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Virtual UNGA

For the first time in its 75 year history, the UN General Assembly will be held mostly online.

In July 2020 the President of the General Assembly announced that UNGA 2020 would, in part, be going virtual. As countries across the world continue to grapple with the impact of Covid-19, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande announced that members would be invited to submit pre-recorded remarks by their designated high-level official to be played in the General Assembly hall. These videos will be introduced by a representative of each State, who will be present in the hall.

This procedure will apply to the General Debate, as well as for the series of high-level events scheduled to take place. Although there was widespread speculation US President Trump would deliver his remarks in the General Assembly Hall, he will join the other leaders in remotely participating.

Also appearing by video on the opening day of the debate will be Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping, who ordinarily have diplomats deliver remarks as they do not attend the General Assembly in person. On Wednesday Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro, who a significant number of countries including the UK see as illegitimate, will address the assembly by video. Missing as speakers are the leaders of Syria and North Korea. The first woman to speak will not come until after a day and a half with the 51st speaker: Zuzana Čaputová, President of Slovakia.

UNGA without the usual in-person presence of delegations and diplomats, leaders and changemakers, risks being a more muted affair. The high-level week is usually one of the most important moments of the global political calendar as it is the unique moment when the UN becomes the meeting point for leaders who would otherwise never cross paths. Many of the most important moments usually come in the corridors of the secretariat building, or behind the stage of the general hall.

But all eyes are still keenly focused on the UN, albeit via our computers, and the need for global cooperation could not be more pressing.

Timetable and Committees

The session started on Tuesday 15 September. The start of the session includes a moment of silent reflection, and an address from the Secretary-General and the new President of the General Assembly.

On Wednesday 16 September the General Assembly formed a General Committee consisting of the President, Vice Presidents, and committee chairs. They come up with a draft programme of work, which is then voted on by the General Assembly.

This programme of work divides up the tasks of the General Assembly between its main body and its six committees:

Each UN member can have a representative on each Committee. These Committees, led by their chairs, work up proposals which they present to the General Assembly for a vote. The President of the General Assembly, in consultation with the General Committee, is responsible for managing the workload of the whole.

On most issues, both within a committee and within the main or “plenary” session of the General Assembly, a simple majority vote of those in attendance is required, but some more substantive or important issues, such as admitting a state to UN membership, require a two-thirds majority.

Key events

You can find a comprehensive list of all the meetings taking place here.

To follow the up-to-date schedule of daily meetings, check out the UN Journal, which is updated every morning. It contains information on the meetings of the day and forthcoming meetings, including:

  • Official meetings (summaries will be added after the meetings, where applicable)
  • Informal consultations 
  • Other meetings
  • Forthcoming meetings

Also don’t miss the UN delegates handbook that gives an overview for participants in UNGA of the ways the UN is encouraging UNGA interactivity. See also this outline of how to engage with the session via social media.

The finalised list order of speakers for the General Debate can be found here.

By tradition Brazil goes first (Brazil’s delegates were very effective in the very first few General Assembly sessions in getting to the podium first, and the tradition stuck!). Then, as host, the US goes second. After that, speaker order is by negotiation, but Heads of State (Presidents and Kings) tend to go first, followed by heads of government (Prime Ministers) followed by Foreign Ministers, followed by other diplomats.

First five speakers of day one:

  • Jair Bolsonaro
  • Donald Trump
  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
  • Xi Jinping
  • Sebastian Piñera