The UN General Assembly and the Veneer of Power

Yesterday marked the opening of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly. And while there are many interesting stories to keep track of throughout the week, I want to focus for a minute on the GA itself and what it means from the perspective of power.

United Nations General Assembly
United Nations General Assembly

For many states, the General Assembly represents both the pinnacle and nadir of their power.  On the one hand, it’s one of the few institutions in international affairs where every state is treated equally.  The principle of one state, one vote reins supreme, and majority or supermajority vote decides all issues.  Yet on the other hand, the reality on the ground is often different than it appears on paper; everyone knows the Assembly’s power to influence global affairs is relatively limited.  True power rests in the hands of the Security Council and its five permanent members.  And because of this, outside of setting the budget, the most important function of the GA is the speeches heads of state give at the beginning of every session.

Again, on paper this tradition appears egalitarian.  Each head of state can speak for as long as he wants and on any issue he desires.  Many use the limelight to emphasize issues that go ignored in the mainstream international press and other fora.  Or, sometimes they just have a good rant.  Yet even this tradition is defined by the fundamental reality of international affairs: importance is directly related to power.  The less power you have, the less people care about what you have to say.  James Mitchell, former Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, made exactly this point when arguing in favor of greater political union in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) at a 1987 address in the British Virgin Islands.  He said,

I travel around representing independent St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and when I am in an international area or a cocktail party, I meet people whether from the Eastern block or from the Western block, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am the prime minister of St. Vincent & the Grenadines.’  They ask you two questions, then.  ‘Where is that?’ And you get embarrassed.’ ‘How many people you have? ‘And when you from the B.V.I. tell them 12,000 even if you’ve got your vote in the United Nations, nobody will be talking to you again…The international community is a power circus!  When you go and stand up in the World Bank to address the annual meting, the place is empty.  When President Reagan comes in, the place is full…When some of us speak in the UN and the World Bank, that’s the time when other people have meetings or go to the washroom.[1]

In this way, the UNGA serves not as a tool of power for small, isolated states but rather as a reminder of their insignificance.  However, the right to vote and speak at the Assembly is still a point of pride for many states and one they are unwilling to give up.  I witnessed this dynamic firsthand while studying CARICOM and the OECS at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.  The island states of the Caribbean know they could benefit immensely from uniting together into a single state but are hesitant to do so because it would require, among other things, giving up their individual votes at the UN and other bodies.  Yet such a calculation places too much emphasis on the power of such institutions.  Despite the pomp and circumstance and egalitarian rules, what history has shown us is that bodies like the UN serve to perpetuate current hierarchies of power rather than democratize them.  The UNGA may have good intentions, but that won’t get people to listen to you.  Only power can do that.


[1] Mullerleile, Christoph. CARICOM Integration: Progress and Hurdles. 2nd ed. Kingston, Jamaica: LMH Publishing, 2003. Page 57.

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