71st United Nations General Assembly – why does it matter?

UN General Assembly. Photo: UN/Amanda Voisard

On September 20th, world leaders will convene in New York to open the general debate of the 71st UN General Assembly (UNGA). Seen by some as a lukewarm event without concrete results, the UNGA is actually an international relations hotspot that signals, via speeches from small and big nations alike, the key points that need to be tackled by the global community.

The UNGA this September will be important because various sensitive social, environmental and economic issues such as the refugees’ crisis, the antimicrobial resistance and the signed Paris Agreement will be discussed under the UNGA’s spotlights. The debut of the Paris Agreement is a concrete result in this UNGA. The agreement will enter into force after 55 parties, representing 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, ratify it. As of when this text was written, 28 parties representing 39% of emissions have already ratified it, including, most importantly, the USA and China, the world’s two largest emitters. Brazil’s recent ratification has yet to be counted by the UN.

Additionally, this UNGA will be particularly significant as it will mark the first anniversary of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda, the most bold and complex global development proposal (comprised of 17 goals, 169 targets and 230 indicators), was adopted to end poverty, fight inequality and address issues of environmental sustainability including tackling climate change, ensuring not to leave anyone behind of development progress.

The 2030 Agenda was shaped by what has been referred to as the most participatory UN process that benefitted from a plethora of inputs from national, regional and non-governmental actors, a marked difference from the relatively top-down approach of the Millennium Development Goals. This new approach allowed stakeholders to express their priorities and shed light on gaps, resulting in topics that are familiar and easier to understand. Therefore, many are asking the UN to make the bottom-up, participatory approach, its default process in agenda setting in other spaces as well, such as the UNFCCC.

The level of complexity and ambition of the 2030 Agenda can be fully understood when one realizes that key issues of this UNGA are covered by the SDGs. For example: migration and human mobility issues that involves the refugee crisis (SDG #16 #10); the antimicrobial resistance challenges (SDG #3); and climate change (SDG #13).




The 71st UNGA will also start to take stock of what was achieved so far in relation to the SDGs, and what is left to do until the 85th UNGA – when the 2030 Agenda mandate finishes. The national representatives to the UNGA will be informed by The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2016 in order to complete this stocktaking. They will also be guided on this process by the Secretary’s General Progress Report 2016, which includes inputs from the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) meeting that took place in July, where 22 voluntary SDG national reviews (representing more than 11% of UN’s 193 Member-States) were presented.

Global stocktaking on the progress of SDGs at this stage is still very preliminary, as the work on indicators has not yet been finalized. The bottom line though, and likely to be the key message during this UNGA, is that implementation will need to match the level of ambition of the 2030 Agenda because the current progress is not sufficient to achieve the transformative change envisioned. That means that national and local governments, private sector, academia and NGOs will also need to change their modus operandi and work together in order to achieve the SDGS and fulfill the promise made in the UN last year to not leave anyone behind.