Also on this day
First barrel ride down Niagara Falls
On this day in 1901, a 63-year-old schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor becomes the first person to take the plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel. After her husband died in the Civil War, the New York-born Taylor moved all over the U. S. before settling in Bay City, Michigan, around...
British naval fleet attacks Norfolk, Virginia
On this day in 1775, Virginia’s last royal governor, Lord John Murray Dunmore, orders a British naval fleet of six ships to sail up the James River and into Hampton Creek to attack Patriot troops and destroy the town of Norfolk, Virginia. British Captain Matthew Squire led the six ships...
George Washington Bridge is dedicated
On this day in 1931, eight months ahead of schedule, New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicates the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River. The 4,760-foot–long suspension bridge, the longest in the world at the time, connected Fort Lee, New Jersey with Washington Heights in New York City. “This...
Rosecrans replaces Buell
On this day in 1862, Union General Don Carlos Buell is replaced because of his ineffective pursuit of the Confederates after the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, on October 8. He was replaced by William Rosecrans, who had distinguished himself in western Virginia in 1861 and provided effective leadership at the...
Leftist Salvador Allende elected president of Chile
Salvador Allende, an avowed Marxist, becomes president of Chile after being confirmed by the Chilean congress. For the next three years, the United States would exert tremendous pressure to try to destabilize and unseat the Allende government. Allende’s election in 1970 was his third attempt at the presidency. In...
Marv Albert faces sentencing in sexual assault case
Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Kendrick announces that he will dismiss the sexual assault case filed against Marv Albert by 42-year-old Vanessa Perhach if the sportscaster agrees to get counseling and stays out of trouble for a year. Albert faced up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. According to...
Commuter trains collide in England
Two rush-hour commuter trains collide in South Croydon, England, killing 32 people on this day in 1947. Heavy fog and a serious mistake by a signalman caused the deadly crash. The fog was even thicker than usual on the morning of October 24 outside London. The train from Tattenham Corner to...
Thirty Years War ends
The Treaty of Westphalia is signed, ending the Thirty Years War and radically shifting the balance of power in Europe.The Thirty Years War, a series of wars fought by European nations for various reasons, ignited in 1618 over an attempt by the king of Bohemia (the future Holy Roman emperor...
U.N. formally established
Less than two months after the end of World War II, the United Nations is formally established with the ratification of the United Nations Charter by the five permanent members of the Security Council and a majority of other signatories. Despite the failure of the League of Nations in arbitrating the...
Burton buys Liz a diamond
Movie star Richard Burton dazzles wife Elizabeth Taylor—and their legions of fans—when he buys her a 69-carat Cartier diamond ring costing $1.5 million. It was just another chapter in a tempestuous marriage that began on the Ides of March and continued thereafter in the public eye. Taylor and Burton met and...
The Concorde makes its final flight
The supersonic Concorde jet makes its last commercial passenger flight, traveling at twice the speed of sound from New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport on this day in 2003. The British Airways jet carried 100 passengers, including actress Joan Collins, model Christie Brinkley, and...
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid opens
On this day in 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as a team of bank robbers in the Old West, opens in theaters around the United States. The film was a commercial and critical success, receiving seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and...
Raymond Chandler starts his last novel
On this day, mystery writer Raymond Chandler starts working on his last novel, The Poodle Springs Story, but he will die before completing it. Chandler was born in 1888 in Chicago. He was raised in England, where he went to college and worked as a freelance journalist for several newspapers. During World...
James Brown records breakthrough Live at the Apollo album
James Brown began his professional career at a time when rock and roll was opening new opportunities for black artists to connect with white audiences. But the path he took to fame did not pass through Top 40 radio or through The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand. James Brown...
Western Union completes the first transcontinental telegraph line
On this day in 1861, workers of the Western Union Telegraph Company link the eastern and western telegraph networks of the nation at Salt Lake City, Utah, completing a transcontinental line that for the first time allows instantaneous communication between Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Stephen J. Field, chief...
Truman declares war with Germany officially over
On this day in 1951, President Harry Truman finally proclaims that the nation’s war with Germany, begun in 1941, is officially over. Fighting had ended in the spring of 1945. Most Americans assumed that the war with Germany had ended with the cessation of hostilities six years earlier. In fact, a...
Toronto Blue Jays finally win a World Series for Canada
On October 24, 1992, the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Atlanta Braves in the sixth game of the World Series to win the championship. It was the first time a Canadian team had ever won the trophy, and it was a truly international victory—the Blue Jays’ 25-man roster included several...
U.S. president pledges support to South Vietnam
President Eisenhower pledges support to Diem’s government and military forces. Eisenhower wrote to South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and promised direct assistance to his government. Eisenhower made it clear to Diem that U.S. aid to his government during Vietnam’s “hour of trial” was contingent upon his assurances of the...
