Dennis Francis — The Assembly President
Dennis Francis — The Assembly President

Leaders reflect on UN’s institutional challenges as meeting ends

The High-level Week of the 78th Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (UNGA) 2023 has concluded at the UN Headquarters in New York, USA with more than 190 speakers, including 136 heads of state and governments and 40 ministers having addressed the UNGA during the General Debate.


Over the past week, the UN’s principal organ with universal membership heard heads of state and governments who outlined various challenges, from the existential threat of climate change to the misuse of artificial intelligence.

During the annual debate, global leaders stated that while the UN faced institutional challenges, it remained the paramount platform for crafting collective solutions to humanity’s challenges. 

Closing General debate

The Assembly President, Dennis Francis, addressing the Assembly at the closing of the General Debate, highlighted the continued relevance of the General Assembly and the United Nations’ unwavering commitment to delivering peace, prosperity, progress and sustainability to people around the world. “These developments are a welcome reminder that the United Nations remains focused on the collective challenges of our time,” he stressed.

Addressing ongoing conflicts globally, Mr Francis offered his assistance in facilitating peace and friendship dialogues between nations or groups in conflict and stated, “Be assured that I am at your service” while identifying common themes that signal Member States’ priorities, challenges and concerns going forward.

Highlights of meeting

He highlighted on the need to invest in education, particularly for girls, reform the international financial architecture, to achieve accessibility, equity and justice in development finance, respect political independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity by ending the Ukraine war and giving “undivided attention to other raging conflicts” and embracing climate action by safeguarding the Earth’s natural resources, preserving biodiversity, and ensuring equitable access to clean air and water.

He lauded member states for taking part in the high-level dialogue on development financing, highlighting the prevalence of discussions on the need to reform global finance for the benefit of the developing world. 

“We can’t rest until there’s accessibility, equity and justice in development finance,” he said and added, “Few topics raised during the week were as “frequent, consistent or as charged” as the war in Ukraine.

According to him, the conflict being perpetrated by a permanent member of the UN Security Council was “unconscionable,” and had rekindled “unthinkable” decades-old fears of nuclear weapons and recommitment to “shining a spotlight on the urgent need to resolve these situations of deep concern”.


President Francis said these challenges demand full engagement in preparations for the 2024 Summit of the Future, to “define the future of international cooperation amid multidimensional risks.” And called on Member States to “refocus their energies towards creating a world that grows sustainably, for the people and planet, and that gives every child an equal chance at success”.

The General Debate kicked off on September 19 and ended on Tuesday, September 26, 2023. It was part of the UNGA High-level Week, along with other high-level events, including the SDG Summit, the Climate Ambition Summit, three high-level meetings on health, the High-level Dialogue on Financing for Development (FfD), and a preparatory ministerial meeting for the Summit of the Future. 

Four major declarations

The UNGA resulted in four major political declarations, covering “universal healthcare; work to end tuberculosis; pandemic prevention, preparedness and response; and the need to urgently … scale up sustainable development progress”.

The final declaration was described as a “particularly remarkable win” by Francis, who said it served as a commitment to “push harder and close the gaps”.

Climate change requires each member state to “look closely at our own carbon footprints” and move beyond gross domestic product (GDP) to a “metric that captures a country’s true vulnerability to shocks”.

Francis urged member states to take part in the UAE-hosted UN Climate Change Conference later this year with a spirit of “unity and solidarity”, and deliver a bold plan of action.

“Whether on climate or conflict, poverty or justice, peace or strong institutions, these aren’t just global calls, they’re existential calls,” he said.

Francis ended his address by reminding member states: “We hear so often that the clock is ticking. We have it within us today to heal our divisions, find integrated solutions that reflect our universal values and commitments, and usher in a brighter tomorrow.”

Massive turnout

Preliminary figures indicated that this year’s High-Level Week witnessed the largest in-person gathering of world leaders at the UN Headquarters in New York, US, since the COVID-19 pandemic, with some 88 heads of state, 42 heads of government, and over 650 ministers in attendance. 

Top officials took advantage of this massive turnout to engage in more than 2,000 bilateral meetings that took place and according to the UN, “over 13,000 country delegates, 2,600 members of the media, and more than 40,000 other participants were registered for the general debate and its over 100 associated events,” which included the first-ever SDG Action Weekend, from September 16-17. 

One such event was the kickoff SDG Action Weekend on September 16-17, which brought together civil society, businesses, youth, scientists, local and regional governments, and other stakeholders to mobilise coordinated efforts towards realising the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all 193 UN Member States in 2015.


Determination and commitment

The Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, summarising the high-level week, noted a collective determination among all stakeholders to achieve the ambitious development agenda, especially at the halfway mark in pursuing the SDGs.

Speaking to reporters in the afternoon, she also highlighted the importance of resources and cited the growing burden of debt on many countries, preventing them from adequately funding essential services in education and health.

“We are short of the resources but that’s why we’re pushing for the SDG stimulus. That is a low-hanging fruit. That is something we can do with existing resources and institutions. And I hope by the end of this year, we'll have something to say about that,” she said.

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