73rd UNGA Session: A prestigious moment for respectable world community

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Established in 1945 under the Charter of the United Nations, the General Assembly is the chief policymaking of the United Nations. Composed all 193 Members of the United Nations, it is also the organization’s most representative body, providing a unique forum for discussions on the full range of international issues. This September marked the beginning of the General Assembly’s 73rd session, where the United Nations addressed issues of critical global importance. It’s nearly time for the annual gathering of heads of state, thought leaders, civil society members, development professionals, and other industry personalities in New York for the United Nations General Assembly and other meetings. The UNGA is the democratic heart of the UN, a forum for decision-making where all 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.

The general assembly discusses and makes decisions on just about anything you can think of. 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 $5.4 Billion with $663 Mllion 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 are Comoros, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe and Somalia. They have been allowed to vote until the end of 2015.

The 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 73) will take place in New York, New York from 18th September to 30th September 2018. The first day of the high-level General Debate will be Tuesday, 25 September 2018. From 23rd to 24th September, the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is scheduled to take place at UN Headquarters. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President elect of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), has announced in July 2018 that the theme of the general debate will be, ‘Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies. On 24th September, the UNGA will hold a high-level plenary meeting on global peace in honor of the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, known as the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit. The plenary will adopt a political declaration negotiated by Member States. In May 2018 the Permanent Representatives of South Africa and Ireland, serving as co-facilitators, began consulting with governments on the content of the declaration. On 26th of September, the UNGA will hold a high-level meeting on the fight against tuberculosis, as agreed by Member States in February 2018. On 27th of September, the UN will hold a one-day comprehensive review of the progress achieved in the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which will be the third high-level meeting of the UNGA on the issue. A number of events will take place in parallel to the opening of the 73rd session of the UNGA under the banners of Global Goals Week 2018 and Climate Week 2018.

In a single round of voting, the General Assembly elected Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa as non-permanent members of the Security Council for two-year terms spanning 2019-2020. They will fill Council seats to be vacated on 31th December by Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Netherlands and Sweden. Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Kuwait, Peru and Poland will continue as elected members, completing the second year of their respective terms in 2019. All new Council members will take their seats on 1st of January 2019. The five new members were elected in accordance with the following pattern: two seats for the African and Asia-Pacific States, one seat for the Latin American and Caribbean States and two for the Western European and Other States. All the new members met the required two-thirds majority and were elected in the first and only round of voting.

Last year’s U.N. gathering of world leaders did put an immediate spotlight on deep differences on tackling crises from North Korea to global warming: France’s president urged world leaders to work together, while America’s emphasized nations’ own sovereignty. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the threat of a nuclear attack is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War and cautioned about the dangers of fiery rhetoric. All three men made their debut appearances at the U.N. General Assembly, where presidents, prime ministers and monarchs are gathered for six days of discussion of matters ranging from nuclear peril to climate change to refugees. But on day one, the spotlight was on U.S. President Donald Trump and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Macron, a centrist who embraced internationalism during his campaign, vowed to press ahead with the Paris accord to combat global warming, although the U.S. has said it’s withdrawing from the agreement. In his speech and a subsequent news conference, Macron said he respects Trump’s decision but thinks it’s a mistake and will continue trying to persuade the American to reconsider.

 

The ability of people and communities to receive health services without undergoing financial hardship is one of the new top priorities for the WHO. “Access to health services should not be a privilege; it should not be a luxury,” said Tudors during a panel at the Social Good Summit during last year’s session. “People should not die because they are poor.”

An estimated 400 million people around the world lack access to one or more essential health services.

Climate change and its impact on health have also remained the prominent topics of discussion at the conference. On Sept 15, last year the United Nations report revealed that after decades of steady declines, global hunger is on the rise: 815 million people were affected by hunger worldwide in 2016, which rose to 38 million more people than in 2015. Climate change and the spread of violent conflict are two reasons for the increase, the report said. Yet the link between climate change and public health isn’t well understood, even among world leaders and people in medicine. There is still “a lot that needs to be done,” says Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“In places where you have problems of air pollution, people understand it better,” said Espinosa during a press briefing. “But beyond that, the linkage between these floods and outbreaks of lots of different diseases is not yet so evident. It’s there, but we need to work a lot on that still.”

Today, there are an estimated 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and 22.5 million refugees. Melissa Fleming, the chief spokesperson at the UN Refugee Agency, said there are serious concerns about the health of those who are fleeing, since many are wounded or in weak physical condition. “There’s a lot of hunger, babies who are tiny and not receiving any nutrition,” said Fleming during a press briefing. “The worry is with so many people arriving in really congested spaces without the proper infrastructure and sanitation in place, you can have any number of outbreaks.

At last year’s UNGA, antibiotic resistance was called a “major global threat” by world leaders during a high-level meeting on the issue. (Last year marked only the fourth time in history that the heads of state have met to discuss a health problem.) The UN has cited estimates that if nothing changes, the number of people who die from antibiotic-resistant infections will reach 10 million a year in 2050. “We have this good resolution now that was endorsed at last year’s UN General Assembly,” Tedros said. “What is missing is a buy-in from countries. We have to work very, very hard at the country level to really go into action.”

