Transcript of final Press Conference by the President of the General Assembly

United Nations Headquarters, New York


President of the General Assembly (PGA): Thank you for coming. Yes, I really believe that before we finish our work, our mandate, it would be fair to meet with you and offer my view and my assessment of the 72nd session. Let me start with some statistics.

As of today, we held 115 General Assembly meetings, of which I chaired personally close to 80. We adopted 312 resolutions. I delivered nearly 300 speeches during this year. I held more than 120 meetings with United Nations officials – and more than 440 meetings with representatives of Member States, including 26 Presidents, 16 Prime Ministers, 8 Vice Prime Ministers, and more than 90 Ministers or State Secretaries. I organized 10 high-level meetings and events. I held more than 80 meetings with outside stakeholders, civil society, and other regional and international organizations. I participated in more than 60 interviews and media engagements. And I undertook 20 trips that took me to 28 countries.

Now, speaking about the most important results or achievements of the 72nd session, I would, as number one, mention migration and the fact that, on the 13th of July, the Member States agreed on the text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. As you know very well, this is the first agreement, negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations General Assembly that addresses the global phenomenon of migration. It recognizes that migration is a shared responsibility of all countries, not only of those where people are migrating to.  It helps to strengthen the positive sides of migration and mitigate the risks and the negative sides of migration. It is a political tool.  It is not a legally binding document as you know very well. But it offers actions for Member States and also a platform for countries to share experience and also talk about global challenges. The main purpose is obviously to switch us from a reactive mode to a proactive mode, and to respond to migration with an orderly and well managed approach. You know that this document is to be formally endorsed in December in Marrakesh.

As number two, I would mention peace. I’ve tried to promote the role of the United Nations in protecting peace and preventing conflicts. In April, I hosted a High-Level Meeting on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace. And I was very pleased by the strong positive reactions from the Member States. We had 125 Member States and 5 Observers speaking at the event. We had 5 Heads of State, 1 Head of Government. We had 2 Deputy Prime Ministers, 21 Ministers, 16 Vice Ministers.  And the debate took 2 and a half days. And the most important outcome besides giving greater prominence to the issue of peace was to turn it into a process. So we requested the Secretary-General to provide a report next year and then a comprehensive report the year after.

As number three, I would mention that, on World Water Day, 22 March, we launched the International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development 2018-2028. The goal of this decade is to improve cooperation, partnership and capacity development.

As number four, I would mention financing for development or SDG financing. This is one of the crucial issues and I organized a high-level event on 11 June to address the current financing gap, which is a serious issue. And therefore, we brought together representatives from the private sector, academia, Governments, the UN system, multilateral development banks, think tanks. And as a result, we produced a summary report that I circulated to Member States. And together with our international partners, we are working on a toolbox of financing, or a compendium of insightful recommendations. And this document will be available on a dedicated website that will be officially launched in October this year in Geneva at the World Investment Forum. I’ll be there, and I’ll be co-launching it. And it will be managed by UNCTAD and will be continuously updated. So the purpose is to help all those who are willing to invest in the SDGs, to offer practical ways of how to do it. Because the fact is that the way we do it now, we’re not on target. We are not set to meet the 2030 Agenda by 2030.

As number five, I would mention accessibility. We speak a lot about accessibility, about making the United Nations accessible to every person. But I believe that we should do more than just talk about it. The United Nations should be leading by example, also here, and I myself started providing services in my official events. And I initiated and hosted two working lunches dedicated to the issue of the inclusion of persons with disabilities, where I invited Member States, the UN Secretariat and persons with disabilities themselves. And to my second lunch, I also invited the President-elect of the 73rd General Assembly to make sure there will be continuity. One concrete outcome of these discussions was the decision to establish a Steering Committee as a body that will include all stakeholders and will be coordinating the efforts of all parts of the UN system on this. And I’m glad that we have also improved the accessibility of the General Assembly Hall. I think you have seen it yourselves.

As number six, I would mention our event that we organized for young people in May – the Youth Dialogue – which was very different from standard or traditional UN events. We opened up to young people, we organized an open mic session and they came and they spoke, and we were listening. And the key issues that were discussed were education, chances for employment, prevention of radicalization and the need for dialogue.

As number seven, I would mention reforms. You know very well that this 72nd session was very much about reforms. And on top of traditional reform processes, I’m glad that the General Assembly was able to adopt and approve and process the three reform proposals, which were submitted by the Secretary-General, namely on peace and security architecture, on development system and on management.

And finally, dialogue, transparency and gender issues. I realized very soon after arriving to my post as the PGA that there are many meetings, many speeches, but very little dialogue. And there is not a real space for genuine dialogue. So in order to do something about it, I introduced the Morning Dialogues as an opportunity, as a platform for Permanent Representatives to meet and to speak freely without scripts, to express their views on issues that are not duplicating the official agenda, but are very much relevant for the work of the United Nations, such as the role and the rights of women in the work of the United Nations, the position or the problems that small delegations are facing, better cooperation between different UN headquarters and so on and so forth. We held 14 discussions. They were very much, I would say, enthusiastically received by the Permanent Representatives. And they requested the process to continue also beyond this session, which is now formalized also through the resolution on revitalization, that requests my successor to continue with this practice.

I’m proud to be named a Gender Champion. You know that 70% of my team was made up of women. And I tried to respect strictly gender balance also when appointing co-chairs and co-facilitators of different processes, which is not so easy, given the fact that the share of women Permanent Representatives is somewhere between 20 and 25%. But out of 38 co-chairs and co-facilitators that I appointed, 20 were men and 18 were women.

And finally, I really believe that it’s very important for the President of the General Assembly to be as transparent as possible. So I was the first PGA to make my personal financial disclosure summary available online. I also started some new practices such as publishing my daily calendar online and issuing official readouts of all my meetings.

If you ask me about the challenges, of course the biggest challenge for this organization is the threat to multilateralism, that we are facing through big speeches, but also through small actions. And we have to resist, because it’s not a coincidence that the multilateral system was created after a global catastrophe – to make sure it would not be repeated in the future. It looks like we are forgetting about the raison d’être for the United Nations and we need to stand up for multilateralism. And this is what I believe has been the most important element or the one I tried to promote as the President of the General Assembly – to strengthen multilateralism and particularly the role of the United Nations as the backbone of multilateralism, to make sure or at least to contribute to the understanding that the General Assembly is not only the most representative international body, but also the most relevant one – and build on the fact that everyone is equal and everyone has the chance to participate on the same basis in the work of the General Assembly.

I’ve also tried to promote dialogue as a working method, because this is what diplomacy is about, and obviously focusing on people, which has not only been the formal theme of my presidency, but also the real goal. That means to make sure that what we do here has an impact and preferably a positive impact on the lives of people on the ground.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Question: President Lajčák, on behalf of the United Nations Correspondents Association, thank you so much for coming to speak to us one last time and thanks to you and the engagement of your staff, Brenden in particular, in terms of the engagement with the media We do appreciate it and we hope it will continue in the 73rd session. My question is about progress in the intergovernmental negotiations regarding Security Council reform in particular. Kindly give us a detailed perspective on where this process stands. We still don’t appear to have text-based negotiations and no clear deadline for this process to end. I think a lot of people would agree that this is problematic. Given your purview over the last year, do you believe that this is a productive process or an exercise in futility? That is my first question. Secondly, the term of the PGA is 12 months. Do you believe this is a sufficient amount of time to implement an agenda or should the term of the PGA be reviewed? And thirdly, is this a position that should be empowered to have more clout within the organization?

PGA: When it comes to Security Council reform, this is one of the most complicated, most sensitive and most important issues the United Nations is dealing with – because the fact is that the overall work of the United Nations system is [judged] by the external world by the performance of the Security Council. And the fact is that every time the Security Council is unable to unite and to reach a decision, the entire system gets criticized – and gets criticized harshly. I have been a witness to this, and I have been confronted with this during many of my trips and meetings. And it’s difficult to try to point to so many important things that the UN is doing in the humanitarian field, in the development area, in peacekeeping. What people see is obviously the action and the dynamism in the Security Council Chamber.

The next point on this issue is the fact that it cannot be denied that that the current composition of the United Nations Security Council is not representative – because it does not reflect the realities of 2018, of the 21st century. It copies the realities of 1945. So therefore, the call for reform is just, and it is not denied. It is the understanding that the composition of the new reformed Security Council should better reflect the changed global realities. Obviously there are many many practical issues related to it. Like, if expanded, to how many members? What about veto rights? What about permanent, non-permanent, semi-permanent? There are many many issues to be discussed. I said at the beginning of this session that I wish to see a credible process that will lead to a meaningful outcome. And this is exactly what you said – whether this is an exercise in futile efforts. No, that would be the worst we can do to this organization. If Member States don’t have the feeling that what they do is real, that the process is not a proxy exercise but a real process, then it would have a very negative impact on the work of the United Nations. So I tried to make sure that we had a credible process. And I think we succeeded on that.

