We thought we’d brighten your UNGA week with a tour through some of UNGA’s most memorable moments.
Longest speech (during high level week): In 1960 President Castro of Cuba stood at the podium and said, “although we have been given the reputation of speaking at great length; the Assembly need not worry. 'We shall do our best to be brief, saying only what we regard it as our duty to say here”. He finally sat down 4 hours and 29 minutes later, having given the longest speech on record in the general debate. His speech gave a potted history of US aggression towards Cuba, US aggression more generally, the achievements of his government, a refutation of the claim that he was staying in a brothel and two sections for which he was cautioned by the chair: one in which he gave his opinions on the rival candidates in the US’ 1960 presidential election (“As far as we are concerned, both of them lack political sense”) and one in which he asked the chair for permission to be rude about the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, which was denied.
Shortest speech: This would appear to be Australia’s H. V. Evatt who took a mere minute in 1948 to thank the UNGA for electing him its President.
Worst prop: At the height of the cold war, the 1960 general debate was particularly stormy. In addition to Castro’s marathon, the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev became so incensed by the speech of the Philippine delegate that he banged his shoe repeatedly on the desk (this led to a further incident with the gavel – see below). However, the shoe was at least well made. In 2012 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brandished a crudely drawn cartoon bomb at delegates.
Strangest speech: Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe’s speech in 2015 included the line “we are not gays”, with limited context to widespread offence and confusion. However, in 2009 Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi gave an even stranger rambling 90-minute speech, suggesting that JFK’s assassination was the work of Mossad, and Jack Ruby was an agent of Israel and that swine flu had been made in a laboratory. He also symbolically ripped a copy of the UN Charter, and complained about his jet lag. President Trump had his first brush with UNGA controversy as a consequence of Gaddafi’s speech, Gaddafi having stayed as a guest on Trump’s property, his oversized tent raising planning concerns.
Most awkward silence: In 2015 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent an increasingly awkward 45 seconds staring down delegates in silence.
Most aggressive speech: While most General Assembly speeches attempt to avoid personal abuse there have been some extraordinary exceptions. In 2012 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be eliminated and questioned the Holocaust and the September 11 attacks. In 2006 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called the American President George W. Bush the devil, and claimed he could still smell the sulphur from Bush’s speech at the podium.
Best speech: The title of best speech ever given to the General Assembly is of course highly subjective, but Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia’s speech to the 1963 General Assembly is the only one to have been paraphrased and set to music by Bob Marley; his line that “until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned… the African continent will not know peace” forming the key refrain in Bob Marley’s 1976 hit “war”.
Did you know?
- The General Assembly has not always met in UN Headquarters. It first met in Central Hall Westminster, London. Over the first seven years the UNGA cycled between Flushing Meadows in New York and the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. It took up permanent home at UNHQ in 1954, although in 1988 it moved to the Palais de Nations in Geneva to allow Palestinian President Arafat to speak (the US had refused him a visa).
- The gavel used by the President of the General Assembly is known as “Thor’s gavel” as it was originally a gift from the Icelandic ambassador Mr Thor Thors at the 1952 opening of the new UN Headquarters. This gift was to mark Iceland’s status as the world’s oldest democracy. The precise gavel has been replaced twice: in October 1960, then President of the General Assembly, Frederick Boland of Ireland broke the first one when energetically using it to silence Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who was banging his shoe on the desk. In 2005 the second gavel was stolen. The current gavel is made of pear tree wood to a Viking design, and bears the Icelandic phrase “society must be built on the basis of laws” in both Latin and Icelandic.