General Assembly hall at UN Headquarters in New York. Credit: United Nations

A look back on the United Nations General Assembly and the importance of international governance

By Michael Enright

Writer Michael Enright reflects on the role of the 2023 UN general assembly in international relations.

Although the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly ended on 30 September, it is key to look back on the lessons learnt, as 193 countries met to debate the pressing issues of the 21st century. Discussion on international governmental reform, global security, the environment, and health dominated the three weeks-long session. However, it may be said that these discussions will not create change without the cooperation of individual member states.

The United Nations general assembly—or UNGA—is the highest policy making organ of the United Nations. Consisting of all 193 member states, the body elects a new general secretary, as well as new non-permanent members of the Security Council. It also has purview over the UN budget. Furthermore, it holds discussions on and makes policy recommendations for its member states. A key point is the UN does not make binding policies but rather recommendations. Therefore, resolutions and declarations produced by the UNGA are only able to hold soft power influence over heads of state.

Environmental destruction and an increase in global instability has made the need for effective international governance ever more pertinent. António Guterres, UN general secretary highlighted this, noting the “world is becoming unhinged” in his opening speech. He went on further to discuss the failures of international governments in preventing these crises with Guterres affirming that the UN will “reform or rupture”. This theme was continued throughout the debates, notably by Mia Mottley—prime minister of Barbados—in an emotive speech, which warned the UNGA against being “too late” to combat the global issues faced today.

Recommendations were consistently made for reform, especially for the Security Council. One of the principal organs of the United Nations, the institution is gridlocked by the veto powers of its five permanent members, also referred to as the P5. Zelensky highlighted that without reform, the Security Council could not defend member states from aggressors, one of its key aims. Although no permanent changes were made, clearly UN reform should be moved up the policy agenda due to distinct inequalities in global governance.

Sustainable development was also a key part of the session. Rhetoric for dramatic increases of international development is nothing new, the same cries were heard in 2015 with the establishment of the ‘2030 agenda’, in which, the UNGA was able to outline 17 sustainable development goals (SDG’s) as a universal call to action in order to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. 8 years on from this agenda, and less than 15% of its targets are on track, with most backsliding. However, this year a ‘rescue plan’ for the SDGs was put forward by the UN that would ‘accelerate’ action to achieve the goals. Adopted as a declaration of the UNGA, the plan outlines a financial overhaul of development aid, including an annual stimulus of at least $500 billion toward SDGs, mainly paid for by the G20 countries. However, without the co-operation of member states the policies will falter, since it requires a large increase in aid spending from G20 countries, which are already failing to meet their current aid targets.

The UNGA is not unimportant: it offers a vital forum of discussion, where the voice of every country is at least legislatively equal. However, its ability as a policymaking institution is reliant on individual member state co-operation. This is still the case for its 78th session, although new and invaluable voices have been raised it remains to be seen whether the international community will listen.


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments