A world in shock heads for debate: Start of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly

August 25, 2021

By Javier Surasky
Program Officer Governance and Finance for Sustainable Development


One year ago, countries gathered once again for the start of the United Nations General Assembly in a doubly special context: on one hand, COVID-19 had erupted as a pandemic, forcing countries, for the first time in UNGA history, to have a virtual opening. On the other hand, it was the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN. Soon, the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly will begin.

This year, 2021, some elements have not changed: the General Debate will again be almost fully virtual and participation from Member States will be mostly by means of recorded speeches. Additionally, the world is still struggling through the effects of the pandemic. However, the focus of discussions may subtly shift.

We have moved slowly ⁠—and not very effectively⁠— from the initial shock produced by COVID-19 and the need to contain its impacts to debates on the shortcomings of a fragile multilateralism with weak governance. Little by little, we are shifting from response efforts to rebuilding efforts, even if we still feel far from the post-pandemic era, a term that seems more discursive than real.

In addition to this, the attacks on multilateralism and on the UN led by the Trump administration will not be present this time, which does not mean that the “friendly fire” has ceased.

Foreign Minister of Maldives Abdulla Shahid won the Presidency of the 76th Session. Each president defines the theme of the Session. Shahid was very clear in his presentation letter:

“Reeling in the way of a pandemic that has devastated lives, destroyed economies, and deprived communities, the world desperately needs a strong and more effective United Nations, to bring together the best of humanity, to rebuild communities, rescue the planet, recover economies and restore hope. As such, I have decided that the theme for the 76th Session of the General Assembly, including the General Debate, will be: “Building resilience through hope – To recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainability, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people, and revitalize the United Nations.”

Both the rationale and the theme are articulate in the intensity and extent of their challenges. Overcoming them will require more than speeches before the General Assembly, but they can be indicative of the path being taken by global politics in these highly complex times. 

Accordingly, it will be necessary to go beyond speeches to find the answers to today’s essential questions, as well as coherence between words and actions, pointing out emerging contradictions:

  • Are there any references to the 2030 Agenda as a guide for building forward better?
  • Are there answers to the unachieved 2030 Agenda targets that should have been met by 2020?
  • What is said about diplomacy regarding vaccines and treatment for COVID-19 and equitable access?
  • Is there action to strengthen multilateralism in general, and the UN and its System in particular?
  • What is said about financing the Organization?
  • How much commitment is there among Member States regarding UN reforms?
  • Is anyone thinking of the regional level as a motor for change?
  • Do countries perceive that we have arrived at this pandemic because we did not heed science’s warnings, and that the same can be said about other global issues, such as climate change and the effects of massive migratory flows?
  • Are countries thinking about the need for action-oriented and data-based work?

Of course, there are many other possible questions: gender equality between men and women, the “post-Aichi” biodiversity targets, and the regression of indicators on poverty and hunger are part of a seemingly never-ending list.

The General Debate is on the horizon. We at Cepei will be following-up the Debate at a time when leaders need to prove themselves in their positions and drive rapid changes in how we read the world. 

A world in shock heads for debate. What is required are strong actions that take us on a different path. Although this may be uncomfortable for some people, the 2030 Agenda is still our guiding torch.

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