Five things to know about the 2016 UN General Assembly

Refugees and climate change will top the agenda in New York this month as leaders from around the world come together for this year's United Nations General Assembly. 

By: /
September 14, 2016
2016 UNGA
Candidates vying to be the next United Nations Secretary General debate in the General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in Manhattan, New York, U.S., July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) kicked off Tuesday in New York City, as representatives from the UN’s 193 members met to discuss international issues and prepare the policies necessary to combat the world’s most pressing concerns.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he will lead Canada’s delegation to the city, and plans to address the UNGA next week.

“Canada is committed to making meaningful contributions to solving important global challenges, such as climate change, international peace and security, and refugees and migration,” Trudeau said in a press release.

As the assembly – which will be streamed live here – gets under way, here are five things to know.

1. This will be Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's last opening of the General Assembly.

Ban Ki-moon – the eighth secretary-general of the UN – will wrap up his second five-year term at the end of 2016. Though he has received his share of criticism, Ban leaves behind the legacy of the 2007 Climate Change Summit, UN Women (an organization dedicated to gender equality) and, most recently, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that came out of last year’s UNGA. 

During Ban’s tenure, the number of women in senior management positions within the UN increased by more than 40 percent, and he has said it is “high time now” for a woman to lead the organization.

There are currently 10 candidates in the running to replace Ban – five men and five women. The decision is expected to be made in October. In the meantime, keep an eye out for these names as the week’s events unfold. 

2. Participants will be looking towards 2030.

It's been a year since the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the successors to the Millennium Development Goals – were adopted. On Jan. 1, the 17 goals were officially implemented with the hope of putting an end to poverty, reducing inequality and battling climate change between now and 2030. This week provides an opportunity to further discuss what can and must be done by each country to incorporate the goals into policy.

The SDGs will also be the centre of discussion at the Social Good Summit, a two-day conference examining how technology and new media can be harnessed for good. The summit will run between Sept. 18 and 19, and will ask participants to consider what kind of world they’d want to live in by 2030.

3. The refugee crisis will top the agenda.

The UNGA High-Level Meeting on Migrants and Refugees will take place on Sept. 19, followed by the Leader’s Summit on Refugees on Sept. 20, which will be hosted by Obama and co-hosted by Trudeau and others.

Both summits will attempt to address one of the world’s most urgent problems. In 2015, the number of international migrants and refugees reached 244 million, an increase of 71 million, or 41 percent, from 2000. In March, Karen AbuZayd, special adviser to the secretary-general, urged countries to rethink how they approach these growing numbers. She wrote that, thus far, the world’s response “has fallen short of human rights standards and has been deficient in international cooperation.”

The goal of the Leaders’ Summit is to secure significant new global commitments to: 1) increase funding to humanitarian appeals and international organizations, 2) admit more refugees through resettlement or other legal pathways, and 3) increase refugees’ self-reliance and inclusion through opportunities for education and legal work.

4. The pressure is on to ratify the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Climate Agreement is considered to be the world’s first legally binding international climate agreement, commiting participating countries to keeping the rise in global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees Celcius. It was adopted by 195 parties at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Dec. 2015. However, it has yet to be ratified by all countries.

“We have no time to waste, and much to gain,” said Ban. “To build further momentum, I have asked leaders to come to New York with their instruments of ratification or to publicly commit to joining the agreement before the end of 2016.” 

China and the U.S., the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gas, announced their plans to formally ratify the agreement in a joint statement earlier this month. The Paris Agreement will go into effect 30 days after at least 55 countries, accounting for at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, bring forward their legally binding documents of ratification for review.

“I am hopeful and optimistic that we can do it before the end of this year and before my term as Secretary-General of the United Nations ends,” said Ban.

To date, 27 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement, accounting for 39 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions – Canada not included. 

5. The General Assembly has a new leader.

Fiji’s UN Ambassador Peter Thomson has been elected as president of the General Assembly, a position which rotates annually between five geographic areas. This is the first time a representative of a small Pacific island developing state has been elected to this post.

After being elected, Thomson noted how he holds a special perspective on climate change and on oceans issues, being from a climate-vulnerable island. “You can expect me to be vocal on those in the 71st session,” Thomson told the 193-member body.