NEW YORK, New York — In a few hours, the gavel will come down and the United Nations General Assembly will begin, in all its grandeur and — at times — memorable oddities. Here’s what you need to know:
What is the UNGA?
The United Nations General Assembly is one of six organs of the U.N. and the one that is the most representative. At times referred to as the Parliament of Man — after the Tennyson poem — it is composed of all 193 Member States of the United Nations. While this session opened formally last week, the real festivities begin today. Under the Charter, it is allowed to discuss literally any and everything that comes before it and make recommendations to its members on how to solve issues related to peace and security, development, and human rights.
Does this happen every year?
It does. Every year in late September, the new session of the Assembly opens when the President of the General Assembly takes over from their predecessor. While it used to only convene in the fall, the G.A. now meets year-round, dealing with issues such as the ongoing civi war in Syria and human rights violations in North Korea. This year marks the 68th session since the U.N. Charter was signed in 1945.
Why is it so important then?
The General Debate — as the opening speeches are called — presents a chance for countries large and small to stand on equal footing and declare their countries beliefs and goals for the coming year. It’s a high-level event, too, meaning that rather than just your usual collection of dignitaries, the event gathers heads of state and government into one place, something that never happens in such a large number any other time of the year.
But the U.N. doesn’t do anything, right? It’s all just speeches?
Wrong. While a lot of focus is given to the political side of things, many of the side meetings are devoted to the less appreciated humanitarian side of the United Nations’ work. In particular, many events are devoted towards deciding what the international community’s goals for development should be after the Millennium Development Goals run their course in 2015. Humanitarian aid and providing for refugees will also be popular topics among the side meetings. Civil society and non-governmental organizations will also be holding meetings of their own throughout the week — including the Clinton Global Initiative and Social Media Summit — to capitalize on the attention being paid to New York.
Which isn’t to say that nothing political will get done during the week. In fact, to some observers the speeches are the secondary event. Instead, what they focus on is the various bilateral and multilateral groupings that occur on the sidelines. President Obama alone is holding sideline meetings with the leaders of Lebanon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after he speaks on Tuesday. On Thursday there’s going to be a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group as well as a high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament.
There’s also the possibility for meetings on the sidelines that couldn’t happen elsewhere. Some truly are spontaneous, as you would imagine with this many heads of state running around the same area, but many are carefully choreographed. One such run-in that may occur on the sidelines is between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan.
Then what should I be watching for?
Even though the topic of this year’s debate is “The post-2015 development agenda: setting the stage,” don’t count on the President of the GA to gavel down speeches he doesn’t find germane. A few of the hot topics likely to come up this year:
- Expect a good amount of chatter regarding U.S. surveillance practices, as nudging the Americans can be a popular pastime at the podium. Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff traditionally opens the event and U.S. spying is a major issue in her country at the moment.
- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is also set to give his maiden address before the world on Tuesday afternoon, which will be closely watched for further signs of a possible rapprochement between his country and the United States. His foreign minister will be meeting with several Western governments — including Secretary of State John Kerry, the highest level meeting between the two countries since 1979 — on Thursday as well.
- Benjamin Netanyahu last year made headlines with his interesting graphical interpretation of Iran’s progress towards possibly developing a nuclear weapon. While unlikely that he brings back the cartoon bomb, his speech next week will showcase his thinking on both Iran and the recently restarted peace negotiations with Palestine.
- Central African Republic president Michel Djotodia — a former rebel whose cohorts are currently terrorizing the country — will speak on Thursday afternoon. Whether or not this will draw attention to the plight of his state’s ills remains to be seen.
- With the Westgate Mall attack still ongoing in Nairobi, terrorism will be at the forefront of many minds. Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta will not be present, however, given both the crisis at home and his pending trial before the International Criminal Court.
- Africa observers will also be looking to see if Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir actually shows up for this year’s debate. Indicted for genocide and with a warrant out for his arrest, Bashir shocked the world by indicating that he would attend this fall’s session of the U.N. General Assembly, despite the chance that the Obama administration would take action to arrest him as advocates and celebrities endorse.
- The General Assembly is known for the, at times, flamboyant speeches given by dictators, tyrants, and strongmen. While many of the more colorful speakers have been removed from office in recent years, there’s still the chance of entertaining moments at this year’s debate, particularly from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which almost always speaks towards the end of the event.