The result of this process was adopted unanimously. Now, how meaningful was the progress we achieved? I think here, the views of different Member States would differ. For some, we went very far; for some others, this was not far enough. But it’s really important that the process continues. I wish for next year’s discussion to be built and based on the results of this year’s discussion. I [hope] we do not move in circles. But year after year, session after session, we have a feeling that we are getting closer to agreeing on what the next Security Council should look like. This is extremely important because the importance of this issue goes way beyond the role of the Security Council.

On the twelve months, that’s a fact; that’s the reality. Obviously, I know much more about the United Nations and the General Assembly than I knew a year ago. I’ve learned so much, and it would be much easier for me to start now. But this is how it is decided. This is what the rules and the Charter say. And I don’t think it is realistic to speculate about extending the term because that would also mean that it would also extend the waiting time for those countries that are willing to offer a President of the General Assembly.

I would rather focus on strengthening the institutional memory of the office – because it still depends very much on the goodwill of the persons that are holding this office. And this has been the case; the goodwill has been there. Lately, I had all the support from my predecessors, and I’ve extended all the support to my successor. But I really believe that there should be some continuity also when it comes to personnel. There should be some institutional memory when it comes to papers, to documents – because this role has really grown in its importance. This is what Member States want. But as is sometimes the case at the United Nations, Member States decide they want something, and then they vote against supporting this something with concrete practical steps, and also with the budget.

And when it comes to the empowerment of the PGA, I think this position gives you all the possibilities to have real power, real influence. As long as Member States support your agenda, as long as they identify themselves with what you do, as long as they all see you as their President of the General Assembly, you can exercise real influence and have a real political role. Again, my feeling has been that this is what Member States want because the President of the General Assembly is the face of the General Assembly, and a strong PGA represents a strong General Assembly.

Question: Thank you Mr. President… One of the biggest critics of the UN… has been the US President, Donald Trump. How do you think the US withdrawal from international agreements and from various UN organizations affected the system? … How worried are you about the US withdrawing from the entire UN system?

PGA: When I met with President Trump in September last year, he made it very clear to me that he believes the United Nations can play a very important role, that it has strong potential, that this potential has not been used fully, and that he believes that there is a chance and that he’s willing to support the United Nations in using its full potential. In the meantime, or since then, we have seen withdrawals of the United States from several important processes or organizations. I can mention the migration compact or the Human Rights Council.

I have expressed my regret on every occasion when it happened. And I do regret this withdrawal because I really believe that we are stronger together. And I am also absolutely convinced that we are facing challenges of nature that make it impossible for a single Member State to deal with them on its own. And therefore, global challenges require global cooperation. All we can say at this point is that the door remains open. And we will be very pleased when the United States decides to return to the institutions, bodies and also the processes of the United Nations.

Question: If I can take you back to last year, when President trump made that explosive, headline-grabbing speech at UNGA… A year on, how would you describe relationships between UN Member States and the Trump administration?… What’s your take on that situation?

PGA: The speech was explosive, but what followed was a very positive development, when we speak about the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. And this is what I applaud and welcome. Second, the United States is of course a very important member of the United Nations. As you know, it’s the number one contributor to the regular budget, to the peacekeeping budget and also the number one provider of voluntary contributions. So we value and appreciate that. And it’s really important that we use the United Nations and the General Assembly as a platform to discuss issues on which we might differ or have different opinions. I have not seen tensions let alone confrontation. There are different views, but that’s legitimate. There have been many votes on many issues. So this is how it is. You see it’s sometimes consensual, sometimes majority will of the General Assembly. But there is no reason to panic, I believe, or to get very nervous. This is why we created the United Nations.

Question: Thank you for doing so many press events. And thank you to Brenden for always being so available to us… What do you see as the major issues that are going to be on the minds of world leaders when they come here in less than two weeks? Secondly, on the migration compact, are you optimistic that there are going to be a significant number of major signatories to the compact so that it will actually have some effect on the ground? … And on Security Council reform, you said the importance goes well beyond the Security Council. I wonder if you could elaborate on that.

PGA: First, on the major issues that will dominate the high-level week and the general debate, I don’t think they will be very different from what we had last September. And last September, the most frequently mentioned issue was climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals. We had more than 80% of speakers referring to these issues. And they continue to be very important.

I expect calls for strengthening multilateralism. I believe Syria will be on the agenda and will be mentioned given the very sensitive stage of the process, both on the ground around Idlib and also when it comes to the diplomatic effort – the Geneva process and Astana process. So these are my expectations.

Regarding the Global Compact, I expect overwhelming support for this document. You know that the US withdrew at the beginning of the intergovernmental negotiations and the Government of Hungary announced after the completion of the process that they are disassociating themselves. But I believe that the rest of the international community will stay, will stick to their commitments, because this was a very inclusive process. Everybody participated in that we had 6 rounds of intergovernmental negotiations and we spent more than a year explaining, understanding and building trust among everyone. And this is the result. And I am very much encouraged that on such a sensitive issue as migration, we were able to reach an agreement on the text of this document.

