Every year in September, the United Nations – and New York City – get ready for the annual invasion of Heads of States, government leaders, NGO’s, academia, and other change makers that flock into town for the UN General Assembly (GA). And as the GA is celebrating its 70th session this year, and the landmark Post-2015 Summit will mark the kick-off of the Sustainable Development Goals, this September is bound to be a historical one.
The first General Assembly – held in London in 1946 following the establishment of the United Nations – saw 51 countries come together for a grand exchange of thoughts on international politics. Two world wars in four decades had left countries on both sides of the conflict in physical and financial ruin – and political leaders distrustful of each other. The world needed a change of discourse. This sentiment was reflected in the opening statement by Eduardo Zuleta Angel, Representative of Colombia and Chairman of the first session of the GA: “Determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which, twice in our lifetime, has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and imbued with an abiding faith in freedom and justice, we have come to this British capital, which bears upon it the deep impress of a heroic majesty; to constitute the General Assembly of the United Nations and to make a genuine and sincere beginning with the application of the San Francisco Charter,” he said.
Zuleta Angel called the GA “the town meeting of the world” and reiterated that this was a place where nations would be able to make their voices heard “in as free and democratic an atmosphere as that which prevailed at San Francisco and London.”70 years later, the GA has grown into one of the most important platforms for world leaders to debate on global questions on peace and security, development, and international political cooperation. But while the fundamental idea of a global town hall meeting remains, much has changed in its organization and execution in the past 7 decades.
As the number of Member States steadily climbed from 51 to 193 today, the assembly eventually moved to its permanent location in the General Assembly Hall inside the UN headquarters in New York. With the increase of Member States, the size of operation expanded as well: This anniversary session of the GA and the Post-2015 Summit are expected to draw a record number of representatives of nations, NGO’s, the private sector and academia to New York. Last year, almost 2500 media accreditations had been issued, and this year that number could possibly double.
The development of modern audio-visual technology have made the meetings increasingly accessible: For those who can’t physically be in the room, all the meetings are broadcast live through the UN webcast page, and covered by UN staff through social media.
Societal changes also placed their marks on the make-up of the GA: halfway through the 20th century the meetings were filled with men and smoke. Seven decades later, ashtrays in the GA hall have been removed and no-smoking signs installed instead. And with almost a quarter of parliamentarians being female, the gender balance is – albeit very slowly – starting to even out.
The scope and scale of the GA may have increased, but the fundamental elements of these meetings are still the same as they were in 1946: The President of the General Assembly – a position taken up this year by Denmark’s former parliament speaker Mogens Lykketoft – presents the agenda, after adoption followed by the high level plenary debate featuring presentations from all Member States.
Throughout the years, the GA has seen many milestones and memorable historical events. This year will surely be an addition to that list, and for all the changes the UN has gone through in the past 70 years, the words spoken by the first GA president Zuleta Angel in 1946 still ring as true as ever: “It will be an arduous and difficult duty, but one which we can and must discharge without delay, for the whole world which waits on our decisions brightly, yet with understandable anxiety, looks to us now to master our problems, and we cannot with impunity again fail mankind.”