The 70th meeting of the United Nations general assembly is set to open in New York – a key moment for the UN during an important anniversary year. And it’s not just the birthday celebrations that make this a high-profile get-together. This general assembly will see the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda, the follow-up to the UN’s millenium development goals which were set in 2000 with a completion date of this year.
What is the UN general assembly?
The UNGA (pronounced “unger”, like hunger without the h) is the democratic heart of the UN, a forum for decision-making where all 193 member states each have a single vote. Unlike the security council, which is dominated by the five permanent members – Russia, UK, US, France and China – every country is invited to send a representative to the general assembly. It was established as a founding institution of the UN in 1945 as the “deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the United Nations”.
The general assembly has a range of vital decisions to make within the UN system, including appointing the secretary general, electing the non-permanent members of the security council and approving the UN regular budget.
Most importantly, it is the main global forum for discussing international political cooperation, threats to peace and economic development, as well as the huge range of social, humanitarian and cultural issues that come under the remit of the United Nations.
Does it meet only once a year?
No. Although there is great fanfare around the big gathering of nations each autumn, the discussions that begin at the main general assembly continue throughout the year within six committees. The UNGA allocates items to the committees by subject, from disarmament to climate change and everything in between. Once the committees have met, smaller working groups are formed to hammer out details.
What sort of decisions does it make?
Is every country represented at the general assembly – and who represents them?
Once a year, heads of state attend the general assembly for the annual debate. The occasion of the UN’s 70th birthday is expected to draw a more senior level of attendee than before, with Russia’s Vladimir Putin expected to make his first appearance at a general assembly alongside other heads of state. At other meetings, countries are usually represented either by their ambassador to the UN or someone less senior.
While every country will be represented at the main general assembly in the autumn, only the well-resourced nations such as the UK or United States will be able to have a representative at the meetings throughout the year. Smaller countries will group together regionally or by matters of interest, often signing joint statements rather than sending a representative to every discussion.
How is it financed?
The general assembly is funded out of the UN regular budget which is paid for by member states, based on a scale relating to their ability to pay. The regular budget for 2014-15 was $5.4bn (£3.5bn) with $663m allocated for the general assembly, economic and social council and conference management.
If countries fail to pay their dues they may have their vote taken away. Yemen is banned from voting because it is in arrears, while another four countries in arrears – Comoros, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe and Somalia – have been allowed to vote until the end of 2015.
At the end of 2014 the state of payments towards the UN was described by a senior UN offical as “alarming”, with a funding gap of more than $950m.
What is on the agenda for the coming year?
Central on the agenda for the general assembly in 2015-16 are the sustainable development goals (SDG), which replace the millennium development goals. World leaders are expected to adopt a draft resolution on the SDGs at the end of September. A raft of other issues will be discussed and voted on in the coming year, including how to protect the climate, the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories, disarmament and global food security.
Where can I learn more?
The general assembly’s president tweets at the handle @UN_PGA. The UK mission to the UN in New York is @UKUN_NewYork, while the US ambassador, Samantha Power, uses the handle @ambassadorpower.
The former secretary general Kofi Annan’s autobiography Interventions: A Life in War and Peace offers an illuminating insight into the high-stakes world of international peacemaking.
And if you are interested in the real detail of what the general assembly has been discussing since 1946, you can find the agenda for every year here, providing a historical insight into the issues that preoccupied member states.