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The iconic hall where heads of state and government address the General Assembly. At centre front (wearing red dress) Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib (September 2022). © FPS Foreign affairs
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will take centre stage at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2023. What exactly will happen there? What is our country's interest? And what role will our FPS play? We will set it out for you.
In September starts the new working year for the United Nations (UN). This traditionally coincides with the opening of a new session – the 78th now – of the General Assembly (GA). The session will open on 5 September and the first day of the high-level General Debate will be on 19 September. Then, all the state and government leaders in the world will address the GA. What significance will it all have? In 10 questions, we hope to make that clear to you.
1. How did the United Nations come into being?
The General Assembly is a crucial body of the UN, alongside the Security Council and the Secretariat, among others (see figure). The UN itself arose upon the ruins of WWII. In 1945, 51 countries met in San Francisco (US) to negotiate an organisation for preventing such a horrific conflict from happening again in the future. Together, they wrote the 'UN Charter'.
However, the drafters of the charter understood that peace would be impossible without at the same time promoting social and economic development and standing up for human rights. Thus were born the three main pillars of the UN.
Belgium was one of those 51 pioneering countries and therefore one of the first to sign the UN charter.
© FPS Foreign affairs
2. What is the General Assembly?
The General Assembly is the central body of the UN that functions as a kind of parliament. It is the only UN body in which all 193 member states sit. All the countries have an equal say there – they all have one vote. Whether it is the small island state of Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean or the United States. As such, even small countries have the opportunity to bring their problems to the world's attention, while jointly seeking solutions to global problems.
The decisions of the GA are called resolutions. Sometimes, they are adopted by consensus; sometimes, they are voted on.
The GA will take place in the iconic New York hall, where the speakers will appear before a green marble backdrop with a golden wall with the UN emblem behind it: a globe encircled by olive branches, as a sign of peace.
A new president is elected every year according to a rotation of country groups. As of September, that will be Dennis Francis, Trinidad and Tobago's Permanent Representative to the UN.
The very first president of the GA in 1946 was Paul-Henri Spaak, then Belgium's foreign minister. This shows that Belgium has played an important role within the UN from the beginning. To this day, we take our multilateral engagement extremely seriously.
3. What does the General Assembly do?
The GA is the UN's main body that determines the organisation's policies. It can basically speak out on just about any world issue. The GA appoints the Secretary-General, elects the non-permanent members of the Security Council and decides upon the organisation's budget.
In practice, the GA devotes itself to six major themes, each of which is represented by a specific committee:
- Social and economic development
- Human rights
- Specific political problems
- Budget and administrative matters (Belgium presided during the 77th session)
- Legal affairs.
After the ministerial week in September, the committees will explore these topics in greater depth until December. This will lead to a large number of resolutions to be adopted afterwards in a plenary session of the GA.
Issues of peace and security are ideally dealt with in another main body of the UN, the Security Council. But if the Security Council cannot reach a decision – because one of the five permanent members is blocking a decision – the discussion is transferred to the GA. For example, since the spring of 2022, an overwhelming majority of the GA have repeatedly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and called for a just peace. The GA also excluded Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.
4. What happens every year in September?
The new GA president opens the meeting – this year on 5 September. Then some sessions will take place to decide how the work will be organised. The actual high-level General Debate kicks off this year on 19 September. Then, the member states send their highest representatives – heads of state and government, ministers – to New York. After the GA president and UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the heads of state and government address the GA one by one in the iconic hall mentioned above.
In a few minutes, the prominent figures outline how they see the state of the world and their own country in it, what the UN can do and how solutions to problems facing countries and citizens can be sought through international relations. With their speech, the speakers also want to make it clear to their own citizens that many problems can only be solved at an international level.
On the margins of the General Debate, hundreds of activities take place that are often at least as important in practice. First, a great many bilateral conversations = consultations between ministers of 2 countries. Our Belgian ministers are grateful to take advantage of this too. This saves a whole host of flights to all corners of the world or the less personal contact of digital meetings.
The bilateral conversations deal with issues related to the UN, as well as problems or opportunities between Belgium and those other countries. Talks also take place with senior UN officials, such as the UN Secretary-General.
In addition, on the margins of the GA, member states organise a great many events – known as side events – on topics close to their hearts. This may include, for example, a panel discussion that includes civil society speakers. For instance, Belgium has been hosting an event on the intersection between peace, security and humanitarian affairs for six years. This year, it is about the link between peace and security, climate change and exploding humanitarian needs.
Numerous bilateral meetings take place in the margins every year. Photo: meeting with Congolese President Tshisekedi in September 2022. From left to right: Walloon Prime Minister Elio di Rupo, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, President Félix Tshisekedi, Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib and then Development Minister Meryame Kitir. © FPS Foreign affairs
5. What is the central theme of this year's General Assembly?
The 78th session of the GA will focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These were adopted by all UN member states in 2015 as a roadmap for a better world by 2030. So we are now halfway there. Due in part to the coronavirus pandemic, the implementation of the SDGs has been greatly delayed. During the GA, an SDG summit will be held that will examine where we stand on the SDGs and how to catch up. Among other things, the SDG summit will discuss necessary financing and look at how to reform the international financial architecture. During the GA, human rights and gender are also in the spotlight, in addition to climate.
Her Majesty Queen Mathilde will attend the SDG summit on 18 September. After all, she is among the UN's Advocates for the SDGs at the invitation of the UN Secretary-General. In July, as it happens, Belgium presented its Voluntary National Report to the UN on the implementation of the SDGs in Belgium. But these goals are also central to our international actions.
