New UN General Assembly president lays out promises and priorities

By William M. Reilly

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 12 (Xinhua) -- The 72nd session of the UN General Assembly -- the world organization's all 193-member body -- opened on Tuesday with a promise from its new top official to make the upcoming year one of "firsts."

President Miroslav Lajcak saw those "firsts" in compacts on migration, fighting sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping, eliminating nuclear weapons and a first high-level event on sustaining peace.

But, Lajcak said it would also be a year of "follow-ups" to earlier "firsts," because, "'Firsts' bring photographers and celebrations. Follow-up often comes with challenges and complications. Over the coming year, we will need to maintain the momentum in implementing and financing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)," referring to the 2030 Agenda of 17 goals.

"We must work to ensure that the Paris Climate Agreement is integrated into national, regional and international frameworks," the new president said. "We must follow our commitments from yesterday with actions now. We cannot let reports or events or resolutions of the past be relegated to the UN's archives. We must continue to work to implement their recommendations."

He did not forget the continuing topic facing UN leaders for decades: UN reform.

"In some ways, they (the reforms) will represent a first," Lajcak said. "Reforms will, indeed, mean something new. They will allow the UN to work in a way it never has before. However, reforms will also represent follow-up."

He explained that the world organization looks very different from its founding in 1945. "This organization has been reforming and evolving over the years. We have seen this through the General Assembly's revitalization process."

"We must thus see UN reforms as an opportunity to contribute to an ongoing process -- but with a fresh outlook."

Many people translate UN reform solely to enlarging the 15-member Security Council -- the body that lays down international law, -- it actually applies to streamlining the organization -- a vast bureaucracy, he said.

As for his own priorities, Lajcak said they were influenced by consultations he has been holding with representatives from UN member states. While he promised to go into detail at the opening next Tuesday of the General Assembly's annual General Debate -- attended by world leaders -- he outline "a few principles that will guide my work over the coming year."

"Sometimes the work of the UN can be very complex," the president explained in his remarks from the high green-marble podium. "But the reason for its creation is simple. The UN was created for people. Its job is to help people who are striving for peace and a decent life on a sustainable planet."

"The people who need the UN the most are not sitting in this hall today," he said. "They are not involved in the negotiation of resolutions. They do not take the floor at high-level events. It is one of the tasks of the General Assembly to make sure that their voices can still be heard."

Lajcak admitted, "It would be impossible to choose simply one priority for the UN to focus on this year. Opinions would differ from region to region -- or indeed from person to person. Someone who has seen rising sea levels threaten to claim their village could say climate change. Someone who has lost a loved one in a bomb blast could say counter-terrorism. Someone who is suffering from persecution for their beliefs could say human rights."

"During the 72nd session, I will work toward representing all these viewpoints," he said. "There must be balance in the work of the General Assembly."

The president added that his third principle was quality.

"This should be our objective -- especially in terms of events," he said. "The majority of UN member states do not have large representations in New York. Some of them -- particularly smaller states -- struggle to stay on top of the UN's busy calendar. For the 72nd session, I intend to have a streamlined agenda, and to avoid placing more burden on member states. The quality of dialogue and outcomes is more important than launching new initiatives."

"Finally, transparency," he said, vowing to keep his office door open, figuratively if not literally. "It is open in spirit!"

In welcoming the new president, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres -- only into his ninth month in office -- lauded Lajcak's vision, wisdom, and "choice of theme for the year to come: 'Focusing on people: striving for peace and a decent life for all on a sustainable planet.'"

"I have no doubt the assembly is in very capable hands," he said.

Guterres, during his brief turn at a microphone atop the huge assembly hall's podium, echoed many of Lajcak's concerns, singling out one issue dear to his heart, empowering women and girls. He recalled Monday's launch of a "roadmap for achieving gender parity throughout the United Nations, at all levels."

"I appeal to you to put forward women candidates for vacancies," the secretary-general said. "Parity at the UN will improve performance at the UN."

"Despite today's conflicts and the grinding daily impact of poverty, I remain convinced that this is far more an era of transformational potential," he said.

Next Tuesday, the General Debate will be Guterres' chance to elaborate on his principles and priorities.

Lajcak, a 54-year-old Slovak diplomat, succeeded Peter Thomson of Fiji as General Assembly president. Lajcak served as his country's foreign minister for several times and has been involved in Europe-level diplomacy. He was a candidate for last year's UN secretary-general selection.

The General Assembly is one of the six most principal organs of the United Nations, the only one in which all member states have equal representation. The assembly has powers to oversee the budget of the United Nations, appoint the non-permanent members to the Security Council and make recommendations in the form of General Assembly resolutions.

[ Editor: meng ]
 

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