The First Speaker of UN General Assembly: Brazil
The Brazilian ambassador and I at his office (he is not wearing a mask because he has already got the third shot of the Covid vaccine)
The following interview involves two individuals who had just been turned away from the United Nations Headquarters, in Manhattan. High-ranking Brazilian Ambassador, João Genésio, booked us a spot at the North Delegate Lounge within the UN, but, due to miscommunication, the reservation was never placed.
We returned to the Brazilian Mission in a private black car and I reflected on my good fortune, despite the change in plans. The simple, yet amazing fact that I know this distinguished man is due to my mother’s position at the Mission.
Ambassador Genésio is a patient man and showed no sign of frustration over the time lost in his busy schedule. The formality of the UN was immediately replaced with the familiarity of Brazilian warmth and animation. The Brazilian driver, the Ambassador, and I joked a lot in Portuguese on the ride back. I shared my dream of becoming a diplomat, just like the Ambassador.
In place of the Lounge, the interview, perhaps more appropriately, took place in the comfort of the Ambassador’s own office, large, but very typically Brazilian, with innumerable decorations to inspect. Over a simple cup of coffee, I began to ask the Ambassador my interview questions. I focused on the important General Assembly annual meeting that recently took place. The following has been translated from Portuguese to English by yours truly.
Bernardo (B): What is the UN General Assembly?
Ambassador (A): The United Nations General Assembly is a [UN] body that functions as a world parliament. It happens every year, starting in September. In September, there's an event called High-Level Segment that marks the beginning of the work.
To this event come the high representatives of governments. However, there is still work that continues throughout the entire year. So, there's first that moment of the year when you get the presidents, the prime ministers, and the ministers of foreign affairs for ten days and you open a session.
Last September, we opened the 76th [session.] Then, you have the ordinary work, the day-to-day work of the Assembly, which is to produce visions and positions that reflect a consensus or close to a consensus of all countries in the world on topics considered important.
In general, there are three types of subjects. Economic and Social Affairs and Sustainable Development are pillars. Another pillar is Human Rights, and the third pillar is Disarmament. So, the General Assembly will be working with these three pillars of UN work throughout the year.
Under these pillars, you organize a work agenda. Under the work agenda, countries offer resolutions, which are the basic documents of the Assembly. If the UN's parliament comes up with laws, a resolution comes out of the General Assembly. This resolution, unlike laws in countries, is not mandatory. We call this type of document "non-binding". Unlike a law, a document classified as non-binding is not enforced. Although resolutions are not enforced, they carry a moral weight and a guideline.
B: Why is the assembly so important?
A: The assembly is so important because it expresses the view of 193 countries on issues such as the three pillars that I have told you about, which are essential to the international community. With the opinions of each country in mind, we try to reach conclusions in which the whole world agrees. It's very difficult to agree on a lot of things. Even more with countries in different locations, different geographies, different sizes, different interests, different histories and different cultures. But in the UN and the General Assembly resolutions, they present consensus on certain issues and when they do not represent a consensus, resolutions can be voted on so that at least they can express the will of the majority
B: Why does it happen every year?
A: Look, this was a decision of the San Francisco Treaty, which is the letter that creates the UN, that every year you would have a high-level week that would open an annual session of parliament. It's like the parliament of a country. And like the legislative power in Brazil, it doesn't stop. So, you have a parliament working every year since the founding in 1945.
The UN has been set up in this respect to function as we say in quotation marks, "the parliament of humanity," a place where representatives of countries go and meet. For you to have a general idea of the mood or vision that countries have is the purpose of the high-level week. So then it's a president, prime minister who gives, say, the outlines of what it's to do. Having done so, you start working year-round in accommodation of affairs, already knowing what each country thinks because they have already stated their general position and what interests them most in the beginning.
B: Why does it count on the presence of all (or almost) the state leaders of the world?
A: Because it's the big time when you meet with your "peers," with the other presidents, with the other prime ministers, with people who are in a similar position to you, and you can express your message and at once you tell your message for 192 countries to listen to. So it's a time when you have a microphone to talk to the whole world about issues that interest your country.
So, for example, a certain African country goes there and his leader will say "look, what I need the most is development aid because my country is overly poor and poverty is so great that the population can barely sustain itself so as not to starve." That's when he comes to the whole world and presents the situation of his country. On the other hand, countries regarded as great powers and threats can defend themselves by saying "My country is a big country that has wealth and gains power very quickly, but we are not a threat. We are great, we are strong, but we are not aggressive."
B: Do the representatives of countries raise conflicts or problems involving their nations? If so, how?