The UNGA has two subsidiary bodies dedicated to disarmament issues: the Disarmament and International Security Committee (First Committee) and the United Nations Disarmament Commission (UNDC). While not subsidiary to the UNGA, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) and the Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters are also discussed in this section. Additionally, the UNGA receives input through numerous Reporting Mechanisms and Groups of Government Experts.

Some major achievements of the UNGA in the field of arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament include the endorsements of the NPT (1968), Convention on the Prohibition of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons (BTWC, 1972) and Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (CWC, 1992). Additional achievements include the adoption of the Final Document of the First Special Session on Disarmament (1978), the Program of Action agreed at the Conference on the Illicit Trafficking of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SAWL, 2001), the CTBT (1996), and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT, 2013).The General Assembly has held three special sessions on disarmament — in 1978 (resulting in adoption of a consensus report), 1982, and 1988. A fourth special session has been under consideration since 1994, but States have so far been unable to agree on a final agenda for the meeting. Whether or not the total elimination of nuclear weapons, set as a priority at the 1978 special session, should remain the priority goal has repeatedly led to disagreement.

While the decisions of the UNGA have no legally binding force for governments, they carry the weight of world opinion on major international issues, as well as the moral authority of the world community. The Security Council may recommend the suspension from exercising rights and privileges of General Assembly Membership when the Council is repetitively taking preventive or enforcement action for conflicts. Though all nations are treated as equals within the UNGA structure, the body can, with the advice of the credentials committee, agree to suspend the voting rights of a member nation’s representative. The UNGA can expel a member state, with the council’s recommendation, for repeatedly violating the principles of the United Nations Charter. A number of countries have had their voting rights temporarily suspended for falling too far behind in their dues.

“The General Assembly is not an action body. It is just that—an assembly,” says Ambassador Donald McHenry, a former U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. General Assembly resolutions are still significant, however, as indicators of member states’ positions on a given issue. They can also prove useful by outlining organizing principles and proposing initiatives for member states, says McHenry. Some assembly actions have had more influence or incited more controversy than others.

In 1948, two years after the assembly convened its inaugural session, it promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which contained thirty articles outlining global standards for human rights. A historic act, it proclaimed the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” As the chair of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, former U.S First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to draft and pass the declaration, saying it “may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.” Human rights issues remain contentious, however, and the UN Human Rights Council continues to face criticism for, among other things, including among its members countries with poor human rights standards, though recent efforts have improved the body’s performance.

In 1950, the United States initiated the landmark “Uniting for Peace” resolution . It states that if the UN Security Council “fails to exercise its primary responsibility” for maintaining international peace and security, the General Assembly should take up the matter itself and should urge collective action. The assembly has acted on this resolution in a handful of instances, including the Suez Crisis of 1956. UN intervention in the crisis ultimately resulted in a cease-fire, troop withdrawal, and the establishment of the first UN Emergency Force (UNEF), a peacekeeping force. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq provoked calls from many organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group, for the General Assembly takes up the issue and overrides the impasse of the Security Council, but the assembly did not do so.

The General Assembly proclaimed designated its fifty-fifth session, in 2000, the Millennium Assembly. At a summit that year, Annan unveiled the UN’s Millennium Declaration. It set forth the Millennium Development Goals, a collection of “time-bound and measurable,” targets for, reducing poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, and improving access to primary education. Other proposals included a security agenda relating to international law, peace operations, and small-arms trafficking, as well as an environmental agenda that urged “a new ethic of conservation and stewardship.” The development goals continue to be invoked by many governments and nongovernmental organizations to spur aid to developing countries. Significant inroads have been made on education, infant mortality, and poverty. In 2015, the General Assembly set new goals for sustainable development.

This resolution, passed in 1975, determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Yet the UN Partition Plan for Palestine had approved of and helped create the state of Israel in 1947. In his address to the UN General Assembly on the day the resolution was passed, Israeli Ambassador Chaim Herzog said, “for us, the Jewish people, this resolution based on hatred, falsehood and arrogance, is devoid of any moral or legal value.” He then tore a copy of the resolution in half. The resolution was repealed in 1991. In 2001, during the UN’s world conference on combating racism in Durban, South Africa, similar language on Zionism was introduced but later dropped. Fourteen countries, including the United States, boycotted the 2011 meeting commemorating the Durban conference, and while their reasons varied, most expressed concerns about anti-Semitism.

The theme of this year’s general debate is, “Making the United Nations relevant to all people: Global leadership and shared responsibilities for peaceful and sustainable societies’ which is pertinent for an organisation whose charter begins: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The United Nations has played and continues to play a critical role in the economic, social and cultural development globally. World must adhere to the organisation’s principles and objectives which include the peaceful settlement of disputes and respect for human rights and fundamental freedom which are enshrined in the charter of the United Nations.

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