The United Nations General Assembly, Put Simply

Secretariat Building at United Nations Headquarters

By Campaign Agent Marykate Monaghan

Following the escalation of the tension between North Korea and the USA, the United Nation’s General Assembly couldn’t have started its term at a better time. The speeches made by world leaders such as Donald Trump and Aung San Sui Kai illustrate the challenges that the General Assembly faces in providing guidance and recommendations for the Member States of the United Nations as it begins its new session. This piece will explore the functions and definitions of both the General Assembly and Secretary-General, before evaluating the significance of the world leaders’ addresses to the Assembly.

What is the General Assembly of the United Nations?

The General Assembly forms a unique, multiparty forum for discussion on a range of international issues between all 193 Member States of the United Nations. This is to ensure each member state has a voice in the matter, bringing their own perspective, view and experiences to benefit the dialogue surrounding the intended policies drafted to handle global issues.

Likewise, the Assembly acts as the main policy-making organ of the United Nations. Crucial issues such as peace, security and budgetary concerns all require a two-third majority, while other matters only require a straightforward majority. Also, the Assembly forms the only body of the United Nations where all member states have equal representation, meaning during votes each member state has an equal say.

The Assembly runs from the third Tuesday in September until December the same year, taking place in the Headquarters located in New York. The Assembly then resumes business in January until all issues have been addressed, while emergency and special sessions can be called for to the Secretary-General at request of either the Security Council or by a majority of UN members, as seen during the Special Session on Drugs requested in 1998.

What are the General Assembly’s main functions?

While acting as a forum for diplomatic dialogue between both developed and developing states, the General Assembly also holds vital responsibilities. A key responsibility is writing and reviewing reports from the Security Council and linking to the recommendations made to ensure the international political cooperation to pave the way to international peace. Likewise, the General Assembly has a duty to act as a neutral mediator offering peaceful settlements between different states when in conflict, and to develop international agreements and treaties, which set aims for the contributing nations and states to tackle specific threatening matters. Lastly, the General Assembly has the vital role of appointing the Secretary-General and the Security Council, whilst electing the sitting non-permanent members of the Security Council and the judges sitting on the International Court of Justice.

Who is the Secretary General and what do they do?

The Secretary General of the United Nations is a role formulated to couple the responsibilities of being a diplomat, advocate, civil servant and CEO into one title, and acts as a symbol of the UN’s ideals, whilst trusting the individual selected to become a spokesman for the interests of the world’s population . Likewise, the Secretary General is described as being the “chief administrative officer” of the whole organisation, and so must perform every function which is entrusted to them by the different organs of the UN, including the General Assembly, the Security Council and Economic and Social Council. This links to the Secretariat, the executive organ of the United Nations, which sets the agenda to be debated and assists with the implementation of decisions taken, which the Secretary-General heads.

The current Secretary General of the United Nations is Antonio Guterres, who is so far showing a harsh line with heads of governments, warning the recent Trump Administration that the United States’ lack of engagement with the international community may force the organisation to replace them in their leadership position. Guterres has also stayed true to the claim he made on his first day in office, “Let us resolve to put peace first”.

Who is able to make speeches at the General Assembly?

Normally, the heads of government attend the first General Debate during the opening of the General Assembly’s session, and this is when they are able to make speeches addressing the Assembly. All member-states are invited to speak during the debate, however their place in the speaking order is based on their level of representation, preference and other key criteria. The only Member-States to have their position in the speaking order secured is Brazil, who have always been the first member state to speak since 1955 during the 10th session of the General Assembly, and the host country which currently is the USA, speaking second. This could change in the next decade if another state challenges and succeeds America as the host country, as it is decided on level of representation.

The rules of procedure for the General Assembly claim that the debate should take place for nine working days, yet usually all business is completed in seven, and all addresses should be centered around the theme selected by the Secretary-General, which this year was “Focusing on people – Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet”. While this means the speeches are significant for the discussion and drafting of future policies, the UN’s General Assembly also acts as the biggest stage for the heads of government to outline their state’s own view on which issues are the most important. Further to this, it is also a chance to illustrate their status within the International Community.

Further Reading


Image: United Nations Photo @ Flickr

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