A wide view of the General Assembly Hall. UN Photo/Ryan Brown

The UN General Assembly Kicks off Today. Here’s What that Actually Means

The 71st United Nations General Assembly officially kicks off today. The big show starts next week, when heads of state descend on New York to give speeches to world, in what’s known as the “General Debate.” But today marks and important annual inflection point in the life of the United Nations.

The General Assembly is the main decision making body of the United Nations. As opposed to the 15 member Security Council every country in the world has a vote in the General Assembly and there is no veto.  While the Security Council can decide on weighty matters of war, peace, sanctions, and deploying peacekeepers, the General Assembly is in charge of the nuts and bolts of how the United Nations–as an institution–operates. This includes things like crafting budgets, setting hiring priorities, and setting a schedule of when big meetings happen throughout the year. The General Assembly can also set broad thematic priorities for the United Nations, and by extension the entire international community. The General Assembly, for example, was the forum in which the final Sustainable Development Goals were agreed upon last year.

The General Assembly and Security Council can often come in conflict, with the General Assembly generally

The power of the General Assembly comes from its inclusiveness.

The fact that every country in the world, from the United States to Kiribati, gets an equal vote means that when consensus decisions are reached, they reflect the will of every country on the planet. That is where setting priorities like a plan to end extreme poverty through the Sustainable Development Goals derive its political power.

The General Assembly is lead by a “President of the General Assembly (PGA)” who is typically a high ranking career diplomat from a member state. The position rotates annually between the regions of the world, though the president is formally elected by the entire General Assembly membership.  The “PGA” is partly a ceremonial title–he or she gavels in meetings. But the PGA is also the secretary of the General Assembly, helping to set schedules, procedures, and manage the external relations of the General Assembly.

A clever PGA can use those powers to wield fairly heavy influence over the direction of the UN system as a whole. The outgoing PGA, Mogens Lykketoft, of Denmark was masterful at this, particularly in the process to select the next UN Secretary General to replace Ban Ki Moon. He helped dramatically increase the transparency of the Secretary General election process by demanding public hearings for each of the candidates, and also opening up those hearings to constituencies outside the United Nations, like NGOs and civil society groups. He will be replaced by Peter Thompson, a career Fijian diplomat who formally takes the reigns today. We should see in the coming weeks whether or not he is similarly able to help shape parts of the global agenda from the General Assembly podium.

More eyes will turn to the UN next week when President Obama and hundreds of other heads of state come to New York. But this week, there’s lots of behind-the-scenes action that will set the stage for the big show next week.