With regard to its impact on the ground, I like to say that the Sustainable Development Goals are a political document as well. They are not legally binding, and yet in 3 years, they have changed fundamentally the way we deal with the development agenda. They have changed the way the Member States are planning their development activities. They’ve adopted their development strategies. 112 of them have come back to the General Assembly to report about their progress. So this has fundamentally changed the way we address development. And I believe that the Global Compact has the potential to change the way we look at migration and how we deal with migration issues.

And on the Security Council and the “importance that goes beyond,” I can mention two aspects. First, from the perspective of the global public, as I said, most people judge the overall performance of the United Nations through the performance of the Security Council. And you see that when the Security Council is able to act in unity, such as in the case of the DPRK or Myanmar, we have seen positive shifts on the ground, while in cases when the unity is not there, like many times on Syria, we see growing frustration. And the second aspect that confirms what I said about this importance is obviously the perspective of Member States. They have to feel that the Security Council represents them all and they have to identify with the work of the Security Council. And this will not be the case for as long as there are important countries that believe that they are not adequately represented, or continents, and obviously starting with Africa. So that’s why this process is very important.

Question: You mentioned in your opening remarks that there is this threat to multilateralism. For our viewers and our readers out on the streets, can you just tell us in plain terms, what is that threat? And why should they care?

PGA: We are clearly shifting from a world that was dominated by one power to a world where they are several poles, to a multipolar world. But I just don’t see this process as orderly and regulated. I just don’t see this process being discussed. It’s somehow happening without any rules. And there is a risk that those who feel powerful may try to establish their own rules within their reach or spheres of interest if you wish. And there have been violations of international agreements, norms, rules, without punishment or without adequate reactions, which again can trigger others to do the same. And this trend is there and therefore we really have to raise our voice to demand that everyone respects the rules and it does not really depend on how big or small the country is – to make sure that we will not find ourselves in a world that we don’t like. Because there is no adequate alternative to multilateralism. It’s either anarchy, chaos or then there are different sets of rules imposed by different players according to their liking.

Question: Would you care to name some names?

PGA: Of course not!


Question: Before you took office a year ago, you said preventive diplomacy and sustaining peace are one of your priorities. One year later, have you reached your goals? Second question, yesterday was the UN South-South Cooperation Day. What role is South-South Cooperation playing in reaching the 2030 goals?

PGA: I do believe that we should do a better job in preventive diplomacy. I really believe that this is the core of diplomacy because if we are unable to keep peace, to preserve peace, then we are good for nothing and then we can invite military people to do their job, which they know best. And I’ve tried to address what is a bit of a grey area when we see that things are developing in a dangerous direction, when we start to see the warning lights flashing. But it’s not clear, what tools do we have at our disposal, how can we use them. Obviously, the issue of the responsibility to protect vis-a-vis the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States comes into play. And I really believe we need to talk about these issues. And this is what I tried to do through several events, and the high-level event in April was a culmination. We have published a book. Brenden introduced the book to you earlier this week about everything we have tried to do during this 72nd session dedicated to the prevention of conflicts and preventive diplomacy as such. Have we reached the goal? Obviously not. Have we moved the envelope, have we helped to promote the agenda? I hope so. Including by the fact that it is now a process that will be revisited year after year, and the General Assembly will have the time to discuss whether we are progressing or not on this issue.

South-South Cooperation is very important to build the feeling of global partnership and to break existing stereotypes, particularly when it comes to the north-south dynamic. So, I really believe that the global south has a lot to offer. And this is the means and the platform how to demonstrate it.

Question: Mr. President, if I can come back to UN reform, but very specifically to your post, the President of the General Assembly, because we saw with the corruption allegations against late President Ashe there were problems. So I’d like to hear after a year of doing the job, your reflection on the job. And in an ideal world, what could change to make the job better, more effective? It has this very high stature in the Charter. If you could change the Charter should this be a two-year job, a three-year job? Should you have more resources? Should, for example, you start on the first of October so that the biggest thing you do is not just days after you start the job, but it comes as a crowning glory of the job? What would you change about the way the PGA works?

