The UN General Assembly’s annual meeting of heads of state and government is here – and with it a series of acronyms, abbreviations, titles and terms that can be confusing to observers. Here are some important vocabulary words, decoded.
UNGA: Acronym (yes, people pronounce it “UN’-gah”) for the UN General Assembly’s “High-Level Week.” It is the international organization’s largest annual event and invites presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and other leaders from all 193 UN member countries to speak to the world and each other. Although New Yorkers sometimes simply use “general meeting” to describe what many experience primarily as a week of road closures and rushing motorcades, in reality the meeting is not just that meeting. This is a body that convenes countries’ ambassadors throughout the year to discuss a wide range of global issues and vote on resolutions.
GENERAL DEBATE: The centerpiece of the week is giving the head of state or government of each country (or designee) the microphone to deliver a speech on the state of the world from their perspective. There is a theme chosen by the President of the Assembly – this year it is “Rebuilding Trust and Revitalizing Global Solidarity” to accelerate progress on key UN goals. But speakers seize the opportunity to weigh in on the planet’s biggest problems and flashpoints, highlighting domestic successes and needs, grievances in the air and projected statesmanship. Dignitaries are asked to finish within 15 minutes, but there is no buzzer or Oscar-style music. While the “debate” is less an interactive back-and-forth and more a series of speeches, rebuttals are allowed at the end of each long day, and some embittered neighbors routinely go through multiple rounds.
BILATERAL (or “Bilat” for short): Private meetings between leaders of one country and another. Some argue that the real value of the UNGA lies in these tête-à-têtes and other personal meetings between decision-makers off camera.
MINISTERIAL: Applies to meetings of cabinet-level officials, such as foreign ministers, from different countries.
SECURITY COUNCIL: The most powerful component of the United Nations, responsible for maintaining international peace and security. The 15-member council can issue binding (though sometimes ignored) resolutions, impose sanctions and deploy peacekeepers. While this week is the assembly’s show, the council generally holds its own meeting – this year on the topic of Ukraine – with plenty of attendees in town for the events next door. Who is on the council? Continue reading.
FUN WITH NUMBERS!
P5: The five permanent members of the Security Council with veto power. According to a structure created in 1945, these are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
E10: The 10 elected non-permanent members of the Security Council. The General Assembly elects them for a two-year term with seats distributed by region. Calls for council reform are an integral part of the UNGA; A particular point of criticism is the lack of permanent members from Africa and the Latin America-Caribbean region.
G77: Stands for the “Group of 77,” an interest group of developing countries founded in 1964 within the United Nations. Despite its name, it now has 134 members.
COP28: A major global UN climate conference will take place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in December.
1.5 DEGREES: A crucial climate threshold. Under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, countries agreed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial times. The Earth has already warmed at least 1.1 degrees (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the mid-19th century.
SDGs: The UN’s “Sustainable Development Goals,” which range from combating climate change to eliminating hunger and poverty to gender equality. UN member states adopted the goals as a 15-year action plan in 2015, but the pace is lagging significantly behind. This year’s UNGA Week includes a number of events related to the Goals, including an “SDG Summit” that began on Monday. It is a forum for countries to explain how they can do better.
SIDS: At the United Nations this stands for around 39 “small island developing states”. The UN General Assembly is an important platform for them to raise concerns such as climate change and the existential threat they face from forecasts of rising sea levels and intensifying storms – often a painfully topical topic at a meeting that is in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane season.
BRICS: A coalition of developing countries that currently includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa and will next year include Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There are many international groups focused on regional, economic, defense or other relations, but BRICS has recently attracted attention as a growing arena of Sino-Russian influence as those powers increasingly find themselves at odds with the West.
LDCs: Very poor countries known to the United Nations as “least developed countries.” Currently, 46 nations meet the criteria, which include a gross national income of $1,088 or less per person per year.
MULTILATERALISM: Global or near-global partnership united and developing together lasting rules and common norms – the idea that underlies the United Nations itself and that many warn about is under threat.
MULTIPOLAR: A scenario in which there are several distinct and sometimes competing centers of power, rather than one or two individual superpowers.
BRETTON WOODS INSTITUTIONS: The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, founded in 1944 at a UN conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.
TWO-STATE SOLUTION: A concept for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the establishment of an independent Palestinian nation living in peace alongside Israel. The framework was set out in the 1993 Oslo Accords and adopted by the United Nations, but progress in implementation has stalled.
SOUTH-SOUTH COOPERATION: Cooperation between countries, organizations and people of the southern hemisphere with the aim of strengthening their voice in their own development and in international affairs.
UNILATERAL COERCIVE MEASURES: A usually critical way of describing sanctions imposed by one country in the hope of spurring action in another country.
For more information about the UN General Assembly, see