FEATURE: Curtain rises on world's busiest diplomatic arena at UN Headquarters

Peter Thomson (foreground), President-elect of the seventy-first session the General Assembly, takes the oath of office during the concluding meeting of the preceding session, becoming the first Assembly President to do so. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

16 September 2016 – As world leaders gather in New York in the coming days, the curtain will soon rise on the busiest diplomatic season of the year at the United Nations Headquarters.

During the high-level segment of the General Assembly’s 71st session, which starts next week, monarchs, presidents and prime ministers will engage in debates that define international responses to many of the global challenges of today, including protracted conflicts, extreme poverty and hunger, the refugee crisis and climate change.

The high-level week will kick off with a summit, on Monday 19 September, to address large movements of refugees and migrants. This is the first time the General Assembly has called for a summit at the Heads of State and Government level on this topic and it is a historic opportunity to come up with a blueprint for a better international response.

World leaders are expected to adopt a New York Declaration as an outcome document at the summit, during which the UN will see a new addition to its family – a dedicated migration agency. Leaders of the UN and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will sign an agreement to officially make IOM a related agency of the UN system.

IOM, an intergovernmental organization with more than 9,500 staff and 450 offices worldwide, assisted an estimated 20 million migrants in 2015. Founded in the wake of the World War II to resettle refugees from Europe, the organization celebrates its 65th anniversary in December of this year.

"The challenges are enormous — but we should not forget the benefits. With the right approach, refugees and migrants can bring benefits to both their adoptive societies and their home countries. This well-documented upside should not be lost in the debate," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an opinion-piece published in US newspaper The Boston Globe. "'The New York Declaration' should be seen in the wider context of new and ambitious international efforts to improve conditions where people live, so they are not forced to leave. Central to this is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, our global plan for peace and prosperity on a healthy planet. We are also pushing to prevent and resolve conflicts — and to sustain peace once the guns fall silent," he said.

From Tuesday 20 September to Monday 26 September, world leaders will address the annual general debate under the theme of The “Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): a universal push to transform our world.”

On Wednesday 21 September, the Assembly will hold a high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance, which has become one of the biggest threats to global health and endangers other major priorities, such as human development.

On the same day, the Secretary-General will make a pitch for an early entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change by convening a special event at which countries can deposit their ratification instruments with him. To date, it will require 28 more countries, representing 16 per cent of global emissions, to ratify the Agreement, which was reached last December.

Beyond the high-level week, the 71st session will continue to tackle implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a 15-year blueprint towards a healthy planet and a world free of extreme poverty.

“The 70th Session launched the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], and for integrity’s sake the 71st must be the year we witness the wheels turning on the implementation of all 17 SDGs,” the new President of the General Assembly, Peter Thomson, said in his inaugural address on 13 September.

This feature story will take you through Mr. Thomson’s oath of office address that highlights the work of the General Assembly during its 71st session.

Refugees and Migrants

The United Nations General Assembly will convene a summit on the large movements of refugees and migrants, on Monday, 19 September.

“The link between sustainable development, peace and security, and human rights has never been more explicit. I will therefore encourage a heightening of the human rights work of this Assembly throughout the 71st Session. Next week, for example, world leaders come together for the High Level Meeting on large movements of refugees and migrants,” said the new Assembly President in his maiden address.

“I regret the evidence of widespread lack of empathy for people on the move, many of whom are fleeing from conflict, persecution, or climate change. I congratulate those who are not shirking from their decent responsibilities. It is time to turn down the rhetoric of intolerance and ratchet up a collective response based on our common humanity.”

Sustainable Development Goals

The theme of this year’s general debate by world leaders during the high-level segment of the General Assembly’s 71st session is “The Sustainable Development Goals: A Universal Push to Transform our World.”

“Like a lighthouse in a world dogged by despair and division, the 2030 Agenda came into existence and we had a bright new beacon to light us out of the poverty and unsustainable practices that bedevil our planet,” said Mr. Thomson before taking the oath of office.

“It has been heartening to observe the sincerity with which Governments and national planning agencies around the world have begun integrating the Agenda into national processes. But make no mistake, the great majority of humankind has yet to learn of the Agenda; it has yet to embrace the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that, if successfully implemented, will bring an end to poverty and secure a sustainable place for humanity on this planet.”

It is for this reason that the theme of the 71st Session is “The Sustainable Development Goals: A Universal Push to Transform our World”.

Climate Change

On Wednesday, 21 September, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will convene a special event to accelerate the process towards an entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change on Climate Change, which was adopted last December. At the event, countries can deposit their ratification instruments with the Secretary-General. With China and the United States – the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters – having deposited their instruments of ratification, the treaty’s entry into force will require 28 more countries, representing 16 per cent of global emissions, to ratify the Agreement.

During his oath of office address, the new UN General Assembly President invited his 5- and 7-years-old granddaughters to the stage, and promised that he will work to create a better future for them.

“What kind of world will we have bequeathed them and all their brothers and sisters around the world, your own grandchildren and children, born and yet to be born? Will it be a world where the projected loss of biodiversity on land and sea severely limits the possibilities of life, where atmospheric levels of CO2 have gone well beyond the 1.5 to 2 degree thresholds, thereby imperilling humanity’s place on this planet?” Mr. Thomson asked in his appeal for a sustainable future.

Security Council Reform

“Reform of the UN Security Council is also work at hand for the 71st session (of the UN General Assembly). The membership is unanimous in agreeing that reform is necessary to align the Security Council with the realities of the 21st Century,” said Mr. Thomson in his maiden address.

The body currently comprises five permanent members with veto power – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – as well as 10 non-permanent members.

War in Syria

“We will strive to find new methods to resolve entrenched conflicts, diminish the atrocities of global terrorism, better manage migrant and refugee flows, and resolve the many humanitarian crises that remind us millions of people in our world are still denied even the most basic conditions for a secure life,” said the new Assembly President in his initial address.

“I welcome the cessation of hostilities that has come into effect in Syria, and call on all parties to honour the terms of the agreement. I sincerely hope that this understanding may ease the humanitarian suffering, and lead to a lasting peace for the Syrian people.”

Working with Other UN Organs

“I will work to strengthen the relations between the UN’s organs, continuing the practice of holding regular meetings with the Secretary-General, the Presidents of the Security Council, and the President of ECOSOC [the Economic and Social Council],” said Mr. Thomson.

Violent Extremism and Terrorism

“Building on the review of the Global Counter-Terrorism strategy, including the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action on The Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, we will act on improving the UN architecture to face these threats. In these troubled times, no community is immune from violent extremism and terrorism. We face this scourge together and must find the solutions together,” the new Assembly President said.

Working with two Secretaries-General

“The 71st [session] will be a special year for us all. Not least will be the fact that we will have the experience of working with two Secretaries-General. The search for the best possible candidate to fill the post is approaching its final stages,” said Mr. Thomson in his inaugural address.

“Once the SG selection process is complete, it will be important that we undertake an orderly appointment and smooth transition to demonstrate the strength of our institutional stability. As President of the Assembly I will dedicate myself to facilitation of the transition process, and will be available at all times to assist the incoming Secretary-General settle into her or his responsibilities of office,” he added.

Sustaining Peace

“As the representative of a proud Troop Contributing Country, I am fully aware we must be diligent in coherent implementation of the outcomes from last year’s UN reviews on Peacekeeping, Peacebuilding, and on women, peace and security, including through action in the Fifth Committee relating to Special Political Missions,” said the new Assembly President in his inaugural address.

“We must also look to take forward implementation of the ambitious ‘sustaining peace’ agenda, agreed by the General Assembly and Security Council earlier this year. Through the concept of ‘sustaining peace’, we have the opportunity to bring new coherence and coordination to our work – across peace and security, development, and human rights – in pursuit of our shared goal and responsibility for sustaining peace across the globe,” he added.

Habitat III & UN Conference on Healthy Oceans

The UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, or Habitat III, is to take place in Quito, Ecuador, from 17 October to 20 October this year. A high-level UN Conference to support the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 on conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources is expected to take place, 5-9 June 2017.

“I will also support a successful Habitat III conference in October and work to deliver a truly game-changing outcome for the health of our oceans through the conference on Goal 14 in June 2017,” said Mr. Thomson, who hails from the Pacific island nation of Fiji.

Ethics and Transparency

Prompted by the allegations of corruption against the President of the General Assembly’s 68th session, John Ashe, the membership of the United Nations has this year created a Code of Ethics for the Presidency of the General Assembly. As far as the Office of the President is concerned, financial transparency will be maintained by ensuring that all contributions to the running of the Office are entered into a UN trust fund where the donors and expenditure will be public knowledge. In addition, the UN has decided that for the first time in its history, and for all sessions henceforth, at the time of transition from one session of the General Assembly to the next, the incoming President shall take an Oath of Office.

“It is now my high honour to take that Oath, within this historic fulcrum of the community of nations, witnessed by you the anointed representatives of the nations and by the broad citizenry of humanity observing our proceedings today. I now raise in my right hand the Charter of the United Nations and hereby affirm the prescribed Presidential Oath of Office,” said the new Assembly President as he proceeded to do so.


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

INTERVIEW: Selection of next UN Secretary-General has been game-changing process, says outgoing General Assembly President

Related Stories