Manila Conference attendees issue “Declaration of Peace”
In Manila, President Johnson meets with other Allied leaders and they pledge to withdraw troops from Vietnam within six months if North Vietnam “withdraws its forces to the North and ceases infiltration of South Vietnam.” A communiqué signed by the seven participants (Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, South Vietnam,...
World War I1917
Battle of Caporetto
On this day in 1917, a combined German and Austro-Hungarian force scores one of the most crushing victories of World War I, decimating the Italian line along the northern stretch of the Isonzo River in the Battle of Caporetto, also known as the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, or the...
Unknown Soldier is selected
On October 24, 1921, in the French town of Chalons-sur-Marne, an American officer selects the body of the first “Unknown Soldier” to be honored among the approximately 77,000 United States servicemen killed on the Western Front during World War I. According to the official records of the Army Graves Registration Service...
Since its inception, the UN General Assembly has been a forum for lofty declarations, sometimes audacious rhetoric, and rigorous debate over the world’s most vexing issues, from poverty and development to peace and security. As the most representative organ of the United Nations, the assembly holds general debate in the organization’s New York headquarters from September to December, and convenes special sessions at other times to address a range of issues.
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The seventy-second session of the General Assembly opened on September 12, 2017, with heads of state and government convening for the general debate beginning September 19. U.S. President Donald J. Trump is scheduled to make his first address to the assembly at a time in which his government has proposed a number of cuts to international organizations, including the United Nations. This year, there will be a high-level meeting addressing the United Nations’ Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, and additional sessions will cover nuclear disarmament, African development, and the rights of indigenous peoples.
Diplomacy and International Institutions
As in recent years, the general debate and sideline meetings are also likely to address challenges posed by the self-declared Islamic State, North Korea’s missile development, and the Syrian civil war.
What is the UN General Assembly?
The UN General Assembly is the only universally representative body of the United Nations. The other major bodies are the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice. As delineated in the Charter of the United Nations, the function of the General Assembly is to discuss, debate, and make recommendations on subjects pertaining to international peace and security, including development, disarmament, human rights, international law, and the peaceful arbitration of disputes between nations.
It elects the nonpermanent members of the Security Council and other UN bodies, such as the Human Rights Council, and appoints the secretary-general based on the Security Council’s recommendation. It considers reports from the other four organs of the United Nations, assesses the financial situations of member states, and approves the UN budget, its most concrete role. The assembly works with the Security Council to elect the judges of the International Court of Justice.
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What is the General Assembly’s membership?
There are 193 UN member states, each with a vote in the General Assembly. The assembly’s president changes with each annual session and is elected by the body itself. The president of the seventy-second session is Miroslav Lajcak, Slovakia’s minister of foreign affairs. The president is empowered to enforce rules of procedure, such as opening debate, setting the agenda, limiting speaking times for representatives, and suspending or adjourning debate. Presidents, however, are not confined to presiding over procedure; in recent years, they have invited UN officials to brief the assembly despite opposition from some member states. In 2011, for example, Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser invited the high commissioner for human rights to brief member states on the Syrian civil war despite opposition from Syria’s backers.
Resolutions need a two-thirds majority to pass, and voting blocs often form around groups of like-minded states, such as the G77, a loose coalition of developing economies. The UN’s nonmember observer states—Vatican City and Palestine—have the right to speak at assembly meetings but cannot vote on resolutions.
Diplomacy and International Institutions
Membership can be contentious. Taiwan has been denied UN membership for more than two decades due to objections from China, which holds a permanent seat on the Security Council and considers Taiwan part of its sovereign territory. Palestine’s status at the United Nations has also been controversial. The 2011 General Assembly session was dominated by discord surrounding Palestine’s bid to become a member state, which stalled in the Security Council after the United States vowed to veto such a measure. At the 2012 General Assembly, member states passed a resolution, 138–9 (with 41 abstentions), to upgrade Palestine from a nonmember observer entity to nonmember observer state.
Is the General Assembly in need of reform?
Yes, say many experts on the United Nations and leading donor nations. Efforts to revitalize the assembly’s work focus on increasing its power vis-à-vis the Security Council, as well as improving the quality of debate within the body. But the assembly has continued to resist deep-seated reforms, a reflection of the rift between its many members from the developing world, who want to retain a strong say in deliberations, and the wealthy nations that serve as the United Nations’ main donors.