In addition to this SDG summit, a variety of high-level meetings will take place that are mainly related to climate and health: pandemic preparedness, tuberculosis and universal healthcare coverage.
6. How does Belgium prepare for a session of the GA?
For Belgium, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Development Cooperation usually participate. But other ministers often also flock to New York, all with their own programmes. This year, Deputy Prime Ministers Van Quickenborne and Dermagne will also go to New York, as will Minister of Climate Khattabi. All this requires a great deal of preparation – not only in terms of content, but also in terms of logistics.
The UN department of the FPS Foreign Affairs coordinates everything, in consultation with the cabinets and in close collaboration with the Directorate-General for Development Cooperation and the Belgian representation in New York. Several other departments from our FPS are also involved. They provide the substantive background for our ministers participating in all those meetings, events and bilateral encounters.
7. What are Belgium's priorities during the General Assembly?
The SDGs are central for Belgium too. We mentioned earlier that Belgium presented a Voluntary National Report on its own implementation this year. But certainly just as important is the question: how can we help catch up globally?
We will shed some concrete light on Belgium's efforts in that regard. For example, for health – including the local production of vaccines in Africa – in addition to climate finance and the upcoming COP28 climate summit, decent work and social protection, and the reform of international financial institutions. Belgium will also look ahead to its EU presidency during the first half of 2024.
The war in Ukraine remains at the top of our international agenda. Yet other conflicts and crises also retain our attention, such as in the Sahel and Great Lakes region of Africa, and in the Middle East.
It is important to look beyond our own borders, as well as beyond the borders of Europe. Global problems require global solutions. To do this, we need to work in partnership with as many countries as possible.
For Belgium, human rights are central to all of that. The 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this year provides a good opportunity to recall that.
Several meetings also take place in the margins of the General Assembly. Photo: meeting of the informal ministerial network of the ICC. Far left, Minister Lahbib (September 2022). © FPS Foreign affairs
8. What is the impact of the annual session of the GA?
A whole day of listening to speeches seems very boring. Still, there is much to discover. In just a few minutes, state and government leaders must present a picture of their foreign policy. They tell us what they see as problems and opportunities, what they want to do about them, what they think of the UN and how the UN can help them find solutions.
Each country can look for things they have in common in the speeches. Sometimes, we can discover topics about which we have similar ideas with countries we would not have expected this from. That way, we can build new partnerships and find some useful elements for our bilateral relations with those countries.
The GA certainly has an impact – it is just that this is not immediately noticeable. Ministers usually do not return with concrete results in their suitcases. But it is a fine result in itself that by far the majority of state and government leaders there reaffirm their commitment to 'multilateralism'. In other words, the belief that international problems should be solved, insofar as possible, by working together in international organisations such as the UN. UN Secretary-General Guterres will also take the opportunity to call for greater collaboration and to put the UN at the centre of world politics. Each General Debate creates new momentum.
The September meeting will also work on alliances across regional groups. Moreover, many discussions will take place in the margins of the formal session (see above). This is where concrete results can sometimes be harvested for our bilateral relations.
Remember: the work of the GA does not stop after the ministerial week. The opening sessions do set the general trend, but the work continues in the various committees through December. And throughout the year, numerous sessions of the GA will take place to discuss international issues. Thus, the impact can still be felt several months later.
9. What is the role of our FPS at the UN?
The UN deals with a wide range of issues. For all these issues, a Belgian position must be determined. The FPS Foreign Affairs coordinates the determination of that position with other federal and federated entities. This is the task of the COORMULTI service. There is also a great deal of consultation within our own FPS. The cabinets give the political agreement on the positions we propose.
The UN service largely drives Belgian UN policy, in collaboration with many other services. Belgium's positions are expressed in the form of 'instructions' that we forward to our Permanent Representations in New York and other UN capitals, such as Geneva or Vienna. These could be about a speech on behalf of Belgium, a negotiating position, a vote, etc.
Belgium is part of the European Union and is advocating for a stronger EU role in the UN. Indeed, in most cases, we have unified EU positions. Our FPS actively participates in their determination.
10. What is our Permanent Representation to the UN, and what does it do?
Just as our embassies represent Belgium in another country, a Permanent Representation represents Belgium in an international organisation. Our Permanent Representative in New York represents Belgium at the UN. The Permanent Representative is the equivalent of an ambassador. They direct the work of the Permanent Representative and represent this country.
Our Permanent Representative negotiates on behalf of Belgium and collaborates to establish an EU position. They will also vote as needed. And they send us reports on what is going on at the UN. We rely on this to improve our analyses and determine our positions.
An extensive part of the Permanent Representative's job is networking. Our representatives seek and maintain contact with colleagues from as many countries as possible, from all regions, in order to work together on multilateral solutions. If any specific problems arise, we are then able to talk quickly with the countries involved.
The GA ministerial week is a big event, but it does not take place solely in a bubble in New York. On the contrary, it is an event that also greatly affects our citizens. Because at that meeting at the UN, we are committing ourselves as a government to seeking international solutions to problems that concern them every day.
These include human rights, climate issues, the energy and food crisis, the defence of democracy, peace and security. All topics relevant to our citizens. No country can find a solution to these problems alone; we must cooperate with the international community to do so. This makes it essential for Belgium, just like all other countries, to be active there.