193 Speeches? UN General Assembly President Says Format Just Right

More than 130 countries were represented at the General Assembly by their heads of state or government -- more than the 115 last year

Photo: Bryan R. Smith | AFP

The UN General Assembly may be one of the most unwieldy events on the diplomatic calendar, with non-stop speeches by 193 leaders and hundreds more side events, all in a few blocks along New York's East River.

But for Maria Fernanda Espinosa, the newly-elected president of the General Assembly who watches over the gathering, the format is spot-on.

The United Nations is "the only place in the world where heads of state and government can come and say what they think and have bilateral contacts with far-away countries," said Espinosa, 54, a poet with a doctorate in philosophy who has held a number of senior ministerial posts in Ecuador.

"Europe can speak with Pacific islands, the Pacific islands with Latin America, and the Caribbean with Africa and Asia," she said.

For a full week from 9 am to 9 pm, world leaders take their turns at the General Assembly rostrum. Some draw attention -- such as New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who came with her three-month-old baby -- but often the speeches are ignored by all but junior delegates and each nation's media.

And this year, in a rarity, the General Assembly saw laughter -- when US President Donald Trump began boasting in superlative terms of his domestic record, as is his wont in front of domestic audiences.

Was the General Assembly laughing at him or with him?

"I really don't know," Espinosa said diplomatically. "His comeback was very sharp, saying that he wasn't expecting that reaction and smiling as well."

The General Assembly has a clear guideline of 15 minutes per speech but the United Nations is reluctant to enforce it.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, rushing to New York to appear after threats by Trump, spoke for 50 minutes.

But Espinosa noted that Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite spoke for just five minutes -- a bit long for her, as last year her address lasted four minutes.

"Leaders have their own styles," Espinosa said. "The length has nothing to do with the quality."

 

Symbolism of full room 

 

The week of diplomacy also featured 450 side events on everything from banning nuclear weapons to fighting tuberculosis.

The number of events is going up each year, often emptying the General Assembly.

Espinosa said she had urged every delegation to listen to the speakers.

"This had an effect. The room isn't completely full but quite a few delegations listen," she said.

The attendance, she said, is "symbolically very important."

More than 130 countries were represented at the General Assembly by their heads of state or government -- more than the 115 last year, she said.

"Many analysts say that multilateralism is no longer efficient and leaders are calling it into question," she said, after speeches notably by Trump that emphasized going it alone.

"But at the same time, this week, New York was the capital of global power."