How I got a chance to preside over UNGA

September is the month of the United Nations (UN). Presidents and prime ministers convene in New York for the annual UN General Assembly (UNGA). This year, for the first time, they will not be coming to the Big Apple. Instead, they will be sending pre-recorded video messages.

This Covid-19-driven remote UNGA denies these leaders the good feeling and theatrics of speaking from the UN’s pulpit; it further robs them of the opportunity of interacting with fellow leaders from other parts of the globe. For smaller countries, this is also an opportunity to greet the President and First Lady of the United States (US) at their traditional UN reception on the opening day of UNGA. Indeed, photographs with President of the United States and First Lady of the United States at this reception proudly adorn many a political leader’s living room across the world.

Brazil has traditionally been the first speaker at UNGA, followed by the host, the US. Leaders from other countries follow and are requested to limit themselves to 15 minutes, though this is rarely observed. There is a time-signalling system of amber and red lights on the podium. UNGA sessions typically run till lunch and then from 3 pm to 6 pm.

The 64th UNGA was held in 2009 with veteran Libyan diplomat Ali Abussalaam Treki elected as its president. India was one of the UNGA’s 21 vice-presidents that year.

President Lula Da Silva of Brazil and President Barack Obama of the US were the first two leaders who spoke at the opening of the General Debate of the 64th UNGA on September 23. Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi spoke immediately after them. Dressed in traditional robes, he sported a big red pocket square and right at the beginning intentionally proceeded to cover the time signalling lights on the podium with it. His speech lasted a full 96 minutes!

This took its toll on UNGA’s schedule for the day. And, the penny with this realisation dropped for me when I was approached later in the day by a UN official and requested to preside over UNGA from 6 pm onward.

The official was candid. President Obama’s reception began at 6 pm and all leaders of delegations would be going for it. This made it impossible to find a presiding officer for UNGA at the leader level from among the countries serving as vice-presidents.

And, the permanent representatives of these countries would be accompanying their leaders. The choice was, therefore, limited to deputy permanent representatives and they had zeroed on me as I had ambassadorial rank.

It soon dawned on me that presiding over UNGA with leaders speaking was as high an honour that a diplomat could aspire to and I rushed home to change and return fresh for the task. I also persuaded my wife to come and sit in the gallery.

Promptly at 6 pm, I was ushered in to take the presiding officer’s chair at UNGA. The President of Equatorial Guinea was already addressing the forum and my first task as acting president of the 64th UNGA was to thank him after he had finished. He was followed by the President of the Dominican Republic and then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Thereafter, we had the Presidents of Bolivia, Ukraine and Poland with the session being ended by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Time flew and it was already 9.15 pm when a chuffed Manjeev Puri stepped down from UNGA’s dais.

Thank you Colonel Qadhafi.

(This is the third in a series of monthly articles till the end of the year on India at the UNSC and stories of high diplomacy) Manjeev S Puri is former ambassador and India’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN

The views expressed are personal

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