 and has not yet come to an end.
The Assembly is also able to establish peace operations. Indeed, under “Uniting for peace”, it created the first UN peacekeeping force, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), during the Suez crisis. The Assembly has also established a number of civilian missions, including landmark operations in Guatemala and Haiti.
Peace and security are also high on the list of priorities of the president of the 72nd session, Miroslav Lajčák of Slovakia. He has indicated he will focus on six issues, including prevention and mediation in sustaining peace.
The general debate attracts Heads of State and Government as well as other senior officials and dignitaries. The first speaker in the general debate is generally Brazil. The United States, as the host country, is always the second speaker. The order of speakers for all other member states depends on the level of representation, preference and other criteria such as geographical balance.
Every country also has the same amount of speaking time - 15 minutes - to raise any topic or issue they wish to address. Many speakers find it hard to finish their statements within the given 15 minutes. Here are some of the longest recorded speeches during the general debate:
- Cuban leader Fidel Castro's speech on 26 September 1960 lasted over 4 hours (269 minutes, to be exact).
- Also in 1960, USSR Chairman of the Council of Ministers Nikita Khrushchev spoke for 140 minutes.
President Sékou Touré of Guinea's speech to the General Assembly on 10 October 1960 was 144 minutes long (2 hours and 24 minutes).
Dr. Soekarno, President of Indonesia, again during the 1960 general debate, spoke for a little over 2 hours (121 minutes).
- On 23 September 2009, Colonel Muammar Al-Qadhafi of Libya spoke for 96 minutes.