Discussion Phase -- General Debate

Consideration of an agenda item begins with a debate on the item in a formal meeting. Only one debate is scheduled per agenda item either in a Plenary meeting or one of the Main Committees. No Member State makes more than one statement on an agenda item in the same debate. The one exception to this practice is when a delegation feels his/her country has been criticized by one of the speakers. In this instance, a representative of that delegation is entitled to exercise their right of reply and respond to what has been said. (see glossary for definition).

Before debate of an agenda item begins, documents and reports on the item  that have been prepared by the UN Secretariat are distributed to all Member States. These documents provide information on the agenda item that helps inform the debate. Senior UN staff that are responsible for writing reports on agenda items on behalf of the Secretary General are often invited to introduce these reports to Member States in a formal meetings. The introduction of a report is usually followed by an interactive session with Member States to allow them to ask questions on the agenda item before debate on it begins.

The word debate is applied in international conferences to everything that is said formally. That is to say, everything that is said to the conference by:
  • the Chairman and
  • a speaker (usually a delegate) to whom the Chairman has given ‘the floor’ (i.e. permission to speak).
Opening of 67th General Debate of General Assembly Opening of 67th General Debate of General Assembly

At big, formal conferences, the first item of business after the preliminary procedural issues is called the General Debate. Less formal conferences usually do not have an agenda item for ‘General Debate’, but nevertheless start their work with a number of delegations making general statements.

The most elaborate General Debate takes place in the General Assembly. Almost every delegation makes a statement, which is always delivered by the most senior person available: the delegation leader or sometimes a Minister, Head of Government or Head of State who has travelled to New York especially for this purpose.

With so many delegates wishing to speak, time has to be strictly rationed. Each delegation is only allowed to speak once and a set amount of time is allocated for each statement.

This manner of proceeding requires a Speakers’ list to be prepared in advance. Delegations approach the Secretariat to ask to be placed on the Speakers’ list. Some of them have a preference for speaking at a particular time. If a delegation finds that the slot it would prefer has already been allocated to another delegation, it can talk to that delegation and see whether it is willing to exchange time slots.

When a delegation has finished delivering its General Debate statement, a number of other delegations may approach it to ask for copies of the text. In some conferences this can lead to disorder after certain statements. To avoid this, the tradition in many large conferences is that the secretariat distributes one copy of each General Debate statement to each delegation desk as the statement is being delivered. This is a very rare exception to the rule that the secretariat only distributes conference documents (General Debate statements are not official conference documents; each one is a document of the individual delegation making the statement.)

Because of the very tight time constraint, many delegations prepare and distribute in hard copy a longer version of their General Debate statement than their spokesperson is able to deliver. In these cases, the speaker should mention that a fuller version of his remarks is being distributed for the information of delegates and other listeners. The speaker can also ask that this fuller text be reflected in the record of the conference. In the contrary case, where the distributed text may contain elements that the speaker does not wish to say or have recorded in his name, the text can be marked ‘check against delivery.’

Although the rule for General Debate is that each delegation can only make one statement, Rules of Procedure (or in some cases tradition) also provide that a delegation that feels a need to respond to a statement by another delegation is allowed to make a statement in reply. (This is called the right of reply). That statement will be subject to an even stricter time limit than the General Debate statement and typically can only be made at the end of the day or at the end of the General Debate, when all delegations have had their opportunity to speak. In addition, most Rules of Procedure permit only one statement in reply per delegation.

The General Debate is not a ‘debate’ as that word is generally understood. Delegates do not normally respond to each other (except occasionally through use of the right of reply). Indeed, General Debate statements are usually written in advance, often in capitals, long before the authors have heard what other delegates are going to say.

This style of debate allows a person on an opposing team to raise a point of information at any time, which if accepted by the speaker, gives them the opportunity to interrupt a speech in order to counter or challenge what is being said. In the debate that occurs during UN meetings, this never occurs. Member States cannot interrupt a statement that is being made to ask the speaker a question or to challenge what is being said. Even when a Member State is granted the right of reply, they have to wait until the end of the speakers list to do that.

UN Interpreters at work during the opening of the 67th General Debate of the General Assembly UN Interpreters at work during the opening of the 67th General Debate of the General Assembly

It is also unavoidable that, because of the publicity accorded to the General Debate statements at a big and important conference (especially when they are made by a dignitary), the speakers will be thinking at least in part about audiences beyond the conference room, including their domestic audience. This means that some of their comments and the way they are phrased will not be quite the same as they would be if the speakers were only thinking of fellow delegates and the conference ahead of them.

However, good General Debate statements are also useful to other delegates. They are an opportunity for each delegation to:
  • set forth its general thinking on the topics before the conference
  • highlight any particular national concerns, and
  • give advance notice of any initiative or other course of action it intends to pursue at the conference, to explain the reasons for this intention and why others might support it
For this reason it is important to know what is said, at least by key delegations, in the General Debate. But it need not tie up the resources of a delegation. Only one person is needed to listen to the debate and taking notes is not a taxing task for a delegation. As note-taking at the General Debate is tiresome, delegations usually charge several individuals with that task on a rotating basis. This is also a prime occasion on which several delegations can lighten each other’s burden by sharing a single note-taker.

As the more senior members of each delegation have much more productive uses for their time, it is not unusual for the conference room to be relatively empty during the General Debate, except in the case of those delegations that have wanted to make an ostentatious display of honouring a particular speaker, by having a large and senior level of representation present for that speech.