Another UN General Assembly talk fest begins
UNGA 70 formally commenced on September 15. In accordance with
custom, it elected a new President, Denmark's Mogens Lykketoft, who has
picked as the theme for his tenure as the President: "The UN at 70 - A
New Commitment to Action".
An appropriate theme as this year's highlight, the Summit for the
Adoption of the Post 2015 Development Agenda, will take place from
September 25-27 just before the General Debate.
The high levels segment of the General Debate will commence on
September 28. His Holiness the Pope will address the General Assembly on
September 25, before the start of the Summit. The Pope is a head of
state as well as the leader of a major faith, but it is unusual for a
head of a state to be accommodated in this manner.
Every UN General Assembly (UNGA) is billed as exceptionally
important. Some get a higher rating. The 50th, the 60th and now the
70th. This is the time of the year when hotel tariffs and short term
rentals in New York sky rocket for no cost associated reasons. A captive
clientele has become used to this blatant gauging. Restaurants do a
brisk trade and prior reservations become essential. The city makes a
pretty packet during this period.
Of course, it is also the time New Yorkers gripe most about the
traffic snarls. Some roads are closed for the duration of the high level
segment, like the section of the First Avenue in front of the UN, others
like the Second Avenue and 57th Street have lanes dedicated to
motorcades of delegations and whenever the President of the United
States is on the road, entire city blocks are shut down.
As is the case every year, UNGA is the high point in the
Secretariat's annual calendar. With 70 years of fine- tuning, it handles
this task well. Unfortunately, many in the Secretariat consider the UNGA
as only an opportunity for important world leaders to make grand
speeches. Follow-up action may not necessarily be a factor in their
preparations. Many a stimulating idea eloquently expressed before the
UNGA may be lost for this reason.
The arrival of high level delegations is anticipated with excitement,
speaking slots allocated (now on-line), assembly halls prepared and
swept for security purposes, dozens of bilateral meeting rooms specially
constructed, the meeting schedules of the Secretary-General and other
senior officials meticulously prepared, and, since the Millennium
Summit, appointments given for undertaking treaty actions in a specially
Officers attached to Permanent Missions, especially junior officers,
work appalling hours to ensure that their heads of delegation are
satisfied with the arrangements made. Arranging bilateral meetings is a
Capitals, consumed with their own importance, demand bilaterals with
the mightiest. In many instances, these demands just cannot be met as
the dignitaries whose time is requested have their own priorities or are
unwilling to spare the time due to unsatisfactory previous encounters
with underprepared interlocutors.
However, bilateral meetings provide real opportunities for
substantive work. The presence of dozens of leaders in New York provides
opportunities for constructive discussions to occur without the need for
expensive and time consuming country visits. Many diplomatic successes
have also been achieved through carefully choreographed "accidental"
meetings in UN corridors.
There are heads of state and government who are simply happy to be in
NY, away from the daily political pressures back home.
Gone are the days when third secretaries and attaches camped outside
the secretariat on the night before the allocation of speaking slots so
that they could get the first slots. Although the speakers' lists are
now prepared electronically, the Secretariat also intervenes and some
horse trading for prime slots still takes place. Pressure is applied on
colleagues for the exchange of slots for various reasons.
The prized speaking opportunities are on the first day of the General
Debate. Since the Secretary-General's report and the statement of the
President of the United States are made on the morning of the first day,
delegations know from experience, that a full house could be assured
during this session.
Delegations do not fancy the final speaking slots in the morning of
the first day as they tend to overlap with the luncheon traditionally
hosted by the Secretary-General for visiting heads of state and
government. The last few slots in the afternoon session of the opening
day are also avoided due to the possibility of clashing with the
reception customarily hosted by the President of the United States.
Diplomacy in words
An increasing tendency is for leaders to address the General Assembly
in their own languages, knowing well that their message is mainly for
the audiences back home. In many cases, a statement carefully crafted
and delivered in English or French will only have an audience of bored
junior diplomatic officers and interns busily texting each other about
something trivial oblivious to the importance of the message being
delivered by the distinguished speaker.
A solution to this issue needs to be found. Recent years have
witnessed some colourful leaders at the UNGA, like Libya's Muammar
Gaddafi, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and Iran's Mahmoud Ahamedinajad, who
unfailingly left an impression. Some provoked walk outs. Two are no
longer alive and the other is out of politics.
Speech making is the main task of the high level participants. The
tendency is to speak on whatever subject that the head of state or
government fancies paying scant attention to the theme selected by the
President of the UNGA. Of course, heads of state and government, many of
whom have travelled far, do not appreciate being made to address the
largely empty auditorium.
Conscious of this possibility, some ambassadors now write to their
colleagues inviting them to attend the statement of their head of state
or government. Sadly, many statements prepared over months, delivered in
a language alien to the speaker, and praised by a fawning delegation are
forgotten even before the beaming head of delegation has left for home.
The statements that remain relevant contain ideas which are picked up
by other delegations and converted to action oriented resolutions of the
UN Resolutions bind the Secretariat and carry a moral weight for the
global community, especially where they are supported by a substantial
majority. Exceptionally some may result in legally binding treaties.
This is also a time when people who have kept away from their
permanent missions for a whole year suddenly rediscover friendships to
obtain passes to enter the Secretariat building to see their own heads
of state speaking.
At UNGA 70, exceptionally, the high level segment will be split in to
two. The Summit for the adoption of the global sustainable development
goals will be held from September 25- 27. The SDGs, formulated by a UN
working group, through an exacting process under the guidance of the
Permanent Representatives of Kenya and Hungary (Ambassadors Macharia
Kamau and Csaba Korosi) have as their genesis the Rio+20 Outcomes
The 17 SDGs identified are expected to build upon the progress
achieved under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but in a more
comprehensive manner. The MDGs are considered to be a more successful
initiative of the UN.
The results of the MDGs would have been more impressive had goal
number 8 (partnerships) been better realized. The success of the SDGs
would also depend on the faithful delivery of commitments on aid,
financing and trade.