UN General Assembly 72: General Debate Highlights

By Teddy Calderone


Image courtesy of UN.org.

This year, the 72nd Annual UNGA was hosted at the UN Headquarters in New York. The UN General Debate opened the floor to member states and their representatives on September 19th before coming to a close on September 25th.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is one of six principal constituents which makes up the United Nations. It is the only part of the UN where each member state has equal representation and is the main representative, policy-making, and deliberative component of the UN.

The all-encompassing theme for this year, chosen by the 72nd UNGA President, Miroslav Lajcak, was “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet.”  The General Debate is largely seen as the main opportunity for member states (all 193 of them) to declare their positions on international issues of their concern. Most member states have representatives speak about issues concerning their countries and goals for the organization’s future. Here are the highlights from this year’s General Assembly.

President Donald J. Trump

On Tuesday, September 19th, United States President Donald J. Trump delivered to the UN General Assembly a speech with undertones which expressed the importance of sovereignty and self-governance. In his address, Donald Trump made several remarks which garnered much attention among the international community. These included threatening to “totally destroy North Korea” and calling North Korea’s leader “Rocket Man.” He referred to the Iranian government as a “totally corrupt dictatorship” whose “chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos,” before commenting that Venezuela’s government “has inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of that country.”

Foreign minister to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Ri Yong-Ho, responded to Trump’s threat by explaining that he would pay “dearly” for his speech, and that Trump was a “mentally deranged person full of megalomania.” Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, responded to Trump in a UN General Assembly speech of his own, calling Trump’s comments an “ignorant, absurd, and hateful rhetoric filled with ridiculously baseless allegations.” Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN, Jorge Arreaza, addressed Trump’s remarks by condemning what he called a “racist and supremacist ideology.” Arreaza also explained that he felt Trump’s rhetoric suggested a rebirth of “Cold War-era Politics.”

Trump’s speech did highlight international issues that need to be solved: Venezuelan people have succumbed to Nicolas Maduro and his “dictatorship”; Iran has been cited by many human-rights groups for their poor record; and North Korea is an unchecked, unaccounted-for nation with a rogue nuclear program. However, Trump’s use of language has been criticized. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom told the BBC, “It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience.”

In his speech, Trump also addressed “sovereignty, security, and prosperity,” as the “three pillars of peace,” and what he called “one-sided deals.” According to President Trump, these are deals that “give nothing in return,” to the American people, and the U.S. will no longer entertain these types of agreements.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani took to the stage of the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, September 20th. Rouhani’s speech, delivered the day after President Donald Trump’s, was largely centered around his disapproval for the U.S. President’s remarks. Rouhani said that the words spoken in the UN General Assembly were “unfit to be heard in the UN, which was established to promote peace.” Confirmation that Rouhani was referencing Trump’s speech came in the form of a tweet minutes later.

After Trump called the Iran deal “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” Rouhani stated in his speech that “it will be a great pity if this deal is destroyed by rogue newcomers to the world of politics.”

French President Emmanuel Macron

President of France Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly two hours after Donald Trump on Tuesday, September 19th. Macron’s speech touched upon climate change, the refugee crisis, the Iran deal, diplomatic action to ease tension with North Korea, and terrorism prevention.

President Macron spoke about climate change, saying “the future of the world is that of our planet, which is on course to take vengeance on the foolishness of men. The planet will not negotiate with us.” President Macron also highlighted his country’s efforts to combat climate change, explaining that “France will allocate €5 billion for climate action from now to 2020,” and stated that the Paris accord “will not be renegotiated.” Macron defended his position on the refugee crisis, maintaining that “the protection of refugees is a moral and political duty in which France has decided to play its role.”  Additionally, Macron affirmed his standing on the Iran deal after explaining that “denouncing it would be a grave error, not respecting it would be irresponsible—because it is a good agreement that is essential to keeping peace at an hour where the risk of a hellish spiral can’t be discounted.”

In stark contrast to Pres. Donald Trump’s remarks, Pres. Emmanuel Macron also urged diplomacy and a dialogue with the DPRK, saying “Our responsibility, with all our partners including China, is to bring it back through pressure to the negotiating table for a political settlement…France will reject any escalation…” Macron ended his speech to the UN General Assembly with talk about counterterrorism and said, “Jihadist terrorism has hit every continent, our fellow citizens from every religion…This fight against terrorism is a military one. It is also educational, cultural, and moral.” Macron’s speech put emphasis on the idea that, on a global level, more must be done to combat terrorists and their use of the internet as a way to recruit and organize.

Other prominent world leaders such as Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, and Donald Tusk, President of the European Union, delivered succinct speeches. Each address contained the same message enjoining unity and a peacekeeping agenda on the global scale.

De-facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, scrapped plans for attendance after surmounting international pressure over her country’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims.