This is an updated version of an article first published in 2018.

  • The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) High-level Week normally takes place in New York every September.
  • This year, the UN Food Systems Summit will be held virtually during the UNGA on September 23.
  • It's a 'People's Summit', open to all, that marks the culmination of 18 months of discussions to bring about positive changes to the world’s food systems.
  • Other key topics of discussion at the UNGA this year include climate change, vaccines, the 20th anniversary of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, and energy.

Every September, world leaders from 193 United Nations member states gather at the UN headquarters in New York to debate the most important issues facing the world.

Last year, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) happened virtually for the first time, but it's set to be an in-person meeting again this year, with strict COVID-19 rules in place, including mask-wearing for attendees.

UNGA 76 will open on Tuesday, 14 September, with the first day of the high-level General Debate on Tuesday, 21 September.

The theme this year is: "Building resilience through hope – to recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainably, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people and revitalize the United Nations”.

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.

What happens during the UNGA and General Debate?

The UNGA starts on 14 September with a minute of prayer or meditation and then the formal election of the President.

This year, the President of the 76th session of the General Assembly will be Abdulla Shahid, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Maldives.

The main event at the UNGA, which generates most of the headlines, is the General Debate, this year scheduled from Tuesday, 21 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

This year, leaders can send pre-recorded speeches if COVID-19 restrictions in their country prevent them from travelling.

A provisional list of speakers seen by AP includes 127 heads of state and government expected to appear in person, including U.S. President Joe Biden, France's Emmanuel Macron, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, as well as prime ministers Boris Johnson of Britain, Israel's Naftali Bennett and Narendra Modi of India.

Among the 38 leaders planning prerecorded statements are the presidents of Iran, Egypt and Indonesia, AP reports.

The Food Systems Summit

Taking place during the UNGA, the Summit is billed as a "historic opportunity to empower all people to leverage the power of food systems to drive our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and get us back on track to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030".

It will be a completely virtual event led by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, on Thursday, 23 September.

Over 18 months, more than a thousand dialogues took place in 145 countries between food producers, indigenous peoples, civil society, researchers and the private sector, with the aim of generating solutions to bring about positive changes to the world’s food systems.

The Summit will be the culmination of this inclusive global process, says the UN, offering a "catalytic moment" for public mobilization and commitments by heads of state and government and other leaders to take this agenda forward.

United Nations Food Systems Summit
The United Nations Food Systems Summit takes place on 23 September.
Image: UN

Dr. Agnes Kalibata, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit, says: "Food systems are currently contributing more than one-third of the world’s emissions. Food waste alone is responsible for so much greenhouse gas emissions that those emissions would be equivalent to the world’s third-largest emitter country.

"We have the unique chance at the UN Food System Summit and at COP26 in Glasgow to turn our food systems around – creating the world’s largest climate solutions while bringing food security and jobs to those most in need. We must channel our anxieties, our fear, our hunger, and most of all our energies into action. The need to come together around ambitious action has never been greater."

What else is in the spotlight this year?

The General Assembly votes 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.

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

That conference produced the most authoritative and comprehensive programme for combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance: the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.

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. Biodiversity and climate change will also be in the spotlight, ahead of the COP15 and COP26 Summits set for later this year.