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Opinion: Another U.N. General Assembly Talk Fest Begins

Dr Palitha Kohona is Sri Lanka’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Chief of the U.N. Treaty Section

Amb. Palitha Kohona. Credit: U.N. Photo/Mark Garten

Amb. Palitha Kohona. Credit: U.N. Photo/Mark Garten

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA, Sep 15 2015 (IPS) - UNGA 70 formally commenced on Sep. 15. In accordance with custom, it elected a new President, Denmark’s Mogens Lykketoft, who has picked as the theme for his tenure as the President, “The UN at 70 – A New Commitment to Action”.

An appropriate theme as this year’s highlight, the Summit for the Adoption of the Post 2015 Development Agenda, will take place from Sep. 25 to 27 just before the General Debate.

The high levels segment of the General Debate will commence on Sep. 28. His Holiness the Pope will address the General Assembly on Sep. 25, before the start of the Summit. The Pope is a head of state as well as the leader of a major faith, but it is unusual for a head of a state to be accommodated in this manner.

Every U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) is billed as exceptionally important. Some get a higher rating. The 50th, the 60th and now the 70th. This is the time of the year when hotel tariffs and short term rentals in New York sky rocket for no cost associated reasons. A captive clientele has become used to this blatant gauging. Restaurants do a brisk trade and prior reservations become essential. The city makes a pretty packet during this period.

Of course, it is also the time New Yorkers gripe most about the traffic snarls. Some roads are closed for the duration of the high level segment, like the section of the First Avenue in front of the U.N., others like the Second Avenue and 57th Street have lanes dedicated to motorcades of delegations and whenever the President of the United States is on the road, entire city blocks are shut down.

As is the case every year, UNGA is the high point in the Secretariat’s annual calendar. With 70 years of fine tuning it handles this task well. Unfortunately, many in the Secretariat consider the UNGA as only an opportunity for important world leaders to make grand speeches. Follow-up action may not necessarily be a factor in their preparations. Many a stimulating idea eloquently expressed before the GA may be lost for this reason.

The arrival of high level delegations is anticipated with excitement, speaking slots allocated (now on-line), assembly halls prepared and swept for security purposes, dozens of bilateral meeting rooms specially constructed, the meeting schedules of the Secretary-General and other senior officials meticulously prepared, and, since the Millennium Summit, appointments given for undertaking treaty actions in a specially constructed facility.

Officers attached to Permanent Missions, especially junior officers, work appalling hours in order to ensure that their heads of delegation are satisfied with the arrangements made. Arranging bilateral meetings is a demanding task.

Capitals, consumed with their own importance, demand bilaterals with the mightiest. In many instances, these demands just can not be met as the dignitaries whose time is requested have their own priorities or are unwilling to spare the time due to unsatisfactory previous encounters with underprepared interlocutors.

However, bilateral meetings provide real opportunities for substantive work. The presence of dozens of leaders in New York provides opportunities for constructive discussions to occur without the need for expensive and time consuming country visits. Many diplomatic successes have also been achieved through carefully choreographed “accidental” meetings in U.N. corridors.

There are heads of state and government who are simply happy to be in NY, away from the daily political pressures back home.

Gone are the days when third secretaries and attaches camped outside the secretariat on the night before the allocation of speaking slots so that they could get the first slots. Although the speakers’ lists are now prepared electronically, the Secretariat also intervenes and some horse trading for prime slots still takes place. Pressure is applied on colleagues for the exchange of slots for various reasons.

The prized speaking opportunities are on the first day of the General Debate. Since the Secretary-General’s report and the statement of the President of the United States are made on the morning of the first day, delegations know from experience, that a full house could be assured during this session.

Delegations do not fancy the final speaking slots in the morning of the first day as they tend to overlap with the luncheon traditionally hosted by the Secretary-General for visiting heads of state and government. The last few slots in the afternoon session of the opening day are also avoided due to the possibility of clashing with the reception customarily hosted by the President of the United States.

An increasing tendency is for leaders to address the General Assembly in their own languages knowing well that their message is mainly for the audiences back home. In many cases a statement carefully crafted and delivered in English or French will only have an audience of bored junior diplomatic officers and interns busily texting each other about something trivial oblivious to the importance of the message being delivered by the distinguished speaker.

A solution to this issue needs to be found. Recent years have witnessed some colourful leaders at the UNGA, like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahamedinajad, who unfailingly left an impression. Some provoked walk outs. Two are no longer alive and the other is out of politics.

Speech making is the main task of the high level participants. The tendency is to speak on whatever subject that the head of state or government fancies paying scant attention to the theme selected by the President of the GA. Of course, heads of state and government, many of whom have travelled far, do not appreciate being made to address the largely empty auditorium.

Conscious of this possibility, some ambassadors now write to their colleagues inviting them to attend the statement of their head of state or government. Sadly, many statements prepared over months, delivered in a language alien to the speaker, and praised by a fawning delegation are forgotten even before the beaming head of delegation has left for home.

The statements that remain relevant contain ideas which are picked up by other delegations and converted to action oriented resolutions of the U.N. Resolutions bind the Secretariat and carry a moral weight for the global community, especially where they are supported by a substantial majority. Exceptionally some may result in legally binding treaties.

This is also a time when people who have kept away from their permanent missions for a whole year suddenly rediscover friendships in order to obtain passes to enter the Secretariat building to see their own heads of state speaking.

At UNGA 70, exceptionally, the high level segment will be split in to two. The Summit for the adoption of the global sustainable development goals will be held on from Sep. 25 to 27. The SDGs, formulated by a U.N. working group, through an exacting process under the guidance of the Permanent Representatives of Kenya and Hungary (Ambassadors Macharia Kamau and Csaba Korosi) have as their genesis the Rio+20 Outcomes Document.

The 17 SDGs identified are expected to build upon the progress achieved under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but in a more comprehensive manner. The MDGs are considered to be a more successful initiative of the U.N.

The results of the MDGs would have been more impressive had goal number 8 (partnerships) been better realised. The success of the SDGs would also depend on the faithful delivery of commitments on aid, financing and trade.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.

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