Who is coming to New York this year?
Heads of state and government from at least 145 countries are expected to take the dais at the river’s edge. Among them will be Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – all expected on the first day. This will be Zelensky’s first in-person appearance at the United Nations since the Russian invasion of his country. In 2022, the general assembly voted to grant him special dispensation to submit a prerecorded speech.
Zelensky suggested on Monday that the world body needs to answer for allowing his country’s invader a seat at the tables of power.
“For us, it’s very important that all our words, all our messages, will be heard by our partners. And if in the United Nations still – it’s a pity, but still – there is a place for Russian terrorists, the question is not to me. I think it’s a question to all the members of the United Nations,” Zelensky said after visiting wounded Ukrainian military members at a New York hospital.
He will also speak on Wednesday at a UN Security Council meeting about Ukraine. Russia is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the council, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to make remarks.
But the parade of speakers at the general assembly will be marked by some key absences. While they’re all sending representatives, the leaders of the rest of the permanent UN Security Council members — France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia — will not make the trip.
The presence of Vladimir Putin would certainly have been surprising, but Emmanuel Macron is a regular attendee and this would have been British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s first opportunity to address the general assembly. Macron cited King Charles III’s imminent visit; Sunak, a busy schedule. Prince William is also in town to promote his Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit and met with Guterres on Monday.
Top leaders from other major countries, including India — who just played host to the G20 summit in New Delhi this month — and Mexico, are also slated to send ministers in their steads.
Is Australia participating?
Yes. Foreign Minister Penny Wong will deliver Australia’s national statement at the 78th session where she is expected to emphasise the government’s commitment to climate change policies and to preventing conflict in the Pacific. Along with Assistant Climate Change Minister Jenny McAllister, Wong leads the Australian delegation in New York from September 18 to 23.
Wong said Australia had a large stake in the success of the UN as it works with other countries to prevent military might from stripping smaller nations of their sovereignty.
“Australia is committed to reforms that benefit people everywhere and ensure no one is left behind,” she said.
McAllister said global collaboration was key to ensuring a net-zero emissions future and provided economic opportunities for Australia.
“I look forward to promoting Australia’s constructive role on climate change at home, in the Pacific and beyond,” she said.
What does the General Debate look like?
We might be in the midst of US presidential primary debate season, but the structure of the general debate at the United Nations bears little resemblance. It doesn’t lend itself to obvious fireworks — booing or interruptions or immediate rebuttals are not permitted — but that doesn’t mean intrigue and drama are absent.
Each speech alone offers a rich text and the delivery adds subtext. Speeches can be fonts of evocative language, barbs and gauzily veiled messages. They’re supposed to run for 15 minutes, but many miss that mark.
Last year, speeches averaged around 19 minutes, drawing a wry chiding from Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová — clocking in under 12 minutes, her speech ended with: “And since obeying even the smallest of rules matters, let me finish here to respect the agreed time limit.” The longest speech in history ran to 269 minutes, and was delivered by Cuba’s Fidel Castro in 1960.
Member states are also allowed to exercise the right of reply, in which they can rebut criticism voiced during the General Debate.
These are often fiery exchanges at day’s end, but aren’t typically delivered by heads of state or heads of government — rather, lower-level members of a country’s delegation. Last year, there were 21 exercises of the right of reply.
How long does this year’s general debate run?
It’s still six days, as usual, but this year’s general debate ends a day later on Tuesday, September 26. While past debates usually ran from Tuesday through to Monday, with a break only on Sunday, this year there’s a two-day break. A UN spokesperson confirmed that there will be no speeches on the usually final Monday in observance of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
Why does Brazil speak first at the UN General Assembly?
It’s tradition. Early on, Brazil ventured forward when no other country would volunteer to speak first. Decades later, the South American country retains the pole position. As the host country, the United States typically speaks second (though last year, President Joe Biden had to delay his speech by a day because he was attending Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral).
For the scores of speeches that follow, the order is determined by multiple variables, including whom a country is sending to deliver the speech (heads of state precede heads of government, who precede mere ministers and other representatives), countries’ own preferences and geographic balance.
Are non-UN members allowed to attend?
Some. While all member states are invited to speak, not all necessarily take opportunity. But the United Nations also has permanent observers, which have access to “most meetings and relevant documentation,” per the UN website.
The European Union, Palestine and the Holy See (the Vatican) are permanent observers again on the docket this year. Last year, Palestine had the longest speech, with President Mahmoud Abbas clocking in at more than 47 minutes.
While the general assembly is not open to the public, the United Nations streams proceedings live.