Background On What the Annual UN General Assembly Is All About

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[Letter from New York]

U.N. headquarters. Photo: Javier Carbajal Commons Wikimedia 

World leaders meet at the United Nations headquarters in New York City for about 10 days every year starting on the third Tuesday of September. On the eve of the summit or General Debate, the delegates are invited by the host country to a reception hosted by the president. On the opening day of the debate, the president of the General Assembly (GA) makes a statement followed by the U.N. Secretary General who presents a report covering the work done since the leaders last met, the previous year.

Traditionally, Brazil speaks first followed by the host country, the United States of America. The list of speakers is circulated welI in advance. The statements are delivered in the General Assembly Hall by heads of delegations for 15 minutes each; a few speak a little longer. The Secretary General invites the delegations to a luncheon on the opening day of the General Debate.

The agenda is circulated to member states in good time for their necessary action. The delegates return to their countries shortly after they have made their statements. The president of the GA presents a summary or highlights of the General Debate.

The GA then breaks up into six committees which are:

1. Disarmament and International Security.

2. Economic and Social.

3. Social, Humanitarian and Cultural.

4. Special Political and Decolonization.

5. Administrative and Budgetary.

6. Legal.

Each committee has a chairperson elected by the General Assembly. The Ambassadors representing their delegations make statements on the items allocated to each committee. These statements form the basis for drafting resolutions. Negotiating resolutions is tiring and time-consuming as each delegation wants its interest included in the resolution. The resolutions are adopted in the General Assembly Hall usually by consensus. When there is no consensus, a vote is taken on the basis of those in favor, those against and those who abstain. 

The regular session ends shortly before Christmas. In the resolutions, delegations call on the UN Secretary General to help member states in the implementation of the resolutions upon request. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) assisted by specialized agencies, funds, and programs has primary responsibility for helping member states. It reports its work to the General Assembly when it meets in the General Debate the following September.

For many years, I was focal point for UNDP at the General Assembly. I had access to all meetings. I covered mostly the work of the Second Committee on economic and social affairs and of ECOSOC. I attended Security Council sessions when matters related to my assignments were being discussed.

I published a book in 2008 titled World Leaders at the UN General Assembly & What They Said in the General Debate in 2007. In the book I also summarized for general readers the League of Nations and the birth of the United Nations and its principal organs.

Eric Kashambuzi is an international economist and human rights advocate.

New York City, USA

September 2019




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