This article was first published in 2018 and was last updated on 15 September 2020.

  • The General Debate at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) normally takes place in New York every September.
  • This year it'll take place virtually, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Coronavirus is set to dominate the agenda, with the SDGs, women's rights and biodiversity set to be other key topics.

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

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 this year will be quite different. The UNGA marks its 75th anniversary and goes virtual for the first time, as the world grapples with the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here's what you need to know.

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.

Meet the president

A new president of the General Assembly is elected at the start of each session, which this year is Turkish diplomat Volkan Bozkir, who has 50 years' experience as a public servant.

He says the global pandemic has become the overwhelming priority and focus for the UN, so he expanded the theme of the 75th UNGA. Member states had chosen 'The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism' and Bozkir included 'confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action'.

"The pandemic is testing our institutions like never before: we have a duty to take effective action at the global level to overcome this virus, and the havoc it is wreaking on our economies and societies.

"The whole of humanity is in this fight together. It is time for unity. Member states have never had a more compelling reason to work closely together for the common good. And I am certain that, together, we will come out of it stronger."

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 Tuesday 22 September, and during which world leaders usually take turns to speak.

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

But this year, for obvious reasons, most leaders will not be appearing in person. Instead, some 170 heads of state and government are expected to send in pre-recorded videos of their speeches to be broadcast “as live”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin had been expected to make rare appearances at UN headquarters to help mark the 75th anniversary, according to Reuters.

US President Donald Trump is thought to be the only leader considering delivering his address in person on the first day.

What's in the spotlight this year?

On Monday 21 September, there will be a high-level meeting to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UN, during which it's expected Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will speak in person in the GA Hall.

It's thought he will use his annual address to world leaders to push for a global ceasefire, to enable countries to focus their efforts on fighting coronavirus.

It's also 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action, which is seen as the most comprehensive and forward-looking plan for advancing the rights of women and girls.

COVID-19 has had a disproportionate affect on women and threatens to undo decades of progress on gender equality, according to Guterres.

On 1 October, there will be a high-level meeting on the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women to discuss the impact of the pandemic and other issues relating to female empowerment.

And on 18 September, the UN will celebrate the first-ever International Equal Pay Day - to raise awareness of global efforts to close the gender pay gap, which is estimated at 23%.

The Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC) will host a virtual global Call to Action to encourage all labour-market actors to take the necessary steps to ensure that equal pay is at the heart of recovery efforts worldwide.

Revisiting the Sustainable Development Goals

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.

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.

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 (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. All countries pledged to work together to eradicate poverty and hunger, protect the planet, foster peace and ensure gender equality.

This year, the focus will be firmly on the SDGs once more. Writer, director and SDG advocate Richard Curtis, has created a 30-minute global broadcast, described as "a dynamic exploration of the times we live in, the multiple tipping points our planet faces, and the interventions that could transform our world” over the next decade.

Image: The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Biodiversity will also be in the spotlight, following the publication of the fifth edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook by the Convention on Biodiversity.

A major summit, COP-15, was due to take place in October, but has been postponed until May. In the meantime, there will be a day of virtual meetings on biodiversity during the UNGA on 30 September.