Carlos L. Yordán
The United Nations General Assembly’s General Debate is one of the UN’s most important events. For close to two weeks, the world’s leaders come to the organization’s headquarters in New York City to deliver an official statement on their governments’ views on how to best address the planet’s most difficult challenges. During the General Debate, the UN Secretary-General will host other high-level meetings. In addition, the UN’s funds and specialized agencies, affiliated civil society organizations, and diplomatic missions organize a host of side events on a plethora of issues of global concern. The General Debate is one of the UN’s most important media events and it has also recently attracted the interest of a growing of number scholars in different academic disciplines.
This post has three goals. First, it describes the General Debate’s rules and structures. Second, it briefly explains why a growing number of scholars are analyzing General Debate’s statements. Third, the post concludes with a list of academic resources to help researchers, governmental officials, or policy experts learn more about the emerging scholarship studying these statements.
What is the UN General Debate?
Every year since 1946, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly has hosted a General Debate at the start of its sessions. In this high-level meeting, the organization invites senior-ranking government officials to address the General Assembly. Speeches are around 15 minutes in length. The General Debate typically starts on the third Tuesday of September and it lasts “nine working days” (see: A/RES/57/301). Each day includes a morning session and one during the afternoon.
On the first day, the Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly deliver statements. The Secretary-General’s speech is usually on his annual report to the General Assembly on “The Work of the Organization”. Since 1955, Brazil’s representative, regardless of rank, delivers the General Debate’s opening speech. As the host state, the United States follows with the second statement. According to the UN’s Library website, the “speaking order” for the remaining delegations “is based on the level of representation, preference and other criteria such as geographic balance.” The General Assembly also invites senior leaders from the Holy See, the Palestinian Authority, and the European Union to participate in this high-level meeting.
Before 2005, UN members’ speeches were written with little input from the UN’s leadership. Starting with the 60th session, the General Assembly’s leadership has tried to structure the debate. After “taking into account the views provided by the Member States and following consultation with the incumbent President and the Secretary-General,” the General Assembly’s General Committee sets a yearly theme. This process usually starts shortly after the General Assembly votes for its new president, giving the delegations several weeks to draft their governments’ statements. The following table lists the themes for the last 16 years.
|76||2021||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|
|75||2020||The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism — confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action|
|74||2019||Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action, and inclusion|
|73||2018||Making the United Nations relevant to all people: global leadership and shared responsibilities for peaceful, equitable, and sustainable societies|
|72||2017||Focusing on people — striving for peace and a decent life for all on a sustainable planet|
|71||2016||The Sustainable Development Goals: a universal push to transform our world|
|70||2015||The United Nations at 70 — a new commitment to action|
|69||2014||Delivering on and implementing a transformative post-2015 development agenda|
|68||2013||The post-2015 development agenda: setting the stage|
|67||2012||Bringing about adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations by peaceful means|
|66||2011||The role of mediation in the settlement of disputes by peaceful means|
|65||2010||Reaffirming the central role of the United Nations in global governance|
|64||2009||Effective responses to global crises: strengthening multilateralism and dialogue among civilizations for international peace, security, and development|
|63||2008||The impact of the global food crisis on poverty and hunger in the world as well as the need to democratize the United Nations (link to letter below)|
|62||2007||Responding to climate change|
|61||2006||Implementing a global partnership for development|
|60||2005||For a stronger and more effective United Nations: the follow-up and implementation of the High-level Plenary Meeting in September 2005|
It is important to stress that world leaders’ speeches do not need to address these themes. As UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/58/126 explains, its leadership recognizes states’ sovereign right to “entirely determine the content of their general debate statements”. Whether or not members’ statements address these themes is a question that deserves further examination.
Why should we study these statements?
Governments take their participation in the General Debate seriously. Their statements are carefully crafted and these tend to reflect their states’ interests and policy preferences. Since the early 1970s, 95% of UN member states have participated in this event. In addition, as noted in the graph below, since the early 2000s, these speeches have been delivered by countries’ highest-ranking leaders, either their head of government (e.g., prime minister) or head of state (e.g., monarch or president). In the past, foreign ministers were the ones who mostly participated in this event.
Given that these speeches reflect states’ interests and policy preferences, a growing body of research (here & here) demonstrates these can help us explain states’ changing attitudes towards different global challenges or world events. Other research also indicates that states use this forum to enhance their credibility and reputation, express support for important features of the international order, criticize other states’ policies, or call attention to issues or challenges that require a globally coordinated response. Collectively, these remarks, as Nicole Brun-Mercer argues, compromise “one of the most representative samples” of governments’ opinions on a myriad of questions of global concern.
To access copies of the General Debate’s statement, the UN Library has developed a search tool that locates the speeches in its archives. The speeches are available as PDF files for download. The UN General Assembly has also archived video footage of recent speeches.
A copy of the UN General Debate Corpus, a collection of all the speeches from 1970 to 2020 in text format, was compiled by Slava Jankin Mikhaylov, Alexander Baturo, and Niheer Dasandi and it is available for download at Havard University’s Dataverse.
Copies of the 2021 statements will be uploaded to the World Politics Data Lab’s GitHub site in the next few weeks.
Here is a list of recent academic, peer-reviewed articles which have analyzed these speeches.
- Baturo, Alexander, Niheer Dasandi and Slava Jankin Mikhaylov. 2017. “Understanding state preferences with text as data: Introducing the UN General Debate corpus.” Research and Politics (April-June): 1-9.
- Ghanem, Salma and Barbara Speicher. 2017. “Comparative persuasive styles in Arabic and English: A study of the United Nations General Assembly Debate speeches.” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 10(2): 168-182.
- Kentikelenis, Alexander, and Erik Voeten. 2020. “Legitimacy challenges to the liberal world order: Evidence from United Nations speeches, 1970–2018.” The Review of International Organizations 16 (October): 721-754.
- McEntee_Atalianis, Lisa and Rachelle Vessey. 2020. “Mapping the language ideologies of organisational members: a corpus linguistic investigation of the United Nations’ General Debates (1970–2016).” Language Policy 19(?): 549-573.
- Carmody, Padraig, Niheer Dasandi, and Slava Jankin Mikhaylov. 2020. “Power Plays and Balancing Acts: The Paradoxical Effects of Chinese Trade on African Foreign Policy Positions.” Political Studies 68 (February): 224-246.
- Brun-Mercer, Nicole. 2021. “Women and men in the United Nations: A corpus analysis of General Debate addresses.” Discourse and Society 32(4): 443-462.
About the author:
Carlos L. Yordán is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Drew University. He is also the director of the Semester on the United Nations.