Heads of State jet in, motorcades and police blockades jam the streets of Manhattan, and amid the gridlock the five-star hotels, restaurants and jewelry stores do a booming business — it’s late September, time for the United Nations General Assembly’s annual opening. This event has by now so far outstripped a three-ring circus that there is no keeping track of the full scene. Dissertations could be done (to deadly effect) on the side panels alone. But here’s a quick and dirty guide to some of the highlights, and lowlifes.
The current hoopla marks the opening of the General Assembly’s 68th annual session since the founding of the UN, in 1945. Officially, this session actually began last week, on Sept. 17. But that was just the windup. The real action comes this week, as the big shots arrive for what is called the General Debate.
Though what they do in public is less a debate than a parade of theatrical statements. The UN today has 193 member states. All of them get a turn on the GA main stage. So does the Holy See, and so does the Palestinian Authority. To get through the entire lineup by next Tuesday, Oct. 1 (with a break on Sunday), the UN urges the speakers to observe a “voluntary 15-minute time limit” (and suggests that “Delegations may wish to inform their capital of this procedure”). But these are all speakers who are used to being important, if not on the world stage, then at least in their home countries; most of them are heads of state, or ministers (with the occasional vice minister or deputy thrown in). In some cases they command a world spotlight; in others they are mainly grandstanding for the folks back home. Either way, the speakers typically run over the time limit — one memorable example being Muammar Qaddafi’s speech in 2009, which went on for more than an hour-and-a half.
So the schedule, which you can find here (the speaker lists will be added daily), is an approximate guide, with speeches starting at 9 AM, and officially divided into a morning and an afternoon session, though in practice they often run over into the lunch break and sometimes well into the evening. The best way to keep track is to follow the speaker lineup — which has its peculiarities. Were the UN an outfit with a moral compass, there might be some chance of the most repressive governments speaking last, or perhaps not speaking at all. But at the UN, protocol trumps such matters as morality, and a democracy such as New Zealand can end up waiting its turn after Iran and Sudan. The rule of thumb is that heads of state and heads of government take precedence over those of lesser title. But that doesn’t always apply. UN officials say that states sometime swap slots, or make special requests, and the basic show is a product of the inner workings of the General Assembly.
Brazil goes first, on day one. Then the U.S., the host country (Note to U.S. taxpayers, your money bankrolls 22% of the UN costs for this extravaganza, plus — especially if you are from New York — virtually all of the added security costs).
Most GA openings have their stars, or their starring events. In 2009, that was Qaddafi, who was riding so high at the UN that the tyrant himself, after years of sending his minions, decided to appear in person. The UN doesn’t do much to advertise it these days, but at the time — just four years ago — Qaddafi’s Libya had been elected to a seat on the 15-member Security Council, Qaddafi’s former foreign minister had been elevated to president of the General Assembly, and Libya was on its way to winning a seat on the “reformed” UN Human Rights Council. Last year, the signature GA event was the Assembly trying to do an end-run around the Oslo Accords, by voting to “upgrade” the PA’s status from “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state.”