Every September, world leaders gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York to debate the most important issues facing the planet.

The meeting, known as the General Debate at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), is attended by representatives of all 193 UN Member States.

But just what goes on at the General Assembly and what does it actually set out to achieve?

What is the UN General Assembly?

The UNGA, the main policy-making body of the UN, was created under Chapter IV of the Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco on 26 June 1945.

The Charter outlines its key functions, including “promoting international co-operation in the economic, social, cultural, educational, and health fields, and assisting in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

The Assembly meets from September to December each year and then again from January to August, if required. Representatives debate and make decisions on issues such as peace and security and the admittance of new members.

As outlined in the Charter, the Assembly may approve the UN budget, elect non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, and appoint the Secretary General, among other things.

A new President of the General Assembly is elected at the start of each session, which in 2018 was Ecuador’s Maria Fernanda Espinosa, the first female president from Latin America and the Caribbean.

What happens during the General Debate?

The main event at the UNGA, which generates most of the headlines, is the General Debate, this year scheduled from September 25 to October 1, and during which world leaders take turns to speak.

The General Assembly Hall at the UN headquarters in New York
Image: REUTERS/Mike Segar

This year’s theme is ‘Making the United Nations relevant to all people: global leadership and shared responsibilities for peaceful, equitable and sustainable societies’.

Last year, US President Donald Trump’s debut speech to the UNGA led to many headlines after he famously labelled Kim Jong-un a “rocket man” and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea”.

Since then, the pair met at an historic summit in Singapore in June and Trump recently praised the North Korean leader as “very open and terrific”.

Trump is also due to lead a meeting of the UN’s most powerful body, the 15-member Security Council.

This year during the UNGA, there will be a high-level meeting, convened by Secretary General António Guterres, to renew commitments to UN peacekeeping operations, as well as meetings to promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons and on the fight against tuberculosis, among others.

Included in the provisional Agenda for the 73rd session is discussion on safeguarding the ocean for present and future generations and a report by the UNHCR on ‘questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons’.

What big decisions has the General Assembly made?

The General Assembly is tasked with voting on resolutions brought forward by member countries, which can be referred to the Security Council to be made binding.

Perhaps the biggest win of the UNGA in recent years was in September 2015, when the Assembly agreed on a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030. All countries pledged to work together to eradicate poverty and hunger, protect the planet and foster peace.

Image: The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals

One of the General Assembly’s earliest achievements was to agree on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, outlining global standards for human rights.

However, there has also been criticism of the Assembly, and some experts and leading donor nations say reform is needed in order to make it more powerful. In 2005, for example, the then Secretary-General, the late Kofi Annan, presented a report that criticized the assembly for focusing excessively on reaching consensus and passing resolutions that reflected “the lowest common denominator” of opinions.