In 2005, Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented a report that criticized the assembly for focusing excessively on reaching consensus and passing resolutions that reflected “the lowest common denominator” of opinions. Michael W. Doyle, an international affairs expert at Columbia University, says the assembly is “an important institution that has never quite sorted out its role” in terms of being a truly deliberative and functional body, and has “insufficient deliberation and not enough genuine discussion.” Doyle, who was an aide to Annan, says that the assembly could enhance its relevance by holding hearings with expert testimony. The assembly has made an effort in recent years to make its work more substantive and relevant. Resolution 59/313, adopted in 2005, established a more influential role for the assembly’s president to help achieve this goal by authorizing the president to propose interactive debates and expanding the resources available to this office.
Have members ever been punished by the assembly?
The General Assembly has the power to censure states for violating UN Charter principles. In the 1960s the assembly suspended the South African delegation from the United Nations because the country was practicing apartheid, in violation of both Security Council resolutions and international law. South Africa was readmitted in 1994, following its democratic transition. In 1992, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, an assembly resolution denied Serbia and Montenegro the automatic inheritance of the former Yugoslav seat, requiring it to apply for UN membership anew and forgo participation in assembly deliberations.
Israel was barred for many years from serving on UN commissions and panels because the slots are allotted according to membership in the UN’s five regional groups and Arab states had blocked Israel from membership in the Asia-Pacific Group, which includes other Middle Eastern states. Israel was made a temporary member of the Western European and Others Group in 2000 by the United States and some European countries.
In August 2012, the General Assembly voted 133–12 to denounce the Syrian government for atrocities since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. Thirty-three countries abstained from voting on the resolution, which was overwhelmingly backed by Western countries and their allies.
Following Crimea’s March 2014 referendum to leave Ukraine and join Russia, the General Assembly adopted a nonbinding resolution declaring the referendum invalid and Russia’s annexation of Crimea illegal. The resolution passed 100–11, with 58 abstentions.
What are some noteworthy assembly actions?
“The General Assembly is not an action body. It is just that—an assembly,” says Ambassador Donald McHenry, a former U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. General Assembly resolutions are still significant, however, as indicators of member states’ positions on a given issue. They can also prove useful by outlining organizing principles and proposing initiatives for member states, says McHenry. Some assembly actions have had more influence or incited more controversy than others:
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1948, two years after the assembly convened its inaugural session, it promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which contained thirty articles outlining global standards for human rights. A historic act, it proclaimed the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” As the chair of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to draft and pass the declaration, saying it “may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.” Human rights issues remain contentious, however, and the UN Human Rights Council continues to face criticism for, among other things, including among its members countries with poor human rights standards, though recent efforts have improved the body’s performance.
- ‘Uniting for Peace’ Resolution. In 1950, the United States initiated the landmark “Uniting for Peace” resolution[PDF]. It states that if the UN Security Council “fails to exercise its primary responsibility” for maintaining international peace and security, the General Assembly should take up the matter itself and urge collective action. The assembly has acted on this resolution in a handful of instances, including the Suez Crisis of 1956. UN intervention in the crisis ultimately resulted in a cease-fire, troop withdrawal, and the establishment of the first UN Emergency Force (UNEF), a peacekeeping force. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq provoked calls from many organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group, for the General Assembly take up the issue and override the impasse of the Security Council, but the assembly did not do so.
- Millennium Declaration. The General Assembly proclaimed designated its fifty-fifth session, in 2000, the Millennium Assembly. At a summit that year, Annan unveiled the UN’s Millennium Declaration. It set forth the Millennium Development Goals, a collection of “time-bound and measurable” targets for, among other things, reducing poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, and improving access to primary education. Other proposals included a security agenda relating to international law, peace operations, and small-arms trafficking, as well as an environmental agenda that urged “a new ethic of conservation and stewardship.” The development goals continue to be invoked by many governments and nongovernmental organizations to spur aid to developing countries. Significant inroads have been made on education, infant mortality, and poverty. In 2015, the General Assembly set new goals for sustainable development [PDF].
- ‘Zionism is Racism’ Resolution. The assembly’s most controversial resolution, passed in 1975, determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Yet the UN Partition Plan for Palestine had approved of and helped create the state of Israel in 1947. In his address to the UN General Assembly on the day the resolution was passed, Israeli Ambassador Chaim Herzog said, “for us, the Jewish people, this resolution based on hatred, falsehood and arrogance, is devoid of any moral or legal value.” He then tore a copy of the resolution in half. The resolution was repealed in 1991. In 2001, during the UN’s world conference on combatting racism in Durban, South Africa, similar language on Zionism was introduced but later dropped. Fourteen countries, including the United States, boycotted the 2011 meeting commemorating the Durban conference, and while their reasons varied, most expressed concerns about anti-Semitism.
Eleanor Albert, Leo Schwartz, Alexandra Abell, and Sebastian Pellejero contributed to this report.