UNGA at 75: A unique UNGA for a post-pandemic UN

UNGA at 75: A unique UNGA for a post-pandemic United Nations collage

Download PDF

The annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the world's largest diplomatic event, normally entails leaders and representatives from the 193 UN member states descending upon New York for a full week of speeches, high-stakes meetings between governments, and street protests. UNGA has also had its share of surprising moments, like Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev (allegedly) banging his shoe on the desk, or Venezuela's Hugo Chávez suggesting that US President George W. Bush was the devil himself.

This year's UNGA will be very different because of COVID-19. Hotels in New York won't be full of diplomats, metal detectors, and secret service agents. The "contact sport" of diplomacy will go virtual, with great uncertainty over how improvisational breakthroughs often found on the sidelines of UNGA summits will translate to the digital world. And more individuals from around the world than ever before will be able to take part. In other words, UNGA will be very different, but hardly less important (or dramatic).


The COVID-19 pandemic makes this year's UNGA — the 75th — a once-in-a-generation opportunity for global leaders to unite around a single challenge, build the momentum necessary to tackle its effects head-on and chart a clear path forward for multilateralism... all while overcoming the obstacles of working virtually.

What will change? This year's UNGA will be mostly virtual, with world leaders delivering prerecorded statements and only one representative per UN member state attending in-person in the General Assembly Hall. All other events and meetings will take place online — requiring a 20th century institution, which still thinks in analog in many ways, to rapidly embrace 21st century technology. The pandemic will make proceedings more transparent for the general public, but the virtual setting may not be ideal for the most sensitive aspects of diplomacy that occur behind closed doors or the spontaneous meetings in the labyrinthine hallways of the UN. Many UN insiders worry that the virtual format may stand in the way of these unofficial meetings, which are often where the real diplomatic work gets done.

The overwhelming nature of the COVID-19 crisis may also divert attention from other top priorities such as biodiversity, and cash-strapped governments will be less likely to announce concrete financial commitments to meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the organization's roadmap for ending poverty and protecting the planet. Finally, there's a serious risk that the urgency of doing something quickly about the pandemic will make UN member states cut corners and compromise on sustainability, so in fact we'll end up "building back worse" than before.

What will stay the same? For the UN, 2020 was supposed to kick off its so-called "Decade of Action" to meet the 17 SDGs by 2030 — and it still is. Although that timeline has been complicated by the coronavirus, the UN has no immediate plans to push back the deadline, and now argues that the need to "build back better" after COVID-19 makes the objective of achieving all SDGs by the end of the decade even more urgent than it was at the beginning of the year.

This year was also expected to be all about the UN's own 75th birthday. A planned year-long celebration of the UN's accomplishments since its formation in 1945 has turned into an opportunity for the UN to draw lessons from its 75 years of experience dealing with global crises that can help the world recover from the pandemic. Finally, this year's high-level meetings will focus — as planned — on UN75, biodiversity, gender equality, and nuclear disarmament.

So, what's cooking for this year's UNGA, who are the key players, what's needed next, and how can you get involved?

What's the UN doing this year?

In 2020, UNGA will be anything but business-as-usual, starting with the schedule. The multiple high-level summits and events that are normally programmed for one week will take place throughout September and October to allow for most discussions and meetings to be virtual or in-person with social distancing. Here's the updated schedule of high-level meetings:

  • 09/21 UN 75 anniversary commemoration. The UN will celebrate its 75th birthday under the theme The Future We Want, the UN We Need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism with a virtual address by Secretary-General António Guterres.
  • 09/21-29 General Assembly debate. This is an opportunity for representatives from all UN member states to gather in the same room, and for each individual UN member state to raise any issue that's important to them. The process takes five days, and Brazil is the first to speak because it was the only country that volunteered to do so at the first debate in 1955. The US comes second, and representatives can talk about whatever they want... for a maximum of 15 minutes (the limit is rarely enforced).
  • 09/30 Biodiversity Summit. As the degradation of biodiversity threatens global progress towards meeting the development goals, world leaders will adopt a framework to take urgent action on putting nature on a path to recovery by the end of the decade.
  • 10/01 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women. A quarter century since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the Fourth World Conference on Women, UN member states will take stock of progress made and challenges ahead for gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, everywhere.
  • 10/02 Commemoration of the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. This year's commemoration occurs in the shadow of a deterioration in arms control agreements between the US and Russia, the two states with the most nuclear weapons.

Who are the key players?

Governments are the most important players responding to global challenges, but they can't do so alone. Thus far, their response has also been insufficient, failing to rise to the level of international coordination seen in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and other pivotal global crises. This presents an opportunity to rethink effective multilateralism for the next 75 years, and it's why this year's UNGA is also bringing together the private sector, NGOs and others interested in a better future for all to together figure out how to meet the 2030 deadline to achieve the development goals in the "new normal" the pandemic has created. Microsoft, for instance, has long committed to Agenda 2030 and this year opened a representation office in New York to advance its partnerships with the UN and its agencies.

What's needed next, and how can I get involved?

This year's UNGA will aim to forge a global compact to prepare for a post-pandemic world that first and foremost focuses on global health in a scenario where COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on global health systems worldwide. But that consensus will also have to address rising inequality as a direct result of the coronavirus, its devastating impact on labor markets, and the political divisions the pandemic has exacerbated. Only a multilateral approach can get governments, the private sector and all other players on the same page so the recovery leaves no one behind.

