Global Cooperation

What is the UN General Assembly?

The United Nations emblem is seen in the UN General Assembly hall during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - HP1ED9M1AJXGO

The United Nations emblem is seen in the UN General Assembly. Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article was first published in 2018 and most recently updated in September, 2023.

  • The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) High-level Week takes place in New York every September.
  • Key topics of discussion at this 78th session include financing for development, pandemic preparedness, universal health coverage and the fight against tuberculosis.
  • Alongside it, the World Economic Forum will hold its Sustainable Development Impact Meetings, convening leaders from politics, business and civil society.

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

The 78th edition of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 78) High-level Week opened on Tuesday 5 September, with the first day of the high-level General Debate on Tuesday 19 September.

The theme this year is: “Rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity: Accelerating action on the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals towards peace, prosperity, progress and sustainability for all," reflecting the urgent need to get the SDGs back on track.

Here's what you need to know about the UN General Assembly.

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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 UN General Assembly started on 5 September with a minute of prayer or meditation and then the formal election of the President.

This year, the president of the 78th session of the General Assembly will be diplomat Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago. Taking the helm, he said his presidency will "reflect the values of tolerance, inclusion, cooperation, and unwavering respect for human dignity that Trinidad and Tobago has profoundly upheld".

The main event at the UNGA, which generates most of the headlines, is the General Debate, this year scheduled from Tuesday 19 September, and during which world leaders take turns to speak for approximately 20 minutes each.

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

UNGA 2023: What is in the spotlight?

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.

Perhaps the biggest win of the UN General Assembly 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.

It's a busy year on the agenda in 2023, and one of the most important items drawing people to UNGA this year is the SDG Summit. This is held every four years, with this summit coming at the halfway point to the 2030 deadline for meeting the SDGs.

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What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

Alongside the SDG Summit, the World Economic Forum will also hold its Sustainable Development Impact Meetings on 18-22 September, convening leaders from politics, business and civil society for a series of dialogues on tackling the SDGs. Sessions will cover topics including gender parity; the interaction between health and the climate crisis; and AI in the workplace.

Also on the agenda at UNGA this year is the Climate Ambition Summit, held by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, with the aim of accelerating action by leaders in government and the private sector.

There are also three health-related high-level meetings happening during UNGA, on universal health coverage, pandemic preparedness and tuberculosis. The aim is to keep preparedness at the top of the agenda and help boost the resilience of healthcare systems.

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On 20 September, a High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development is taking place. This is to provide leadership and guidance on the implementation of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda – a UN framework for mobilizing resources to achieve the SDGs. It will also assess progress and identify any emerging challenges.

A preparatory meeting for ministers ahead of the September 2024 Summit of the Future is also scheduled. The summit is billed as a "once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance global cooperation" to address gaps in global governance and reaffirm existing commitments, including to the SDGs.

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