World leaders speak at United Nations General Assembly

Several days of speeches from heads of state and government began last Tuesday as the General Debate of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) kicked off in New York, United States with the climate crisis and the war in Ukraine expected to figure prominently at the United Nations this week.


This year’s week-long high-level UN gathering, which runs from Tuesday, September 19, through to Tuesday, September 26, is the first full-on meeting of world leaders since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted travel, has 145 leaders scheduled to speak. It’s a large number that reflects the multitude of crises and conflicts.

Given the diversity of speakers, the General Debate usually covers a range of issues of regional and global interest. But for the first time in years, US President Joe Biden, who spoke soon after Guterres, is the only leader from the five powerful veto-wielding nations on the UN Security Council to address the 193-member assembly.

Absent Presidents

For the first time since 2010, leaders of four of the council’s five permanent members, known as the P5, were not speaking at the General Debate. The four others, China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Rishi Sunak, are all skipping the UN this year and this has put the spotlight on Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who made his first appearance at the assembly’s podium later last Tuesday, and on President Biden, who was watched especially for his views on China, Russia and Ukraine.

Rishi Sunak will be the first British Prime Minister in more than a decade to skip the event, saying his busy schedule prevents him from going to New York. French President Emmanuel Macron also misses the event, citing scheduling conflicts.

The high-level General Debate, which began last Tuesday, following two weeks of meetings, is the most widely watched event in the UN’s annual calendar as it provides world leaders and heads of state the opportunity to lay out their priorities for the coming year, urge cooperation on pressing issues and often call out their adversaries. “It is a one-of-a-kind moment each year for leaders from every corner of the globe to not only assess the state of the world but to act for the common good”.

This year’s theme

This year’s General Debate is being held on the theme, “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”.

Insisting that international cooperation is critical, the United Nations Chief, Anthonio Guterres, delivered a dire warning to leaders from across the world when he opened the debate last Tuesday, declaring that the planet was becoming unhinged with mounting global challenges and geopolitical tensions and warning that “we seem incapable of coming together to respond.”

Addressing Presidents and Prime Ministers, monarchs and ministers at the opening of the UN General Assembly’s high-level meeting, the Secretary-General ticked off a list of “existential threats” the world is facing, from climate change to disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence.

“Our world is becoming unhinged. Geopolitical tensions are rising. Global challenges are mounting. And we seem incapable of coming together to respond,” Guterres told the people who run the world’s nations. He said the United Nations and the ways that countries cooperate must evolve to meet the era.

US President

President Joe Biden, during his speech last Tuesday, said the number of Security Council permanent members should be increased. His remarks echoed his initial call from last year when he specifically said permanent seats should be granted to nations in Africa and Latin America. “We need to be able to break the gridlock that too often stymies progress and blocks consensus on the council,” he said Tuesday. “We need more voices and more perspectives at the table.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has told the UN General Assembly that, "Evil cannot be trusted," as he urged the world to unite to end Russian aggression against his country. In a passionate speech in New York, which focused heavily on the danger Russia poses to the world, Mr Zelensky said a nuclear-armed Moscow must be stopped from "pushing the world to the final war,"  adding that other common challenges such as climate change can only be properly addressed after Moscow had been pushed back.

The overall role of UNGA

The 193-member UN General Assembly debates matters of human rights, international law and cooperation in “economic, social, cultural, educational, and health fields”. It has the ability to pass resolutions and declarations meant to set out the guiding principles of the organisation.

According to the UN Charter, the body is also charged with addressing matters of international peace and security not currently being addressed by the UN Security Council (UNSC). The UNGA approves the UN’s sprawling annual budget and one of its six main committees directly oversees the funding of peacekeeping missions around the world.

Who speaks at the UNGA

The UNGA president typically delivers the first speech of the General Debate. This session’s leader, Dennis Francis from Trinidad and Tobago, has said that he wants to prioritise greater multilateralism and equal opportunity during his tenure.

Brazil then traditionally delivers the first country speech, with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva expected to make climate change a centrepiece of his address. Lula, who took office in January, has vowed to re-establish Brazil as a global leader in the environment and bolster the protection of the critical Amazon rainforest after years of destruction.

From there, “the order of speakers then follows a complex algorithm reflecting level of representation, geographical balance, the order in which the request to speak was recorded and other considerations”, the UN says on its website.

The Sustainable Development Goals

The UN has described the Sustainable Development Goals  (SDG’s) as “an urgent call for action” between nations to address poverty, hunger and other global issues.

They were laid out in the so-called “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, which was adopted in 2015 and provides a blueprint for achieving several benchmarks by 2030.

The list includes 17 goals, including ensuring quality education, providing clean water and sanitation, and taking urgent action to tackle the climate crisis.


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