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Quiet corridors but a full programme at virtual UNGA75: five things you need to know

This month, there will be no bumping into presidents or the occasional global celebrity in hectic and sometimes crushed corridors at UN Headquarters in New York.

There will be no marvelling at seemingly endless presidential motorcades on First Avenue and no “standing-room only” moments in the gilded General Assembly Hall, as the Organization’s busiest time of the year is reimagined in the time of COVID-19.

Most leaders will not be appearing in person and meetings are going virtual, but that’s not to say that the wheels of global diplomacy and sustainable development will not be turning at the usual speed.

Here are five things to look out for at UNGA 75.

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Katalin Bogyay, Permanent Representative of Hungary to the United Nations, prepares her ballots during the elections in the General Assembly Hall.

1) Presidents and Heads of State calling in speeches

The centrepiece of any new General Assembly (often shortened to GA) session, is undoubtedly the General Debate, which starts on 22 September, a week after the official opening. 

It’s a globally unique occasion at which presidents and heads of state (or sometimes their deputies or foreign ministers) take to the dais, and address a world audience on an issue of their choosing. This year, because of the pandemic, world leaders will be staying away and have been invited to send in pre-recorded videos of their speeches which will be broadcast “as live”. 

Speeches are expected to be introduced by a New York-based representative of each state, who will be physically present.

However, any world leader has the right to turn up in person, to deliver his or her keynote address, an opportunity that at least one president seeking re-election this year, is reported to be mulling over. 

Read more here about the first virtual GA.

UN Photo
The Headquarters of the United Nations and New York’s mid-Manhattan skyline, 24 October 1955.

2) Celebrating 75 years

The United Nations was established in 1945 and has been marking its 75th anniversary with what the UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called an extended “people’s debate” which “promises to be the largest and furthest-reaching global conversation ever on building the future we want.”  

An event at UN headquarters on 21 September to celebrate the milestone (which will also take place online and remotely) will aim to “generate renewed support for multilateralism”; an issue many believe has become ever more urgent as the world faces up to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s expected that the Secretary-General will address, in person, the High-Level event to mark the 75th anniversary in the GA Hall.

Read more here about the role of youth leaders in fashioning a UN fit for their future.

© FAO/Fredrik Lerneryd
A woman harvests beans on a cooporative farm in Kenya.

3) ‘Transforming the world’ through Sustainable Development

The Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs – the 17 internationally agreed targets to reduce poverty and maintain peace, whilst protecting the planet – have remained at the top of the UN’s agenda during 2020, with many arguing, including the UN Deputy Secretary-General,  that the pandemic has only underlined more forcefully why they are so important.

At the 75th GA session, the SDGs will be put under the spotlight in what is being described as a “first of its kind 30-minute global broadcast”, created by writer and director, and SDG advocate, Richard Curtis, which will take audiences across the world “on a dynamic exploration of the times we live in, the multiple tipping points our planet faces, and the interventions that could transform our world” up to 2030, when, it’s hoped, the SDG targets will be met.

Meanwhile, the SDG Action Zone, which, in past years, has provided a focal point and meeting place at UN Headquarters to promote the global sustainable development agenda, is moving online with appearances from “inspirational leaders” promised on the bill. And the UN will also be partnering with the Al Jazeera English flagship social media show, The Stream, in a series of discussions around the SDGs.

Coral Reef Image Bank/Matt Curno
Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

4) Facing up to ‘unprecedented loss’ of global biodiversity

Earth’s biodiversity, its rich variety of life, is declining at what the UN has warned “an unprecedented rate.”  Over one million species are at risk of extinction, two billion hectares of land are currently degraded and 66 per cent of oceans, 50 per cent of coral reefs and 85 per cent of wetlands have been significantly and negatively altered by human activity. 

A major international summit to discuss how to reverse the accelerating deterioration of the natural environment and how it is harmfully impacting people’s lives was due to be held this year in Kunming, China, but it has now been postponed until May 2021. 

In the meantime, a day of virtual meetings will be taking place under the auspices of the General Assembly on September 30. Meanwhile, look out for the 2020 Biodiversity Outlook published on 15 September.

UNDP/Sumaya Agha
A woman drives a forklift truck at the recycling plant where she works in Northern Shouneh, Jordan.

5) Gender: 25 years after Beijing

Progress on gender equality and women’s rights has been severely impacted by COVID-19, as women and girls suffer a disproportionate social and economic fallout according to the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. 

On 1 October, this and other issues relating to gender equality and empowerment are due to be discussed at the UN in the context of the 25th anniversary of the internationally agreed Beijing Platform for Action which is widely acknowledged as the most comprehensive and forward-looking plan for advancing the rights of women and girls. 

Look out for the first ever International Equal Pay Day on 18 September which focuses on aligning pay between men and women.

UN Photo/Evan Schneider
The Empire State Building is lit up in red in honour of first responders during the COVID-19 outbreak in New York.

And one more…happy New Yorkers

Not strictly part of the General Assembly, but inextricably linked; many New Yorkers dread the opening of the new GA session every September which brings the closing of streets, presidential-motorcade-induced traffic jams on First Avenue and the surrounding Midtown area, and enervating disruptions to general life. 

This year, while world leaders stay away, New Yorkers, despite the severe, ongoing challenges of the pandemic, which include billions of dollars in lost revenue from visitors and tourists, will no doubt enjoy a respite from the week or ten days when a small part of their global city is given over to presidents and heads of State.

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