PGA: I would not go in the direction of extending the term in office, because as I said, it rotates and the Member States have a right to apply for the job and to get the job. I personally think that there will be more and more voting within the regional groups, which is logical given the growing importance of this position and also the political influence. And all the changes are in the hands of the Member States, which I fully respect. If you ask me for my personal opinion, I would think about two things or two areas. First, to make the transition phase more institutional, more based on a system and rules, because right now, it really depends on the goodwill of people. And fortunately, it has been here, but it’s not guaranteed. So, I think, it’s in the interest of the General Assembly to establish some procedures that would have to be followed. That would allow the incoming PGA to be more involved in the activities of the closing part of the mandate of his or her predecessor, so that the transition is smooth. What goes with it is also, as I said, the institutional memory, and also the personnel continuity. So, it would be good, and it has been the case – one third of my team were people who used to work in previous team or teams. But again, it was my choice, my decision, So, again, I really believe that it is in the interest of the system to make sure that part of the team are the people who really continue and are the guarantee that the continuity is there.

And second, the issue that is very actively discussed by the Member States is of course the beginning of the General Assembly vis-a-vis the beginning of thehHigh-level week. Right now, it’s a one-week difference. That’s far from ideal. I mean it is not ideal at all. Your really have to hit the ground running, and as I said, there are no rules that guarantee that this will be the case. The ideas vary from moving the beginning of the General Assembly by one week, so it gives the new PGA two weeks. Then there are ideas about the first of August, first of July, first of January. There are ideas that are saying that basically the high-level week should be the culmination and not the beginning of the term in office for the PGA. They are all legitimate. What we have now is not ideal. But the Member States so far have not been able to agree on any of these proposals. And we have discussed this also in our Morning Dialogues. We had a fantastic discussion, but I sometimes joke that we need to strengthen the link between the PRs [Permanent Representatives] in the Morning Dialogues and the same PRs in the formal sessions. So, the discussions will continue and I really believe and I made it very clear on several occasions that these issues better be addressed because this is in the interest of the General Assembly.

Question: You mentioned the reform of the Security Council, and you indicated that the process will continue. It has taken more than a quarter of a century. I myself participated in the negotiations of the reform of Security Council. Are you concerned that the matter has become a routine question? And two, do you think that the reform of the Security Council needs reform of the Charter?

PGA: Starting with your second question, obviously, the agreement on the reform will require changes in the Charter – if we speak about real reform in the Security Council. And whether I’m concerned that this will become a routine question, I’m not, because I’m certain that the Member States will not allow for this to become a routine question. Honestly, I was taken aback by the level of emotions and also the level of frustration when we started the discussions about Security Council reform during this session. The Member States have very clear, very strong positions, and many of them will make sure that this will not become a routine. It is impossible for this to become a routine. It is too important, too big and too sensitive.

Question: Since you mentioned the state of the world and you’re a convinced European, is there a special role, even a responsibility for countries, like France, Germany or the European Union, here at the UN?

PGA: Sure, it is. France is doing its part as a permanent member of the Security Council – a member who knows exactly what is expected from them. When it comes to Germany, we have expectations for the coming two-year term on the Security Council for Germany. When it comes to the European Union, I wish to see a more active role of the European Union within the UN system. Given the fact that both the European Union and the United Nations are born and built on the same principles. And also given the fact the European Union, together with its member states, is a major contributor to the UN budget, I would expect the European Union to be more visible, especially at times when we are facing challenges to the work of the United Nations, to the budgeting of the United Nations. I made these views very clear during my visit to Brussels in March, when I met with the President of the European Council, the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Parliament. I do not hide the feeling that the European Union is not fully using or being aware fully of its role as a global player. And regardless of the fact that there are many internal issues that the European Union is busy with, there are also global expectations from the European Union. And I’d wish the EU to be more responsive to its global role and global responsibility.

Spokesperson: Great, thank you very much everyone, and we’ll see you all at 5:30 this evening.  The President has invited all of you to a reception for all UN correspondents in the Riverview Cafeteria on the 4th floor.

PGA: And before going, I want to thank you all very much for the very constructive cooperation we had with you and for your friendship. Thank you very much.

Question: Before you go, can you tell us what are your plans? Are you going back to be Foreign Minister? Are you going on vacation? What are you going to do?

PGA: Yes, when I was taking over from Peter Thomson, he told me that, as soon as he hands over the gavel, he goes on three weeks’ vacation to Greece. I go immediately back home to Slovakia to fully resume my post as the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Slovakia. My Government is waiting, my Ministry is waiting. So, there will be no vacation. I will spend three and a half working days in Bratislava and then I’ll come back for the next high-level debate in my national capacity. So don’t be surprised when you see me around. It’s not that I’m refusing to accept that my mandate has come to an end! And we are getting ready for the next important challenge. Slovakia will be chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, next year, which requires lots of work, lots of action. So, I’m very much excited to be the chairman in office of the OSCE next year. Thank you.