The General Assembly (GA) is a principal organ of the United Nations (UN) in which all 193 Member States of the UN participate. Each member country, whether small or large, poor or rich, has a seat at the table and has one vote. The General Assembly is the world’s prime multilateral body and is often referred to as “the international community.” Decisions by the GA are not legally binding – nonetheless, they represent the opinion of the majority of the world community and thus carry significant moral authority.
As the UN’s main deliberative and policy-making organ, the GA meets year long to discuss and, if possible, make recommendations on issues as diverse as, for example, international peace and security (except where the Security Council is already involved); political cooperation; disarmament; human rights and fundamental freedoms; issues concerning health, education and poverty eradication; and international law. In addition, the GA decides on the UN’s budget, elects non-permanent members of the Security Council and appoints the Secretary General.
The General Assembly is currently in its 66th session (66 years after the UN was created in 1945). Each session runs from mid-September to mid-September the following year. Each year the Member States elect a President of the General Assembly according to a geographical rotation system among five groups of states: Africa; Asia; Eastern Europe; Latin America and the Caribbean; Western Europe and other states. Rotating the presidency of the GA thus ensures that each region of the world has an equal turn. The President of the 66th session of the General Assembly is H. E. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser from Qatar.
In his opening speech on September 13, 2011, GA President Al-Nasser set forth his priorities for the current session: peaceful settlements of disputes; UN reform and revitalization; improving disaster prevention and response; and sustainable development and global prosperity.
The role of civil society in the GA is limited but not unimportant. Although not member countries of the UN with the rights to speak and vote, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can monitor the deliberations of the General Assembly. In addition, they can make their positions known by entering into dialogue with Member States.
One such avenue for dialogue has developed in recent years where the GA holds informal hearings with civil society on a particular topic. Participation in these civil society hearings enables NGOs to voice their concerns and to make recommendations, either as a selected speaker or as a participant. For example, in October 2007, Gerardette Phillips, rscj was a speaker at the General Assembly’s informal interactive hearings with civil society on Interreligious and Intercultural Understanding and Cooperation for Peace. Another effective way to enter into dialogue with member countries is visiting the diplomats of individual countries in their offices to discuss matters of concern in person.
Cecile Meijer rscj, NGO Office
Elisabeth Wilcox, volunteer