Five Reasons to Follow the UN General Assembly Opening Debate

Every year in mid-September a ritual takes place in midtown Manhattan: the opening of the annual General Assembly at the United Nations. Hundreds of heads of state, prime ministers, foreign ministers, and dignitaries–along with their enormous security details and motorcades–flock to Turtle Bay on the East River where the UN General Assembly building stands.

The event causes a huge disruption in the already hectic lives of  New Yorkers, and road blocks and security checks make Midtown nearly impossible to access. Manhattanites generally snarl about it, but less so if they own a restaurant or hotel in the proximity of the UN. Room fares skyrocket, and prix-fixe menus disappear from the tables.

More importantly, there are policy analysts who believe the world would do better without this annual meeting, citing the big circus of entourages and bodyguards, press conferences and cocktail receptions. “Think of what would be lost if we skipped the meeting altogether,” suggests David Rothkopf. “That’s right, nothing. Nothing at all.” Others focus on the bizarre, noting the ramblings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the former president of Libya Muammar Qaddafi. Admittedly, these do not represent the finest hours of the United Nations.

While banging a shoe on the table or comparing a US president to Satan easily grabs the headlines, there is still plenty to compensate for those low moments. Here are five reasons why the annual UN General Assembly is an important event in international affairs:

1. The State of World Affairs. Without denying the emptiness of many rambling speeches and unfortunate displays of nonsensical rhetoric by certain heads of state, the opening week of the General Assembly offers a remarkable overview of the state of world affairs. The speeches reflect the current mood and tone in international affairs. They send messages both to the multilateral arena and to countries’ respective domestic constituencies. It is the best time to take the pulse of global politics. If some don’t like what they hear, with statements generally light on solutions and heavy on recriminations, they should not blame the UN. Not coming to the General Assembly will not improve international relations.

2. 15 Minutes for Everyone. It is the very principle of the United Nations that every country is equal. This may be the only week in a year of global affairs when this truly resonates.  From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, every country gets the same time on the same stage to speak out about its grievances and concerns, promote its priorities, and propose its solutions. Nearly all abuse the time assigned, some more than others (Cuban President Fidel Castro retains the record with his four-and-a-half-hour debut speech in 1960). But why should Lebanon not be allowed to plea for more support to tend to the influx of refugees fleeing the violence in neighboring Syria? And shouldn’t the Maldives have a chance to propose a binding agreement to reduce global carbon emissions, as climate change is threatening its very existence?

3. It’s the Bilateral, Stupid. Besides receptions and press conferences, the dignitaries’ agendas are filled with important bilateral meetings, which represent the very spine of every country’s foreign affairs. Difficult conversations take place to ease relationships or enhance a position. Offers are made. Deals are struck. Some foreign ministers claim that this week in New York saves them a month of travel to capitals around the world (and the taxpayers’ money to go with it). Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted last week, “If you sit in the Vienna Cafe in the UN North Lawn building for an hour or two you meet most of the FMs that count in the world today.”

4. The Side Show. In addition to the bilateral meetings, the presence of so many heads of state and ministers in the same city at the same time provides the opportunity for many side events—launching new initiatives, raising political attention on a multitude of issues, and seeking pledges for new funding. The best known side event is the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting. The International Peace Institute, which publishes the Global Observatory, organized seven high-level events during the opening week, including a dinner discussion on the Middle East with twenty-one foreign ministers and a symposium on equal rights for minorities and marginalized groups. There are hundreds of other examples. Equally important for moving items up on the agenda are the multitude of meetings happening at working level. For example, if this year’s G7+ high-level meeting only offered formal statements, the real discussion happened at working level, where delegates seeks agreements on the details such as indicators that measure state fragility. However, the high-level meeting is necessary to give impetus to the initiative.

5. Historic Moments. While the world press tends to focus on the most outrageous speeches or low points (see, for example, this disappointing list by Time magazine), the opening of the General Assembly offers plenty of goose-bump moments. How can one forget the standing ovation Nelson Mandela received when he entered the General Assembly for the first time as president in 1994? Or President Kennedy’s speech in 1961, only one week after the death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, endorsing a complete and general disarmament, and challenging the Soviet Union to a “peace race?” Often lost in the river of speeches, some sentences resound for historical reasons. This year, for example, we heard Myanmar’s former junta member President Thein Sein congratulate Aung San Suu Kyi for awards recognizing her resistance to that junta. And Mohammad al-Magariaf, the president of Libya’s National Congress, affirmed his country’s commitment to the UN Charter (in 2009, Qaddafi tore a copy of the Charter during his speech) and apologized to the world for the crimes committed by Libya’s former ruler.

Ultimately, if governments believed this were a worthless event, they would find excuses not to send their leaders to New York. But the leaders have always come back, all 67 times, and in growing numbers. This confirms that the United Nations is the leading meeting place for world affairs. And, despite the associated antics, showing up and taking part really matter.

Francesco Mancini is the Senior Director of Research at the International Peace Institute.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas