NEW YORK - Marking the 70th anniversary of the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on 11 January 2016, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the body has truly become the “Parliament for all people.”
In fact, before there was a UN Secretary-General, a Security Council or an iconic Headquarters in New York, there was the General Assembly, the most representative body ever of world nations, meeting for the first time in a London hall facing Westminster Abbey, the 1,000-year-old coronation site of Britain’s kings and queens.
It was here on 10 January 1946 that representatives of the then 51 Member States came together in Westminster Central Hall, a Methodist church and conference centre, before a semi-circular dais beneath the now famous UN emblem of a world map as seen from above the North Pole, flanked by olive wreaths – affixed back to front on the wall.
What a difference seven decades make.
Now, Heads of State and Government from 193 nations gather in the majestic, newly renovated General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters in New York at the beginning of the new session in September each year against a gold-leafed background, beneath that equally gleaming emblem – this time the right way round.
UN News says in a feature: This Hall has echoed with the soaring rhetoric of monarchs, presidents, popes and prime ministers. It has also resounded to more doubtfully memorable interventions.
On 12 October 1961, the echo was the sound of Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on his desk when the Philippines delegate accused his country of swallowing up Eastern Europe.
On 20 September 2006, then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, taking the podium a day after United States President George W. Bush, announced that it still smelt of sulphur because “the devil came here yesterday.” He made the sign of the cross, clasped his hands as if in prayer, and looked briefly upwards as though to invoke God, eliciting giggles from some delegations.
In 1977 and 1978, Sir Eric Gairy, Prime Minister of the Caribbean island nation of Grenada had flying saucers, officially called unidentified flying objects (UFOs), put on the Assembly’s agenda.
On 23 September 2009, Libya’s then leader Muammar Ghaddafi extended his allotted 15-minute speech time to one hour and 40 minutes of diatribe, during which he tore up the UN Charter on this self-same podium.
And for 22 years after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had taken control of Beijing and its then 700 million or more people, the UN still recognized the Taiwan-based Republic of China, with less than a fiftieth of that population, as the representative of the Chinese people and holder of UN Security Council permanent membership – until the General Assembly on 25 October 1971 passed Resolution 2758 giving recognition to the PRC.
Commemorating the UNGA’s 70th anniversary, Ban told UN officials on 11 January: “The resolutions adopted by the General Assembly may not all be acted on right away. Yet they stand as our common position on the most pressing issues of our times.”
“These resolutions tell the story of our resolve. They reflect our conviction that the countries of the world coming together can do far more collectively than they ever could alone. Each delegate who speaks, each vote that is cast, every gavel that opens a new meeting adds a little more hope to the world,” said the Secretary-General. [International Press Syndicate – 11 January 2016]
Photo: A view of the delegations gathered for the first session of the UN General Assembly when it opened on 10 January 1946 at Central Hall in London, United Kingdom. UN Photo/Marcel Bolomey