- Isabelle Fonseca
The United Nations 76 Annual Session: Is the World Back to Normal?
On Tuesday, September 14, 2021, the United Nations general assembly convened for the first time in over a year for its 76th annual session. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 session convened remotely, but this year, the committee, composed of 193 nations, was held in a hybrid manner. Although not completely in-person, the compromised meeting style promoted some sense of normalcy, with many delegates finally reporting to the UN headquarters in New York City. The United Nations was founded in 1945 and since then has declared itself to have four main purposes: to keep peace throughout the world, to develop friendly relations among nations, to encourage countries to work together to improve the lives of the disproportionately affected citizens, and to become a center for harmonizing the actions of governments in achieving collective goals. For the last 76 years, the UN General Assembly has served as a multilateral forum for addressing and debating these sweeping goals.
The typical structure of the Assembly forum starts with opening speeches from each delegate on their aims for the general debate. Issues are then assigned to one of the six main subcommittees, where the delegates debate further and decide on a specific course of action to address the issues at hand. After the sub-committee comes to a consensus on how to handle a challenge, their recommendations are sent to the entire General Assembly, where all 193 delegates vote whether to continue with the subcommittee's recommendations or debate further on the issue and solutions.
This year, the General Assembly was kicked off by an opening speech given by the Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres. In the speech, Guterres welcomed Abdulla Shahid, the Foreign Minister of the Maldives, and the newly elected President of the General Assembly. He then addressed the main issues he believed needed to be discussed during the general debate scheduled from September 21 to 30th. He stressed the importance of a unified effort in alleviating sources of global ailment, calling on the General Assembly to work towards ending the global pandemic through worldwide vaccination aid and climate change using 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Guterres also stated that the most pressing issues for humanity can all be solved through the continuous implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a platform created in the General Assembly meeting of 2015 to combat the growing issues of poverty, hunger, climate change, and inequality. Guterres shared “that multilateralism is the only pathway to a better future for all" and hoped that through the collaboration of the General Assembly, the wars on each other and our planet could end.
After Secretary Guterres’s speech, individual delegates were given the opportunity to state the interests of their country they believed to be the most important for further discussion in the general debate. As each delegate represented vastly different populations, their speeches covered a range of humanitarian crises, including hunger, extreme poverty, unequal rights, education, and more. However, most agreed that the top issue was pandemic relief. The emphasis on a unified pandemic relief effort took precedence not only in Secretary Guterres's speech but also in the speeches of U.S President Joseph Biden, President Shahid of the General Assembly, and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Although most delegates agreed that pandemic relief and vaccination rollout was a pressing matter, few provided detailed plans for future relief in these opening statements.
Aside from the pandemic, this year’s focus was also directed at President Biden and his remarks to the General Assembly on September 21. This attention came from the fact that Biden’s performance would be placed in direct contrast with his predecessor, former President Trump. In his speech as a delegate, Trump openly chastised different sectors of the UN like the Human Rights Council, claiming it as “ a grave embarrassment to this institution.” His remarks were a flurry of America-first nationalist rhetoric, promoting “the construction of a major border wall,” the addition of 4 million jobs to the American job market, and “standing up for America and the American people.” Throughout his time on the UN, he talked very little about global cooperation and, in many cases, actively acted out against this idea. In both his rhetoric and actions, Trump effectively created a gap between the United States and the rest of the world by claiming American superiority over the United Nations and its participating member nations.
Thus, in anticipation of this year’s Assembly meeting, many speculated that President Biden’s role at the meeting would be that of damage control, using his performance to reassure member nations that the United States was committed to working through this multilateral forum. Indeed, at the Assembly, he reaffirmed many of the actions that the United States has taken to re-engage with the global community since the beginning of his term, including major funding increases for COVID-19 relief abroad in coalition with Covax, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and pursuing friendly diplomatic relations with historically opposing countries such as Iran. Along with reassuring the General Assembly of the United States’ willingness to cooperate in this forum, he stressed the importance of collective action in addressing issues such as the pandemic and humanitarian crises during this "inflection point in history.” He emphasized the limited time countries had left before issues like climate change and COVID-19 became too much for any one leader to solve. He claimed that now is the time to take action, warning that if a major global change is not made, there will be no future left.
The General Assembly meeting serves as an open forum for delegates from all over the world to simply state their main concerns going into the conference. The speeches that each delegate gave this year were brief, and though they did not explicitly propose any policy changes, projects, or long-term goals, they did give listeners a view of what to expect from the general debate that follows the opening meeting. As expected, this year, the debate and sub-committees focused on pandemic relief and worldwide vaccination rollout. They also attended to the detrimental effects of climate change by drawing from existing plans such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. On a broader scale, the meeting also made efforts to increase peaceful relations between its 193 participatory nations to create a safer and more hospitable world for the next generation. With the UN General Assembly debating the world's most pressing issues once again, it feels as if there is finally a return to a degree of normalcy unavailable in this past year and a half. Yet, as world leaders continue to grapple with the ongoing wars, climate change, and a global pandemic, this feeling of stability may prove to be nothing more than an illusion.