The annual high-level session of the UN General Assembly saw numerous national leaders converge on New York to give speeches. Behind the scenes, country delegations met to discuss key current issues – including Russia’s war on Ukraine. But all events within UN headquarters took place without the participation of civil society, which was once again denied access. While civil society, as ever, worked to make the most of the week by holding campaigning events in New York, the session was yet another missed opportunity for dialogue and partnership. A more open, democratic UN is needed to confront the many problems states alone can’t solve.

It’s the biggest event in the United Nations’ (UN) year, when the highest number of national leaders are gathered in the same place at the same time. The annual high-level opening debate of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) took place from 20 to 26 September. Presidents and prime ministers from all parts of the world travelled to the UN’s headquarters in New York to give their speeches.

A presidential occasion

This year, after virtual and semi-online events under the pandemic, the meeting returned to a format of full in-person participation, with around 150 leaders present. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his contribution through an online video, delivering an impassioned speech calling for Russia to be held to account for its crimes, but this was a rare exception to the in-person rule – and it required a vote by states to enable him to do so.

Naturally, as every year, attention focused on the big beasts, the set-piece speeches by the heads of major powers, and the lines they draw on the key issues. On the minds of many was the crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with new urgency resulting from Russia’s response to a successful Ukraine push by enlisting reserves, holding illegal and fake referendums to annex occupied areas and talking up the possibility of nuclear war.

In the light of this, even the possibility of long-blocked UN Security Council reform seemed to gain some momentum. As one of the Security Council’s five veto-holding permanent members, Russia has consistently blocked action on the conflict. The USA’s President Joe Biden, representing another of the five permanent members, offered hope, going further than his government has gone before by calling for the permanent five to moderate their use of vetoes and backing the call to expand the Council’s permanent membership, including to encompass African and Asian states. In their speeches, African leaders repeatedly demanded fair representation.

Much of what political leaders had to say publicly was targeted squarely at domestic audiences. The UNGA platform presents an opportunity for autocrats and democrats alike – as made clear by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who ludicrously claimed his country stood as a champion of the fight against injustice, even as women protesters were being shot dead by his security forces.

Prime Minister Abdoulaye Maiga, representing Mali’s military junta, continued his government’s attacks on France and, with appalling timing, lauded his country’s cooperation with Russia: Russian mercenaries have replaced French peacekeeping troops in the country.

For Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, the podium was just another stop on the campaign trail ahead of the 2 October election, and he duly took the opportunity to talk up his supposed achievements. China used the occasion to keep up its attacks on Taiwan, and Russia to continue to spread disinformation about its invasion.

In making their speeches, many leaders underlined one of the UN’s problems: its highly state-centric nature. Instead of showing their willingness to come together to address pressing issues that can’t be solved within national borders, leaders once again used the event to press points of narrow national and partisan self-interest.

Away from the circus, the value of the event may lie more in what happens behind the scenes. The few days in New York offer a unique opportunity to hold bilateral conversations. If international action results in the coming months – on Russia, on the related food and energy crises and on other urgent issues, including climate change – it may have its origins in those meetings, and in the interactions not just between national leaders but the senior officials they bring with them.

Civil society locked out

But there’s a key problem here: tight security means civil society is completely excluded from UN headquarters during these events. Civil society organisations (CSOs) that in normal times have access – having gone through bureaucratic, lengthy and sometimes contested state-controlled accreditation processes – are locked out at this crucial time.

Civil society is used to finding itself at the back of the queue. As the worst of the pandemic passed and even tourists were gradually allowed back into the building in New York, CSOs remained locked out. At the annual high-level UNGA sessions, CSOs have long been barred from access. They are, it seems, deemed a security risk.

During the week of the high-level debate, this deprives civil society of what could be the vital opportunity to bring year-round advocacy, lobbying and campaigning to focus on government and UN officials. If CSOs weren’t shut out of the room, this would be the moment to try to influence the positions states take and win commitments for follow-up.

It isn’t only civil society criticising this situation. Thomas E Garrett, head of the Community of Democracies, made a principled call for the ban to be reversed during the intergovernmental coalition’s meeting that week, pointing to the essential contribution civil society has to make on issues including climate change, the rule of law and the war in Ukraine.

Civil society’s UN reform agenda

For civil society, denial of access is the extreme manifestation of a larger problem. For all that the UN’s Charter starts with the memorable phrase ‘we the peoples of the United Nations’ it remains an institution dominated by states. Civil society struggles even to get the same kind of access afforded to the private sector.

