71st session of the United Nations General Assembly
The General Assembly of the United Nations opened its 71st session on Tuesday, 13 September 2016, at 3:00 p.m. at United Nations Headquarters in New York. The opening of the session was followed, in the second week, by a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants, on Monday, 19 September, when world leaders considered the causes and consequences of large movements of people.
The Assembly’s annual general debate, when Heads of State and Government and other senior national representatives gather to present their views about pressing world issues, opened on Tuesday, 20 September, and ran through Monday, 26 September.
Forum for multilateral negotiation
Established in 1945 under the Charter of the United Nations, the General Assembly occupies a central position as the chief deliberative, policymaking and representative organ of the United Nations. Comprising all 193 Members of the United Nations, it provides a unique forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the Charter. It also plays a significant role in the process of standard-setting and the codification of international law.
The Assembly meets from September to December each year, and thereafter, from January to August, as required, including to take up outstanding reports from the Fourth and Fifth Committees. Also during the resumed part of the session, the Assembly considers current issues of critical importance to the international community in the form of high-level thematic debates organized by the President of the General Assembly in consultation with the membership.
During that period, the Assembly traditionally also conducts informal consultations on a wide range of substantive topics, including on UN reform related matters.
Functions and powers of the General Assembly
The Assembly is empowered to make recommendations to States on international issues within its competence. It has also initiated actions—political, economic, humanitarian, social and legal—which have affected the lives of millions of people throughout the world. The landmark Millennium Declaration, adopted in 2000, and the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, reflect the commitment of Member States to reach specific goals to attain peace, security and disarmament along with development and poverty eradication; to safeguard human rights and promote the rule of law; to protect our common environment; to meet the special needs of Africa; and to strengthen the United Nations.
In September 2015, the Assembly agreed on a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, contained in the outcome document of the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda (resolution 70/1).
According to the Charter of the United Nations, the General Assembly may:
- Consider and approve the United Nations budget and establish the financial assessments of Member States
- Elect the non-permanent members of the Security Council and the members of other United Nations councils and organs and, on the recommendation of the Security Council, appoint the Secretary-General
- Consider and make recommendations on the general principles of cooperation for maintaining international peace and security, including disarmament
- Discuss any question relating to international peace and security and, except where a dispute or situation is currently being discussed by the Security Council, make recommendations on it
- Discuss, with the same exception, and make recommendations on any questions within the scope of the Charter or affecting the powers and functions of any organ of the United Nations
- Initiate studies and make recommendations to promote international political cooperation; the development and codification of international law; the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms; and international collaboration in the economic, social, humanitarian, cultural, educational and health fields
- Make recommendations for the peaceful settlement of any situation that might impair friendly relations among countries
- Consider reports from the Security Council and other United Nations organs
The Assembly may also take action in cases of a threat to the peace, breach of peace or act of aggression, when the Security Council has failed to act owing to the negative vote of a permanent member. In such instances, according to its “Uniting for peace” resolution of 3 November 1950, the Assembly may consider the matter immediately and recommend to its Members collective measures to maintain or restore international peace and security. (See “Special sessions" and "Emergency special sessions”.)
The search for consensus
Each of the 193 Member States in the Assembly has one vote. Votes taken on designated important issues – such as recommendations on peace and security, the election of Security Council and Economic and Social Council members, and budgetary questions – require a two-thirds majority of Member States, but other questions are decided by a simple majority.
In recent years, an effort has been made to achieve consensus on issues, rather than deciding by a formal vote, thus strengthening support for the Assembly’s decisions. The President, after having consulted and reached agreement with delegations, can propose that a resolution be adopted without a vote.
Revitalization of the work of the General Assembly
There has been a sustained effort to make the work of the General Assembly more focussed and relevant. This was identified as a priority during the 58th session, and efforts continued at subsequent sessions to streamline the agenda, improve the practices and working methods of the Main Committees, enhance the role of the General Committee, strengthen the role and authority of the President and examine the Assembly’s role in the process of selecting the Secretary-General.
During the69th session, the Assembly adopted a landmark resolution on the revitalization of the work of the General Assembly (69/321), which provided for informal dialogues to be held with candidates for the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations. As a result, the President of the 70th session organized a series of such informal dialogues with candidates. The General Assembly, on the recommendation of the Security Council, is expected to appoint the next Secretary-General during the main part of the 71st session.
The practice of convening high-level thematic interactive debates is also a direct outcome of the revitalization process.
It has become an established practice for the Secretary-General to brief Member States periodically, in informal meetings of the General Assembly, on his recent activities and travels. These briefings have provided a well-received opportunity for exchange between the Secretary-General and Member States and are likely to be continued at the 71st session.
