But ahead of the debates, top UN leaders are seeking to direct the international community’s attention to several priorities they would like to set for the coming year.
They include more management reforms to strengthen the world body and renewed emphasis on human rights and the alleviation of poverty.
Finishing The Work Of The 60th Assembly
Sheikha Haya Rashid al-Khalifa of Bahrain, the General Assembly’s president, stresses that the new assembly must complete the work of the last one.
“The first one is to follow up the implementation of the process of the reform agenda, to complete the unfinished businesses of the 60th session, particularly strengthening of the ECOSOC [UN Economic and Social Council], Security Council reform, mandate review," al-Khalifa says. "And the second one [is] to consolidate the achievement of the 60th session in [the] areas of reform -- to ensure that the new institutions established, such as the Human Rights Council [and] the Peace Building Commission, are fully [operational].”
Al-Khalifa, who was speaking to the press last week, is the first Muslim woman to serve as president of the General Assembly. The presidency is a largely ceremonial position, but one that can be used to exert pressure on member states to subordinate their own interests to larger UN goals.
Searching For A New Secretary-General
The real executive power at the UN -- as always -- lies with the secretary-general. This year the General Assembly faces the task of finding a replacement for outgoing Kofi Annan.
Annan, who has headed the UN for 10 years, has emphasized the advancement of human rights and democracy ideals. He said last week that he would like to see the new General Assembly go further in that direction.
“I'm really satisfied that the member states have accepted that the UN has three pillars on which it should build its work: peace and security; economic and social development; human rights and the rule of law," Annan said. "I think we have made progress in some areas; in other areas we need to work harder. But I think there is greater awareness of the importance of human rights and the rule of law and the whole issue of good governance.”
Annan has refused to speculate on who might succeed him and how that person should act as the world body’s next leader. His only comments about the succession have been to express a personal wish to see a woman get the post.
“As to my successors, I have often said: ‘My predecessors did it their way. I did it my way, and I hope he or she will do it his or her way,'" Annan said. "I know I got into trouble in Turkey when I said, ‘When she takes over.’ And they asked me, ‘Why are you talking about a 'she'?’ I said, “Because a 'she' has never had it.”
Several high-profile names are the subject of speculation as possible Annan replacements.
The candidacy of Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was officially put forward on September 16 by the three Baltic states -- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
According to the UN Charter, the Security Council has to make a recommendation for a leader to the General Assembly, which then elects the new secretary-general. If the informal rule of geographic rotation is honored as it has been in the past, then the new secretary-general would come from Asia.
Another top priority in the work of the 61st General Assembly will be the alleviation of crippling poverty, particularly in Africa. Poverty reduction has been -- with uneven results -- on the agenda of the world body since its creation in 1945.
Reforming The Security Council
Among the thorniest issues at the UN over the last several years has been proposed reform of the Security Council.
The UN’s top executive organ comprises nine rotating members with two-year terms and five permanent members with veto power -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Annan has been a vocal proponent for reform of the council, saying that it does not reflect the realities of the 21st century.
“The management reform should continue," Annan has said. "I think efforts to reform the Security Council should not be given up. They should go ahead, because it is a serious problem for this organization. I have made it clear that, as far as I am concerned, no reform of the UN will be complete without the reform of the Security Council.”
Several proposals have been put forward. Some call for the expansion of the council to 24 members but without the change of the so-called P-5, the core five veto-wielding permanent members.
Other proposals envision the expansion of the council to seven or even nine permanent members but without new entrants being given the veto power. Possible candidates include India, Japan, Brazil, and Germany.
However, none of the proposals for reforming the Security Council has yet moved beyond initial phases.
Thoraya Ahmed Obaid (courtesy photo)
The women's rights group Equality Now has noted that no woman has held the position of secretary-general of the United Nations in its 60-year history. While geographic regions take "turns" in nominating candidates, women have never had their "turn," despite many qualified candidates. Below -- in no particular order -- is a selection of some of the women that Equality Now has put forth as possible candidates for secretary-general.
SADAKO OGATA served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 1991 to 2000. Before her career as UNHCR, she was the independent expert of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar in 1990. In 1982-85, she was also representative of Japan on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Ogata has also been a prominent academic figure, serving as dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo from 1989 until 1991. Prior to that she was director of the Institute of International Relations at the same university.
TARJA KAARINA HALONEN is the current and first female president of Finland. She is currently running for a second term. Halonen has a master of law degree from the University of Helsinki. She is a very popular politician and she was Finland's foreign minister from 1995 until 2000.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI is the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. As a pro-democracy campaigner and leader of the opposition National League for Democracy party (NLD), she has spent most of the past 16 years in some form of detention under Burma's military regime. Born on 19 June 1945 to Burma's independence hero, Aung San, Suu Kyi was educated in Burma, India, and the United Kingdom. Her father was assassinated when she was 2 years old.
THORAYA AHMED OBAID is the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the world’s largest multilateral source of population assistance. Obaid was appointed head of UNFPA on 1 January 2001 with the rank of undersecretary-general of the United Nations. She is the first Saudi Arabian to head a United Nations agency. Before joining UNFPA, Obaid was deputy executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) from 1993-98. In 1975, Obaid established the first women's development program in Western Asia.
GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND served three terms as prime minister of Norway in the 1980s and 1990s and was director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1998–2003. In the 1980s, she gained international recognition by championing the principle of sustainable development as the chairwoman of the World Commission of Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission).
(Compiled by RFE/RL; to see the complete list, click here.)