UNITED NATIONS (AP) — For two years, it was the coronavirus pandemic. Then, it was Russia’s war in Ukraine. Throughout it all, the perils of climate change, poverty and inequality have steadily, increasingly thrummed through each convening of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly.
In the face of this tumult, the theme for this year’s General Debate will be “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.”
While the effectiveness of the United Nations has been questioned for as long as it has existed, the benefits of attendance are undeniable. From the dais, countries broadcast their agendas, grievances and calls to action to the entire world and for the permanent record.
The exercise in multilateralism was born in the wake of World War II, and grounded in the hope for lasting peace. This week is a key chance for countries often drowned out by what they decry as a hegemonic world order to grab the attention of a larger audience. It’s also a chance for leaders to engage in meetings on the sidelines in neutral territory.
But the parade of speakers will be marked by some key absences: While they’re all sending representatives, the leaders of the rest of the permanent U.N. Security Council members — France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia — will not make the trip. The presence of Vladimir Putin would certainly have been surprising, but Emmanuel Macron is a regular attendee and this would have been British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s first opportunity to address the General Assembly. Macron cited King Charles III’s imminent visit; Sunak, a busy schedule.
Top leaders from other major countries, including India — who just played host to the G20 summit in New Delhi this month — and Mexico, are also slated to send ministers in their steads.
WHAT DOES THE GENERAL DEBATE LOOK LIKE?
We might be in the midst of U.S. presidential primary debate season, but the structure of the General Debate at the United Nations bears little resemblance. It doesn’t lend itself to obvious fireworks — booing or interruptions or immediate rebuttals are not permitted — but that doesn’t mean intrigue and drama are absent.
Member states are also allowed to exercise the right of reply, in which they can rebut criticism voiced during the General Debate. These are often fiery exchanges at day’s end, but aren’t typically delivered by heads of state or heads of government — rather, lower-level members of a country’s delegation. Last year, there were 21 exercises of the right of reply.
It’s still six days, as usual, but this year’s General Debate ends a day later — Tuesday, Sept. 26. While past General Debates usually ran from Tuesday through Monday, with a break only on Sunday, this year there’s a two-day break. A U.N. spokesperson confirmed that there will be no speeches on the usually final Monday in observance of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
WHY DOES BRAZIL SPEAK FIRST AT THE UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY?
It’s tradition. Early on, Brazil ventured forward when no other country would volunteer to speak first. Decades later, the South American country retains the pole position. As the host country, the United States typically speaks second (though last year, President Joe Biden had to delay his speech by a day because he was attending Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral ).
For the scores of speeches that follow, the order is determined by multiple variables, including whom a country is sending to deliver the speech (heads of state precede heads of government, who precede mere ministers and other representatives), countries’ own preferences and geographic balance.
ARE NON-UN MEMBERS ALLOWED TO ATTEND?
Some. While all member states are invited to speak, not all necessarily make avail of the opportunity. But the United Nations also has permanent observers, which have access to “most meetings and relevant documentation,” per the U.N. website.