1 October 2020

A new era? The First Virtual United Nations General Assembly

September in New York is usually a hive of activity, with large delegations from around the world descending on the city to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations. However this year was markedly different, on September 15th the very first virtual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) began with the theme “The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action”.

Interestingly, in over 74 years since the establishment of the United Nations as a global body, the UNGA has never been canceled though it has been postponed twice, and even the pandemic couldn’t stop world leaders from coming together to discuss global challenges and proffering life-changing solutions to issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic itself, climate action, and human rights.

The high-level meetings during 22-29 September happened mostly virtually as member states from around the world were invited to send in pre-recorded videos. These were then presented by a New York-based high-level representative of each state who was physically present at the General Assembly Hall.

A keynote opening speech was delivered by the President of the 75th UNGA, H.E Volkan Bozkir, who has held senior diplomatic positions including Consul General in New York, Ambassador in Bucharest, and Permanent Representative of Turkey to the EU and was recently the Minister for European Affairs. He reaffirmed the formation of the UN as “a collective commitment to the progress of humanity” continually ensuring “peace, prosperity, and progress for all”. He went further to make known his priorities which are to encourage commitment to strengthening multilateralism, advance the humanitarian agenda, and efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Not without controversy, in a speech from US President Donald Trump, he stood firmly on the grounds that China was to blame for the spread of “the China virus” as he called it, and demanded that the UN hold the country accountable. President Trump also put the United Nations in the spotlight as he pointed out that for it to be effective, it must focus on “the real problems of the world” such as terrorism, the oppression of women, forced labour, drug trafficking, human and sex trafficking, and religious persecution.

China’s President Xi, on the other hand, made a call for international cooperation to tackle global challenges and also highlighted a few ways in which China has made commitments to play its part as a contributor to open and inclusive global development. He also announced China’s climate target to see carbon emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 which was seen as an important first step by climate advocacy groups.

One of the highlight events organized by the UN Global Compact was ‘Uniting Business Live’ which was held from 21-23 September. This event focused on how government-owned businesses as well as those in the private sector can get involved in global governance reform to effectively manage the climate crisis.

The Director of the UN Global Compact Sanda Ojiambo in her opening speech said “Together as business leaders, governments and civil societies we must transform business models to become more just and more inclusive. We must do this to ensure we leave no one behind”. Deputy Secretary-General, UN Aminu J. Mohammed called on the private sector to step up and make a difference. “It is time to match ambition and engagement with concrete action,” she said.

This year’s event also marked the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations and Secretary-General António Guterres in his address said “Those who built the United Nations 75 years ago had lived through a pandemic, a global depression, genocide and world war. They knew the cost of discord and the value of unity. The #COVID19 pandemic is a crisis unlike any we have ever seen. Today, we face our own 1945 moment.”

The first ever virtual event of the UNGA has further proven its interest and commitment, just as in times past, to achieve global cooperation from world leaders to strengthen health systems and accelerate action on climate crisis and issues of inequality. Though sad to see powerful nations like the US and China still at odds, the 75th UNGA closed on a hopeful note with more leaders inclined to support multilateralism and the United Nations.

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