Elections for the President and Vice-Presidents of the General Assembly and Chairs of the Main Committees
As a result of the ongoing revitalization of its work, and according to its rules of procedure, the General Assembly now elects its President, Vice-Presidents and Chairs of the Main Committees at least three months in advance of the start of the new session in order to further strengthen coordination and preparation of work among the Main Committees and between the Committees and the Plenary.
The General Committee — composed of the President and 21 Vice-Presidents of the Assembly, as well as the Chairs of the six Main Committees — makes recommendations to the Assembly about adoption of the agenda, allocation of agenda items and organization of its work. This year, the General Committee will hold its first meeting on Wednesday, 14 September, to consider, among other things, the draft agenda of the session. The Assembly will then hold a plenary meeting, on Friday, 16 September, to consider the General Committee’s report and adopt the agenda.
The Credentials Committee, appointed by the General Assembly at each session, reports to the Assembly on the credentials of representatives.
The Assembly’s annual general debate, which provides Member States the opportunity to express their views on major international issues, took place from Tuesday, 20 September, through Monday, 26 September. The Secretary-General presented his report on the work of the Organization immediately prior to the general debate, a practice that began with the 52nd session (1997-1998).
The theme for the 71st session’s general debate was, “The Sustainable Development Goals: a universal push to transform our world”, as proposed by the President-elect of the 71st session, H. E. Mr. Peter Thomson of Fiji, upon his election on 13 June 2016. The practice of selecting a specific issue of global concern for the debate dates back to 2003 when the General Assembly decided to introduce this innovation in an effort to enhance the authority and role of the 193-member body (resolution 58/126 of December 2003).
With the close of the general debate, the Assembly begins consideration of the substantive items on its agenda. Because of the great number of issues it is called upon to consider (175 agenda items at the 70th session, for example), the Assembly allocates to its six Main Committees items relevant to their work. The Committees discuss the items, seeking where possible to harmonize the various approaches of States, and present their recommendations, usually in the form of draft resolutions and decisions, to the Plenary of the Assembly for consideration and action.
The six Main Committees are as follows:
- Disarmament and International Security Committee (First Committee) — concerned with disarmament and related international security issues;
- Economic and Financial Committee (Second Committee) — concerned with economic issues;
- Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee (Third Committee) — which deals with social and humanitarian issues;
- Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee) — dealing with a variety of political subjects not covered by any other Committee or the Plenary, including decolonization, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and the human rights of the Palestinian people;
- Administrative and Budgetary Committee (Fifth Committee) — which is concerned with the administration and budget of the United Nations; and
- Legal Committee (Sixth Committee) — which deals with international legal matters.
On a number of agenda items, however, such as the question of Palestine and the situation in the Middle East, the Assembly acts directly in its plenary meetings.
Working groups of the General Assembly
The General Assembly has in the past authorized the establishment of working groups to focus on matters of importance in more detail and make recommendations for Assembly action. These include the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the Work of the General Assembly, which will continue its work during the forthcoming session.
Various informal regional groupings have evolved over the years in the General Assembly for electoral purposes as well as vehicles for consultation and to facilitate procedural work. The groups are: the African States; the Asia-Pacific States; the Eastern European States; the Latin American and Caribbean States; and the Western European and other States. The post of President of the General Assembly rotates among the regional groups. For the 71st session, the General Assembly has elected the President from the Group of Asia-Pacific States.
Special sessions and emergency special sessions
To date, the Assembly has convened 30 special sessions on issues that demanded particular attention, including the question of Palestine, United Nations finances, disarmament, international economic cooperation, drugs, the environment, population, women, social development, human settlements, HIV/AIDS, apartheid and Namibia. The 30th special session of the General Assembly, held from 19 to 21 April 2016, was devoted to the World Drug Problem.
Ten emergency special sessions have addressed situations in which the Security Council found itself deadlocked, namely, Hungary (1956), Suez (1956), the Middle East (1958 and 1967), the Congo (1960), Afghanistan (1980), Palestine (1980 and 1982), Namibia (1981), the occupied Arab territories (1982) and illegal Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2009).
The Assembly decided, on 16 January 2009, to temporarily adjourn the tenth emergency special session on Gaza and to authorize the President of the Assembly to resume its meetings at the request of Member States.
Carrying on the work of the Assembly
The work of the United Nations derives largely from the decisions of the General Assembly and is mainly carried out by:
- Committees and other bodies established by the Assembly to study and report on specific issues, such as disarmament, peacekeeping, economic development, the environment and human rights
- The Secretariat of the United Nations – the Secretary-General and his staff of international civil servants
- The Department for General Assembly and Conference Management serves as the focal point within the UN Secretariat for all matters related to the General Assembly