CSOs that engage with the UN have been pushing for years to improve civil society access, with the aim of democratising the UN, making it less beholden to states and more able to act on pressing problems. Hopes were raised in 2020 when UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a Call to Action on Human Rights, which committed to putting human rights at the heart of the UN’s work. This was accompanied by UN-wide guidance on civic space, key to enabling civil society to play its full role. But two years on, there’s little information about their implementation.

When the UN turned 75 in 2020, it also took the opportunity to launch a major consultation process about UN reform. Civil society took part extensively. But in 2021, when the UN published the result of that consultation process, the Our Common Agenda report, the ideas fell far short of what civil society had urged.

Civil society is at the forefront of developing ideas for how reform might be possible, working with supportive states and campaigning to convince others.

Key democratising ideas, including for a UN World Citizens’ Initiative to enable people around the world to petition to have their proposals put to the UN, weren’t taken up. The proposals didn’t live up to the human rights ambition suggested by the Call to Action. And again, there’s little information about follow-up, even on one of its most straightforward calls – for all UN bodies to set up civil society focal points, which would be a vital first step to enhancing the UN’s engagement with civil society.

For perhaps the easiest of civil society’s ideas to implement – to appoint a UN-wide civil society envoy or champion – Our Common Agenda was non-committal, acknowledging it only as an item for future consideration. Civil society has worked hard to win support, with the proposal now backed by over 50 states. Such a role would stand up for civil society within the UN system, work to bring some consistency and open up spaces for civil society action – something that might make it harder to lock civil society out of UN events and broach possibilities for further reform.

We the peoples

While civil society was locked out of UN headquarters, it still used the high-level week as an opportunity to protest and campaign as close as it could get while global eyes were on New York. Civil society held a plethora of events on vital issues, including the protection of human rights defenders, corporate accountability, inclusive global governance and development financing.

Civil society brought its perspectives to bear in meetings organised by the UN and others on the sidelines of UNGA, including multiple events focused on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 17 global goals to end poverty and inequality and preserve the planet.

A Global People’s Assembly brought together the views of 1,300 in civil society to demand urgent action to achieve the SDGs – focusing on key issues such as gender equality, climate and environmental justice and respect for human rights and civic space.

Public events like the Global Citizen Festival held in New York’s Central Park called for the release of imprisoned activists such as Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011 for urging civil and political freedoms in the closed civic space of Bahrain.

This was the other side of the coin to the formal speech-making of world leaders from the podium of the General Assembly Hall. It showed the vitality, creativity and transnational solidarity that was missing from formal processes – and made clear what is being lost by the absence of connection between the two.

Opportunities ahead

Change is needed, and there are opportunities ahead. As part of the high-level UNGA session next year, a summit to take stock of progress on achieving the SDGs is planned. The ambition and strong social justice focus of the SDGs are the direct result of the extensive role civil society played in their development. Goal 16 calls for accountable and transparent institutions and responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making – which are only possible with open civic space and an enabled civil society. Goal 17 recognises partnerships, including with civil society, as vital. It would be nonsense to take stock of the SDGs without involving the civil society that helped author them and that is vital to achieving them.

The Summit of the Future, now due to be held during UNGA in 2024, represents another opportunity. Proposed in Our Common Agenda, this is touted as a major event to develop a ‘Pact for the Future’ to reinvigorate multilateral action. This is a dialogue that civil society clearly needs to be a full part of, and the conversation needs to include ideas to democratise multilateralism.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the 2022 UNGA high-level session is that major powers like the USA finally took a step forward on UN Security Council reform. The ideas for change are out there, developed through years of civil society effort. Civil society is at the forefront of developing ideas for how reform might be possible, working with supportive states and campaigning to convince others. Civil society can make a still greater contribution to UN processes – if only it is allowed in.


  • The UN should consult with civil society to develop proposals to open up civil society access to the UN and state delegations during the UNGA high-level session week.
  • The UN should commit to creating the position of a civil society envoy to improve the UN system’s engagement with civil society.
  • The UN should undertake a system-wide audit to follow up on the Call for Action on Human Rights and guidance note on civic space to identify the challenges involved in putting them into practice and potential solutions.

Cover photo by Reuters/Eduardo Munoz via Gallo Images