The UN and the General Assembly

By Simon Clark

The UN and the General Assembly

The UN and the General Assembly
Photo by United Nations Photo

The General Assembly of the United Nations meets this week in New York City for its 68th annual gathering. All 193 member nations are represented, and it is this meeting which acts as the focus for much of the UN’s yearly debating, policy making and proposed actions. It means big changes for New York City, too, with security and road closures significantly changing traffic patterns in the area.

First, though, a bit of background

The United Nations

The United Nations, founded in 1945 after the chaos of WWII, is essentially an international organization designed to encourage world peace and security. All sovereign nations are eligible to join and receive a single vote in all UN matters. The UN is authorized by member countries to take action on a wide range of issues, and the debating chamber offers neutral territory for states to discuss often controversial topics. Size, wealth, population, age and the political system of an individual country doesn’t matter – they may still speak and vote on equal terms with all other members.

Since its foundation, the UN has grown from 51 nations to its current size, and with that has come complications, bureaucracy, and, at times, problems. The General Assembly aims to acts as a yearly opportunity for members to debate relevant issues, propose changes, vote on policy and legal issues, and remain an equal voice within the body of the UN. A two thirds majority of the Assembly is required on anything related to international security, budgets, or admission of new members. To help things run a little smoother, each assembly elects a president – the President of the 68th Session, now on, is Antigua and Barbuda's John William Ashe.

The UN is a huge organization, funded by member state contributions. The UN Secretariat currently employs almost 8,000 people, with a further 8,000 employed under special budgets related to specific tasks and projects. The UN as a whole – that is, all agencies worldwide, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – employs over 60,000 people.  While that may seem a lot, it’s fewer than Coca-Cola, or the U.S. Department of Education. Considering the UN’s worldwide mission, the number of staff is small. While the UN has missions in several countries, the headquarters, and the meeting place of the General Assembly, is New York City.

The UN Complex

The UN complex in Turtle Bay, Manhattan, has housed the UN since it was built in 1952. With its own stamps and radio identifier, the UN operates for the most part as a separate entity within New York City. However, although the UN buildings and grounds are under the administration of the UN, local, federal, and national U.S. laws do apply - though in some cases UN law can supersede this.

The General Assembly building, with its famous domed roof, has room for the entire Assembly to meet – the countries sit in English alphabetical order, to prevent any one country being given precedent. Although the buildings of the UN are in New York City, the U.S. has no special treatment or rights.

The General Assembly

The 68th General Assembly, running from September 17, 2013 through September of 2014 will be meeting, as ever, to promote international peace and security. The General Debate will run from September 24 through October 1, 2013. The list of topics to be discussed and covered is huge – but in among the smaller bureaucratic issues of no real interest to those outside the UN are matters of global importance, with the possibility of change for millions of people. The challenge of the UN is to seek consensus, where possible, and to avoid conflict or the use of peacekeepers unless as an absolute last resort.

Specific focuses for this year include sustained economic growth, the advancement of women, and promoting social development, as well as a huge number of specific disputes and questions. These include matters such as the current situation in Syria and possible courses of action as well as global and long-standing issues such as human rights, the law of the sea, and denuclearization. 

For an inside view of the UN, visit "Turtle Bay" a blog by Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch which gives an interesting look at all things United Nations.

Road Closures

Since the General Debate sees world leaders gather in one spot, security naturally is high. Road closures and security check points around the Turtle Bay neighborhood and surrounding areas mean you may need to change your plans. Road closures always mean vehicle access is prevented, and often pedestrians are no longer able to use the road either.  

Starting September 23, First Avenue will be closed completely surrounding the UN complex (42nd Street to 48th Street), and police say you can expect limited access from 34th to 60th Street between First and Third Avenues. From 48th to 51st Street, roads going further west (to Madison Avenue) may also be closed. To the west, 51st to 56th Street may be closed between Fifth and Seventh Avenues, and parts of Fifth and Sixth between West 40th and West 42nd. If you’re going to be driving around any of these areas, it’s worth checking beforehand if your route is affected. The General Assembly closes on October 1, so all closures will be in place until then. The East River near the UN between 35th and 59th streets will also be closed by the Coast Guard. 


Original article published September 19,2012

Article originally published : September 10, 2013