The 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly began on 5 September. As this crucial moment gets underway, we look back over some of the key moments in its history.
1. 1952 – An Icelandic gavel
In 1952, Iceland presented the President of the UN General Assembly with a gavel, used to open and close sessions, adopt an agenda and vote on resolutions. In 1960, Irish diplomat Frederick Boland accidentally broke the gavel while trying to calm Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR at a conference. The UN requested a replica of the gavel from Iceland. However, in 2005, this copy was lost, and another copy was crafted, which is slightly different from the original.
2. 1960 – Fidel Castro’s historic UN speech
During a UN General Assembly plenary session on 26 September 1960, Fidel Castro (Cuba) spoke for more than four hours. He used his speech to criticise the United States, with particular criticism of what he described as the “hostility” the Cuban delegation received in New York during the tensions in US-Cuban relations in 1959-1960.
It is worth noting that in January 1957, the chairman of the Indian delegation to the UN, V.K. Krishna Menon, gave a three-day speech lasting more than eight hours, but in front of the Security Council and not the General Assembly.
3. 1960 – A controversial shoe incident
On 12 October 1960, Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR, allegedly banged his shoe on the table during a speech by a representative of the Philippines. Although many witnesses reported the incident, there is no mention of it in the meeting record. However, in his memoirs, published the year of his death, the former leader claimed responsibility for the gesture, which does not appear on any of the videos shot that day.
4. 1965 – The first (and only) country to leave the United Nations
Following a dispute with Malaysia, Indonesia left the UN in 1965, making it the only country to do so to this date. However, after a change of leadership and a coup d’état, Indonesia reversed its decision a year later and expressed its desire to resume full cooperation with the United Nations.
5. 2005 – Hollywood at the UN
Previously closed to the United Nations, American cinema was able to use the UN headquarters as a set in the early 2000s. Sydney Pollack’s film “The Interpreter”, released in 2005, was partly shot inside the building. The decision was taken after a careful reading of the script and confirmation that the film was not simply using the United Nations as a setting, but that the location was intrinsic to the story itself and true to the values upheld by the organisation.
6. 2018 – A three-month-old baby at the General Assembly
In 2018, then New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern caused a stir at the UN by bringing her three-month-old baby to an official meeting. The baby even had its own “New Zealand First Baby” badge. Her presence sparked discussions about gender equality in politics. Ardern, who breastfed her baby, explained that this was why she had brought her. However, she entrusted him to her husband while she gave her speech.
7. 2020 – First virtual General Debate
For the first time in the history of the United Nations, world leaders were unable to meet in person at the annual General Assembly in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 75th session of the UN General Assembly was therefore held virtually. During this session, leaders addressed issues such as the pandemic, climate change, gender equality and climate action.
8. 2021 – A dinosaur invades the General Assembly
On 27 October 2021, a dinosaur named Frankie made a powerful speech to the General Assembly. Frankie issued a special warning to all countries continuing to finance fossil fuels, which are responsible for global warming. Of course, the dinosaur was not real, and was produced in a video by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which you can watch here.
- Key facts to know about the 78th UN General Assembly
- Find out more about the General Assembly and the General Assembly High-level Week 2023.