Established in 1945 under the Charter of the United Nations, the General Assembly consisted of only 51 member states. After the first sessions, which were held in White Hall (London), the General Assembly moved its premises to the UN Headquarters in New York – where it still stands today. The total amount of members also changed throughout the centuries, among other reasons because former colonized parts of the world became sovereign nation states. Today the General Assembly counts 193 member states.
Since the General Assembly’s foundation, each member state sends its delegates into the Assembly to debate and resolve contemporary issues or crises. The Assembly meets each year from September to December, although urgent meetings can be held in an instant. During the meetings, the principle of one-country-one-vote applies, in most cases, a simple majority decides whether or not a resolution is adopted. Therefore, the General Assembly is a unique platform for international debates.
All resolutions passed by the General Assembly are mere recommendations and, therefore, are not legally binding for member states. Nevertheless, these resolutions can encourage action if a broad coalition supports and implements its recommendations. Vice versa, it should be clear that many resolutions fail because they lack support and implementation.
To improve efficiency, the General Assembly created subsidiary bodies, which work on specific topics – as many modern parliaments do.
There are six Main Committees:
- The First Committee (Disarmament and International Security Committee)
- The Second Committee (Economic and Financial Committee)
- The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee)
- The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization Committee)
- The Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary Committee)
- The Sixth Committee (Legal Committee)
Each member state may send one representative to each of the six Main Committees. In addition, member states may assign advisers, technical advisers, experts or people of equal status, but not only member states attend the General Assembly or its subsidiary bodies. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) also send envoys to attend meetings. Ever since the number of NGOs has risen, there is a broad network of NGOs all over the world, being involved on a regular basis.
Topic I: Return or restitution of cultural property to the countries of origin
Cultural property, as established in the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970), is defined as property designated by each state as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science of the respective state.
However, throughout time there has been a history of illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. These illicit activities oftentimes especially affect countries involved in armed conflict and states that have been subjected to colonial rule. Many of these illicitly exported items are still in the possession of the states that extracted them from their country of origin and are, for example, used in museum exhibits. Whereas the Convention on Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970) puts in place measures of return or restitution for cultural property that has been trafficked after the entry into force of the convention it has no retroactive effects, effectively excluding for example the vast majority of cultural property removed from the countries of origin during the colonial era.
Whereas UNESCO is dedicating efforts to prevent illicit trafficking and illegal excavations from happening, there is nevertheless the issue of the return or restitution of cultural property that has already been removed from the country of origin. For the General Assembly this is an issue of particular interest as this committee has the unique quality of encompassing all UN members. These members are in evident conflict as they comprise states that have been subjected to colonial rule and illegal excavation and export of cultural property as well as states that are the perpetrators of such trafficking and are in possession of said items. It is therefore a matter of coming to terms with the colonial past as well as a matter of finding an equitable solution for every party involved in order to preserve peace, international understanding and justice. Finding these equitable solutions should be addressed by this General Assembly.
Topic II: Development in urban areas
In 2019, 55% of the world’s population is living in urban areas. This proportion is expected to increase up to 68% until 2050. With growing urban areas and new mega cities new challenges arise, putting additional pressure on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as “Clean water and sanitation” (SDG 6) or “Sustainable Cities and Communities” (SDG 11).
Nowadays approximately 880 Million People are already living in slums and face poor living conditions. These people often have almost no perspectives for their future. And with urbanization this number is likely to increase further. How could development cooperation work better here and be more adapted to urban regions and which role can local actors play are just some of the questions.
Another challenge will be water scarcity. In Chennai, the 4th largest Indian city, public water supply has collapsed by the beginning of 2019. People there are forced to rely on water supply by trucks or organise it themselves in other ways.
These are just two examples of challenges arising in growing Urban Areas. In order to develop Urban Centres further, cities need support from many levels of society. Developing a framework on what this support could look like and considering first measures is therefore what this General Assembly should address.