Things to look out for during the UN General Assembly Debate

View of UN Headquarters.

It’s that time of the year again. Every September, leaders from all over the world come to the United Nations Headquarters in New York for the UN General Assembly Debate. I like to think about it as a diplomacy fest, or a yearly class reunion where you get to see what every classmate has been up to.

For many UN staff based in New York, it is also the busiest time of the year as we prepare to host VIPs and organize high-level events to bring attention to pressing global issues. While it can be overwhelming, it is also an exhilarating event to be a part of and one that I do not get tired of witnessing (This is my seventh UNGA — the inevitable UN acronym). Here are some of the things that I look forward to every year:

  1. Multiple Heads of State under the same roof. There is no other event that gathers as many high-level political figures as the UNGA. Sure, there are other political summits, but this one is by far the largest and all UN Member States are invited no matter how big or small. If you’re a foreign policy nerd like me, the chance of seeing these people in person, catch their speech in the General Assembly Hall, or bump into them in a corridor is #goals.
A wide view of the General Assembly Hall at the start of the Assembly’s 71st annual general debate. UN Photo /Manuel Elias

2. The speeches. Every representative for each country gets to deliver a speech as part of the first debate of the annual General Assembly. This is what most media will broadcast. Some of these can get very interesting, and some will be quoted for weeks and maybe years to come. Leaders get to tell the world “hey, this is how I see things now, and this is how I see us moving forward.” It’s hard to follow all speeches, but my colleagues at UN News do a pretty good job every year making sure every Member State gets a headline. Fun fact: the first speaker in the general debate is Brazil. This because in the very early years of the UN, the delegation of Brazil was prompt in requesting to speak first , which created a precedent and then became a tradition. The United States, the host country, speaks second.

3. Seating arrangements. Every year, the Secretary-General holds a luncheon for Heads of State. I truly believe that the head of UN Protocol has one of the hardest jobs because, much like a wedding planner, she needs to assign seats for world leaders during this luncheon. If you get this wrong things could get really awkward.

A luncheon in honour of world leaders attending the general debate of the sixty-ninth session of the General Assembly. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

4. OTT security. Having so many world leaders under one roof is no small feat and requires an intense level of security. UN security staff and the NYPD do a fantastic job every year to pull this off. New Yorkers usually complain because streets are closed, pedestrians are rerouted, and there’s an unusually high number of police officers, cars, helicopters, and boats around the area. As a UN staff member I try to get there at the crack of dawn and not for a second do I forget how much effort has been made to make this week happen.

Officers of the New York City Police Department and their many vehicles (pictured here) are deployed outside UN Headquarters as part of increased security measures for the opening day of the UNGA. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

5. Celebrity sightings. The UNGA always offers the chance of spotting a celebrity who is most likely a UN Goodwill Ambassador or Messenger of Peace promoting a cause at a high-level event. Malala, Bono, Leonardo DiCaprio, Stevie Wonder and Shakira have all showed up in just the past two years!

From left to right: UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Shakira, UN Messengers of Peace Malala, Jane Goodall, Leonardo DiCaprio and Stevie Wonder.

6. Hot topic events. Every year, the UN holds high-level events on pressing issues. This year, there will be high level events on climate change, gender equality, education, and migration, among others. Sometimes these events are turning points, or the beginning of discussions that will lead to global policies. Case in point: the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals happened during the UNGA in 2015.

UN Photo/Cia Pak

7. Big entourages. Country delegations vary in size, but chances are you will see a handful of staff running after a minister or head of State who seemingly knows where he (sadly, it’s mostly men, but I’d like to think this is changing) is going but is actually just trying to find a restroom.

8. Global fashion. The unofficial fashion rule for the UNGA is “You do you.” You can wear your national dress and no one will question it. Colorful robes, headdresses, turbans, pins making a political statement — they’re all allowed.

UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

9. Corridor diplomacy. The planned and unplanned one-on-one meetings are where the real action is. And also, let’s not forget these leaders rarely see each other in person. Surprise, in-person communication still makes a difference. After all, you can’t just tweet at them all the time, right?

10. Bonus: a very special first. I’m of course talking about the first UNGA for António Guterres as UN Secretary-General. Mr. Guterres has attended the event before but now he’ll be hosting it.

UN Photo/Mark Garten

If you can’t be there: it is now easier than ever to feel like you’re there by following the UN on all social media channels. The social media team works very hard every year to make sure you get to see behind-the-scenes and get some exclusive interviews with Heads of State and policymakers. You can also follow what others are saying by following the hashtag #UNGA.

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