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The General Assembly (GA) is the only universally representative body of the UN system, and it has the mandate to deal with a wide-range of critical global issues. Given the significance of this body, Member States have been discussing how to improve the GA’s effectiveness and relevance for 24 years. Beginning in its 60th session, skipping only the 61st, the General Assembly has annually established an Ad Hoc Working Group (AHWG) on the revitalization of the work of the General Assembly to make recommendations about GA revitalization to the general membership. The working group, which is open to all Member States, typically aims to negotiate a resolution which can be adopted by consensus in the General Assembly. The group is also chaired by two countries (usually one from the North and one from the South), who are appointed by the President of the General Assembly at the beginning of each year.
The four key thematic clusters of these revitalization discussions have been 1) enhancing the role and authority of the General Assembly, 2) the role of the GA in the election of the Secretary-General, and 3) improving the working methods of the Assembly and most recently, 4) strengthening the institutional memory of the Office of the President of the General Assembly.
Role and authority of the General Assembly
For many states, the desire to strengthen the GA stems from the perception that there is a power disparity between the GA and Security Council (SC). Major proponents of revitalization, such as the members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), argue that the Charter sought to establish the SC and the GA as separate but equal bodies, with the GA as the “chief deliberative, policy-making and representative organ.” However, given the universal membership of the GA, its decision-making process tends to be more divisive and slow-moving than the more exclusive Security Council, which also has the authority to produce legally binding decisions. Another issue for many Member States is concern that the Security Council has overstepped its mandate by considering issues that are not directly related to peace and security, such as HIV/AIDS and climate change.
In light of these concerns, member states have discussed a number of recommendations to enhance the role and authority of the GA. These include improving coordination between the presidents of the Security Council and the General Assembly, more consistently implementing GA resolutions, holding thematic debates on critical topics with participation by experts and national policy makers, strengthening the selection process for and role of the president of the GA, and improving the visibility of the GA in the media.
Selection and appointment of the Secretary-General
This second key cluster in the revitalization debates also relates to the relationship between the GA and the Security Council. Historically, the SC, after much deliberation, selects one candidate for Secretary-General and then recommends this candidate to the GA for approval. However, following this year’s negotiations in the AHWG, the General Assembly recently adopted A/RES/69/321. This resolution established basic selection criteria for the position of Secretary-General, called for the presidents of the SC and GA to issue a joint letter calling for nominations, and proposed that the General Assembly conduct informal dialogues with candidates at the GA.
The resolution did not, however, include a request for the Security Council to present more than one candidate to the GA, a measure that many states support. It also did not address the question of the term of appointment for the Secretary-General, such as the proposal to appoint the Secretary-General for a single term of seven years instead of a renewable five year term. Notably, although GA resolution A/RES/51/241 required consideration of the Secretary-General’s term of appointment, such a discussion has yet to take place.
On the subject of working methods, there have been a number of provisions adopted since the revitalization discussions began. These include, but are not limited to, measures to streamline the agenda, consolidate documentation, and improve procedural matters such as dates, promptness, rules of procedure, and voting. Member States have also pushed forward initiatives to improve reporting from the Secretary-General to Member States, as well as the working methods and coordination among Main Committees.
In resolution A/RES/68/307, the General Assembly decided to hold elections for the non-permanent members of the Security Council and ECOSOC members six months before taking office beginning in the 70th session. This provision was adopted in order to give elected Member States adequate time to prepare for their new roles. Another recent development under the working methods cluster was the creation of a website dedicated to the revitalization of the General Assembly, which was established by resolution A/RES/67/297.
Strengthening the institutional memory of the Office of the President of the General Assembly (OPGA) This final theme became its own separate cluster in the 64th session. One of the major issues considered in this cluster is funding for the OPGA and the provision of adequate staff. Historically, funding for the OPGA has been largely provided by the President’s country of origin, which can make it difficult for the nationals of less wealthy countries to seek the post. This has in part been addressed by the establishment of a Trust Fund for the Office, but contributions to the fund have been minimal.
The revitalization discussions and resolutions have made some strides in improving the efficiency and role of the GA. However, many still see GA discussions as slow-moving and repetitive, and note that many resolutions have yet to be implemented. Starting in the 62nd session, the Ad Hoc Working Group has periodically requested an Inventory Chart of the implementation status of revitalization resolutions. The most recent chart was distributed during the 69th session annexed to AHWG report A/69/1007. All past reports of the AHWG can be found in the sidebar, with Inventory Charts in the annexes of reports from the 62nd, 63rd, 67th, 68th and 69th sessions.
For more in-depth background on the Revitalization of the General Assembly, please see the chapter of the same title in our publication, Managing Change at the United Nations.