Every year like clockwork, as New York City experiences the first signs of fall with cooler nights and changing leaves, organized chaos descends upon the city during the month of September. This year, September 16 marks the start of the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. This is the biggest U.N. event of the year, which brings with it presidents and prime ministers, along with their ministers, aids, and members of the press. Thousands of civil society representatives come to the United Nations to observe and influence the discourse. The United Nations is a battleground for the prevailing issues of our day, and the General Assembly is the most crucial fight of the year.
The General Assembly, fondly referred to as “the GA” by U.N. aficionados, is most known for bringing the leaders of the world together under one roof. But beyond this, the GA is responsible for the creation of several hundred documents outlining the position of Member States on a myriad of issues ranging from women’s rights to sustainable farming, and everything in between. Every year, a handful of these documents touch on controversial life and family issues. While the spotlight shines on the heads of state, the real excitement of the GA extends behind closed doors as country delegates battle over references to reproductive and sexual “rights.”
Everything from Grand Central to the East River falls under the spell of the United Nations during this time. About a week prior to the arrival of the heads of state, barricades go up, checkpoints are installed, and police start their watch. Then the crowds arrive and chaos sets in. Civil society participants, eager to catch a glimpse of someone famous, are subject to heavy restrictions on their usually unfettered access to U.N. headquarters. Rare is the president or prime minister that decides not to attend. In recent years, the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Muammar Gadhafi, and Hugo Chavez have all sparked controversy at the GA. The notoriety of the participants has generated a surge in protests along First Avenue, and admittance to the two avenues leading up to the United Nations is granted only to those carrying the correct credentials. For New Yorkers unassociated with the United Nations, this is but an added inconvenience in the city that never sleeps, but for the international community, this month is the one to watch.
Media congregates to deliver and decipher the messages that the heads of state have come to the United Nations to transmit to the world. What you do not see on television is that often these heads of state are speaking to an empty room. The vast General Assembly Hall accommodates hundreds, but with civil society unable to get easy access, and the rest of the Member States’ staff consumed by the tasks associated with shepherding their own delegations around, nobody bothers to actually stay and hear anyone else speak. President Barack Obama and several of the other big names will attract a crowd, but most will not. As a result, what appears to be a dialogue between leaders is really a microphone directed to the world. Heads of state come to the United Nations to speak to us, not to each other. They come to communicate a public message, to garner public sympathy or to make a political point—this is not a time for dialogue.
After several weeks at this feverish pitch, the heads of state and their delegations leave, and by October, the United Nations has quieted down and is ready to commence the real work of the GA—producing the resolutions. Negotiations on these documents are often highly charged and lead to many late-night deliberations. As is common at the United Nations, discussions surrounding issues of abortion and homosexuality take center stage, and often result in an impasse that is only resolved at the eleventh hour. It is impossible to predict what resolutions will give rise to this kind of language debate, since in recent years, abortion and LGBT language has surfaced in resolutions that ostensibly have nothing to do with these issues. However, with the molding and shaping that occurs throughout the negotiation process, it is possible for any document to morph into a pro-abortion or pro-LGBT statement.
Given that U.N. processes are built on consensus, it is the prerogative of Member States that continue to value and affirm the fundamental right to life and the importance of traditional marriage and family, to oppose language that they perceive to be detrimental. The task of civil society organizations such as Alliance Defending Freedom that support these values is to assist Member State delegates in this work. The end result is crucial since once U.N. documents are adopted, they join the body of UN “agreed language” and are likely to continue to resurface year after year. This body of language is used to influence countries, particularly those of the developing world, to change their laws, sometimes for the better, and many times for the worse.
Elyssa Koren serves as United Nations counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, an international, alliance-building legal organization that advocates for religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family in numerous courts and consultative bodies worldwide.