To mark its 75th anniversary, the UN has been running a global survey on the future of global cooperation: Will COVID-19 bring the world closer together, or rather lead to greater mistrust? Contribute your opinion on what the UN should prioritize in the coming years by taking part in the poll. The survey is open until the end of 2020, and preliminary results will be announced at the commemoration ceremony.

A sneak peek at the findings shows that over 90 percent of respondents believe that global cooperation is vital to respond to today's challenges, including COVID-19. Those surveyed have identified health, access to basic services, global solidarity and making economies inclusive as the most pressing short-term priorities, and addressing climate change, corruption, poverty and conflict/violence as the most vital long-term goals.

In the meantime, stay tuned for special coverage on four key themes — climate and sustainability, crisis response and recovery, digital inclusion, and digital peace — by GZERO Media in partnership with Microsoft and Eurasia Group.

Read more:

    Microsoft announced earlier this year the launch of a new United Nations representation office to deepen their support for the UN's mission and work. Many of the big challenges facing society can only be addressed effectively through multi-stakeholder action. Whether it's public health, environmental sustainability, cybersecurity, terrorist content online or the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, Microsoft has found that progress requires two elements - international cooperation among governments and inclusive initiatives that bring in civil society and private sector organizations to collaborate on solutions. Microsoft provided an update on their mission, activities for the 75th UN General Assembly, and the team. To read the announcement from Microsoft's Vice President of UN Affairs, John Frank, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

    Ukraine is once again in a tough spot.

    More Show less

    Listen: Soumya Swaminathan calls for a massive increase in the global vaccine supply in order to prevent the rise of more dangerous and vaccine-evading super-variants, in a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast. Dr. Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, argues that vaccine nationalism, where countries prioritize their own citizens ahead of the rest of the world, will only prolong the pandemic because a virus does not stop at any national border. She also weighs in on a controversial new WHO report investigating the origins of COVID-19 and discusses when she thinks the world's children should get vaccinated. In addition, she suggests we may see alternative vaccine forms, like nasal sprays, sooner than we think.

    Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

    India, the world's third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is one of the countries worst affected by climate change. But it takes issue with those now asking it to clean up its act. Why, the Indians ask, should we give up our right to get rich by burning fossil fuels like you developed economies have done for generations?

    That's precisely the message that India's energy minister had for the US and other wealthy nations at a recent Zoom summit after they pressured Delhi to set a future deadline for net zero emissions. For India, he explained, such targets are "pie in the sky" aspirations that do little to address the climate crisis the country faces right now.

    More Show less

    The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are nearly a year away, but discussion of a potential boycott is already stoking tensions on both sides of the US-China relationship. Officials in Washington and other Western capitals are coming under mounting pressure from activists to respond to human rights abuses in China. An increasingly assertive Beijing, meanwhile, vigorously rejects any foreign criticism of what it regards as internal issues.

    The last time the US boycotted an Olympics was in 1980, when it withdrew from the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union repaid in kind by skipping the Games in Los Angeles. Would the US and its allies do something like that again? And how might China respond? Eurasia Group analysts Neil Thomas and Allison Sherlock explain the drivers of the boycott movement and its possible fallout.

    More Show less

    In two weeks, US President Joe Biden will be hosting an online "climate summit" to mark Earth Day. He'll ask China and India to sign up to America's ambitious new plan to slow down climate change. Will they go for it? China is the world's largest polluter, but Beijing is rolling out solar and wind power as fast as it's burning coal. India, meanwhile, is loathe to pick up the slack for rich countries that polluted their way to wealth and now want everyone else to agree to emissions cuts. No matter what happens, any successful plan to reduce global emissions will require buy-in from these three nations which, along with the European Union, account for almost 60 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions nowadays. Here's a look at emissions by the world's top polluters compared to everyone else over the last two decades.

    Two big Andean elections: This Sunday, Ecuadorians go to the polls for the second time this year in a close presidential runoff, while Peruvians will vote in the first round of their own presidential election. In Ecuador, the matchup is between the leftwing-populist frontrunner Andrés Arauz, who has pledged to blow up the country's IMF agreements and boost national oil production, and Guillermo Lasso, a pro-business candidate who is seen as the choice of continuity with the current market-friendly government. Voter abstention is likely to be high, and the final result could very well be close and contested in a polarized country that was struggling with massive social unrest even before the pandemic struck. Meanwhile in Peru — which recently went through three presidents in the space of a week — the candidate field is hugely fragmented. Those with a decent shot to make it to the second round include "change" candidates like the leftist former lawmakers Yohny Lescano and Verónica Mendoza, as well as the prominent neoliberal economist Hernando De Soto, who has recently risen in the polls. Former soccer star George Forsyth is also in the mix, as is Keiko Fujimori, daughter of authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori. Both of this Sunday's elections will serve as a kind of bellwether for the political mood in a region that has been devastated by the public health and economic impact of the pandemic.

    More Show less

    Nasal sprays, oral vaccines, and other new types of COVID-19 vaccines may be ready soon, according to Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization. She previews some of these needle-less vaccines and notes that the possibility of being able to store vaccines at room temperature could be a game-changer for vaccinating poorer nations. The advantage of nasal sprays, she explains, is that they "would generate local mucosal immunity in addition to systemic immunity." Dr. Swaminathan's conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting this Friday, April 9. Check local listings.

    Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

    The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

    GZEROMEDIA

    Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal