Where the World Goes to Talk it Over: The UN General Assembly
The UN General Assembly, unelected, limited in its powers but with 193 theoretically equal members, is the world’s only representative body.
by Anne-Cécile Robert & Romuald Sciora
The Niger delegation attend the UN General Assembly in October 1960
Al Fenn · LIFE Picture Collection · Getty
‘There are no small countries at the General Assembly,’ Dessima Williams told us in her office in the Glass House, the glass curtain-walled Secretariat building at United Nations headquarters in New York. Williams was formerly Grenada’s ambassador to the UN and is now a special adviser to the president of the 71st General Assembly (GA). She spoke carefully, as if to make sure that we would understand, and seeing our scepticism, added: ‘Simply because the UN charter says that all member states are sovereign and equal.’
The harsh reality of international relations suggests this statement should be treated with caution, but on 13 June 2016, a small yet significant incident disrupted the routine of the GA: the election of its president (for the statutory term of one year) did not go as expected. Delegates normally choose, by consensus, the candidate of the regional group whose turn it is to provide a president (see A global forum); this time, it was necessary to hold a formal vote. The Cypriot candidate, Andreas Mavroyiannis, favoured by the West, got 90 votes; a candidate from a microstate, Peter Thomson, the ambassador of Fiji to the UN, won with 94. An Asian diplomat said: ‘Mr Thomson’s election is a signal to the great powers. It’s intended to underline the injustices of climate change: Fiji is one of the countries most vulnerable to rising sea levels, so putting its representative at the head of the UN’s plenary organ is a political statement.’ The GA operates on the principle of one state, one vote.