On September 16, 2019, Ms. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the 73rd session of the General Assembly, held her last press conference at UN Headquarters in NYC. As she prepared to hand off the title to Mr. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria, the president-elect of the 74th session of the General Assembly, Ms. Espinosa addressed journalists and answered their questions one last time.
Ms. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés is the very first woman President of the General Assembly from South America and the fourth woman to hold the position in the history of General Assembly presidents. She previously served as Minister of Foreign Affairs twice in Ecuador. The former President of the General Assembly was also the first woman to become the Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the United Nations in New York.
During the press briefing, Ms. Espinosa listed some of her accomplishments during her presidency of the 73rd session of the General Assembly. She stated that there were 341 resolutions passed during the 73rd session and that this was the “highest number in several years.” According to the former General Assembly Chief, the session also saw the highest number of items on an agenda with a figure of 178. During her presidency, the former president stated that she granted over 250 interviews and press conferences.
Ms. Espinosa also spoke of issues that were at the top of her agenda during her presidency, including the global campaign against plastic pollution, the campaign for women empowerment and gender parity, the advancement of multilateralism, climate change, and disability inclusiveness. One of her biggest accomplishments was transforming the United Nations Headquarter in New York into a single-use plastic free area. Ms. Espinosa also spoke of her seven priorities during her presidency, and told journalists that “We have delivered on all seven priorities.”
The former General Assembly President reminisced about her experience of travelling the world during her presidency. She was adamant that she listened to the people, from women and children to those with disabilities and the indigenous people. She insisted that this was key to creating a more “just” and “sustainable world.”
During the press briefing, Ms. Espinosa was asked what her plans were for the immediate future now that she should have more free time available. However, she responded by saying two things were for sure – that she had a very crowded agenda until January with plenty of commitments, and furthermore, everything that she planned on doing in the future would be connected with the United Nations, from climate and the environment to gender parity and women empowerment. She told the journalists that these were issues she has been working on for the past thirty years and plans on continuing to do so.
The former General Assembly President was also asked about her plans for possibly running for the position of the next Secretary-General. Ms. Espinosa had nothing but praise for the current Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and stated that it was his time and too early to think about that for now.
As Ms. Espinosa has been known to be a champion for multilateralism, we asked her about President Trump’s speech at the beginning of her presidency last year, in which he attacked multilateralism in support of sovereignty. We wanted to know if it had made her job more difficult to have the president of the most powerful country in the world, which provides funds to the UN, attack multilateralism. Her response was that, “Multilateralism needs to adapt to dissent and to different views.” Furthermore, she explained that the UN needed to be a house for dissent where there could be very frank, but respectful dialogue. The former General Assembly President insisted that she had a very good relationship with the UN mission stationed at the NY headquarters.
Throughout her career Ms. Espinosa has also been known for her “quintessential diplomacy,” as her spokesperson Monica Grayley put it during her opening statement at the briefing. However, we wanted to know if the language of UN diplomacy was too soft when addressing such pressing issues as climate change, and if the language shouldn’t be more attuned to the challenges that the world is facing. The former General Assembly chief stated that the best way to engage different parties was through dialogue, but that we have to be careful to keep the conversation going. She insisted that blaming and shaming does not work and that friendly exchange is the “golden jewel of diplomacy.” She ended by saying that, “If words of diplomacy are soft then I am also a strong believer of soft power and soft words to convince counterparts.”
However, we question how true these words are. Should we believe that soft diplomacy is the best way to handle the challenges we face in today’s world or that it may be the best strategy to possibly run for the position of next Secretary-General of the UN? During her career as President of the 73rd session of the General Assembly, Ms. Espinosa was never one to create headlines, at least not for the press. It could be that in focusing on the future of her career she practiced such skillful diplomacy in order to not make mistakes and not create waves.
Ms. Espinosa definitely seems a strong candidate as Secretary-General after the current UN Chief, Antonio Guterres, finishes his two mandates. It seems that the next candidate for the position should be from South America, and Ms. Espinosa coming from Ecuador, a small and moderate country, seems a likely candidate. However, the natural candidate for the position would have been Michelle Bachelet, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Human Rights Chief also hails from South America; as the former president from another small and moderate country, Chile. However, Bachelet has a very strong and outspoken personality and is opposed by the current US government.
As one of the final acts as President of the General Assembly, Ms. Espinosa passed the gavel off to the new President, Mr. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria. Nigeria’s former UN representative banged the gavel to open his year in office as the President of the 74th session of the General Assembly on September 17, 2019. According to UN News, during the first plenary meeting, the UN Chief Guterres “commended President Muhammad-Bande on prioritizing peace and security, poverty eradication, zero hunger, quality education, climate action, and inclusion, all of which the UN chief called ‘central to the sustainable development agenda’”. It seems Mr. Muhmmad-Bande has also agreed to carry on the former President’s torch on the campaign for gender parity and the empowerment of women, along with the youth and the elderly. As he addressed the General Assembly in his inaugural speech, Mr. Muhammad-Bande said he would “collaborate and coordinate” with the Security Council, and the Secretariat “to ensure that greater attention is paid to prevention rather than reaction to full blown conflict.”
As the 74th session of the General Assembly commences and the new President settles into his new position, one can only hope that he will tackle the challenges he addressed in his inaugural speech head- on and with somewhat less diplomacy.