A: Yes, they do, and that is precisely why some of them go to the House sometimes. The assembly is the time for you to speak in case a certain border is badly divided or if a particular country acts in an aggressive way towards yours. For instance, a country might say: "Country X illegally occupies, according to international law, part of a territory that is mine." Or you might say, "Country X sends spies to my country to sabotage my country in the field of missile development."
And yes, there are attacks and taking sides. What you often don't do though, is to name which country is involved. However, on certain occasions, you do say the name of the country. When you speak the name of the country you are referring to, you automatically give them the right to replying to it.
B: Does any decision-making take place during the assembly? If yes, can you give an example?
Decision-making is done in what we talked about, the resolutions, which spend the whole year being approved. In the high-level week, you will generally hear only the outlines of what will turn out to be material for resolutions. The assemblies produce a number that I will have to check later, but it is around 600 resolutions a year. But these resolutions are not always new, and they do not start from scratch every year. Several times they are a continuation and development of past resolutions that have been adapted to suit the present world. For example, many resolutions in the past did not incorporate the issue of women and gender equality, which today is a cross-cutting theme that influences various affairs in various topics.
B: Has there been any historic decisions during any of the assemblies that you would like to comment on?
A: Look, one of the historical decisions that is very important for Brazil was the creation of the state of Israel. The assembly made this decision through a resolution that traced the borders and created the state of Israel. This resolution was important for the history of Brazilian diplomacy because it is a decision that impacts the world to this day, and because it was presided over by a Brazilian diplomat, Ambassador Oswaldo Aranha. The person who presides over a resolution is not the one who decides things; the president is the one who organizes. This decision was extremely important and to this day historians are studying some details of it.
B: Do all countries have the opportunity to speak?
A: Yes, and equally. The principle is that of sovereign equality of states, which means the following: each country that sits in the assembly sits the same way as the other having the same rights and duties. All countries receive the same treatment. A big country like the United States or a small island in the Pacific [Ocean] will have the same right of voice. Voice and vote.
B: How is the order of the countries that will speak defined?
A: The order is defined by the hierarchy of who speaks. Those who send representatives of higher hierarchy to the general assembly speak before those who send representatives of lower hierarchy. So if your country sends the president and has no one above the president, as is the case of Brazil, and another country sends the minister of foreign affairs who obeys a president, the category president is above that of minister of foreign affairs; therefore, whoever is above speaks first. When there's a tie, it's whoever first announced who [which of their representatives] was going to talk.
B: Why is Brazil always the first country to speak?
A: That's a tradition. Brazil was not always the first to speak. From a certain moment on, Brazil became the first nation to speak and this became a tradition. Following this tradition, Brazil is the country that opens the year at the general assembly, then the host country speaks, which is the United States, and then comes the rest of the list.
B: Would you like to comment on the moment when Brazil became the first country to speak?
A: Look, I don't know by heart, but we can look up, just when exactly Brazil became the first to speak. But I know why. Some is due to, say, Brazil's profile. Brazil is not a permanent country of the Security Council, but it is a country of sufficient power in the world. So putting Brazil as the first to speak was a way to start the assembly with a country that has a weight in the world, but without giving the honor of the opening of the session to those who elsewhere already have greater weight, such as the permanent members of the Security Council.
B: From a more general point of view, what is Brazil's role in the UN?
A: Brazil's role in the UN, as well as that of all countries, is to defend its interest and seek to accommodate its interest in the interests of others. So, the role of every country is to understand and defend their wills and see how their wills fit together or coexist with what other countries want. This is very important because if your interest approaches the interest of other nations, it is much easier for you to take it further.
This is the case of environmental affairs for instance. There is a more or less widespread interest which is the fight against climate change. Once all countries agree on an issue, the UN takes more bold action. Currently, there's a Covid pandemic. If everyone would like to have vaccines, we would have to find a way in which we can distribute them even to those who can't afford them.
B: And to finish, what were the results and takeaways of this session of the Assembly?
A: The UN General Assembly is still ongoing, but I think you're talking about high-level week. The high-level week was a demonstration of the UN's strengths and weaknesses in relation to a pandemic like Covid's. You could see that in the speeches of various ministers, representatives, and presidents who came, Covid was really understood as a global problem, that the solution has to be one in which everyone expresses their will in a way that suits everyone and that if the solution is vaccination, then everyone should have access to the vaccine.
At the same time, you realize that accomplishing these goals is not so easy. Although there is the will, the mechanisms that the UN has put in place to make this happen were not as effective as expected. It's like they say, "talk the talk, but let's see if you are going to walk the walk." This session has been marked by this signal, that the UN brings together and shows very well interests but sometimes, it has difficulty executing the ideas. The UN is an organization that was not created just for planning. The UN was made to solve problems.
B: Obrigado, Ambassador.
A: Muito obrigado a você!
The only picture of the UN headquarters I was able to take before we were turned away.