27 August 2020
A UN High-Level Week with Meetings and Moments, but No Motorcades
story highlights

During the opening week of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, Heads of State and Government will exchange statements via pre-recorded messages, played to a nearly empty General Assembly Hall.

The UN’s high-level week also will feature the first annual SDG Moment, a high-level meeting of the UNGA to commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary, the Summit on Biodiversity, and a high-level meeting of the UNGA on the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing+25).

The UN General Assembly will soon mark the transition to its new session with a very unusual gathering of world leaders. Heads of State and Government will exchange statements via pre-recorded messages, played to a nearly empty General Assembly Hall. The annual high-level week will be an exercise in multilateralism devoid of its normal in-person rituals. 

The official theme of the general debate, which begins 22 September, nods to the reason for the unprecedented changes: ‘The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action.’ Amid the ongoing global pandemic, governments agreed not to plan international travel for Heads of State or organize large events at UN Headquarters.

Instead, per a 22 July decision (74/562), the video statements will be played in the GA Hall after being introduced by a physically present representative of the country. Governments can also choose to have a representative deliver the statement in the Hall. The UNGA has authorized the pre-recorded statements to have “an equal status as any statement made by any other representative who is physically present in the Assembly Hall” and to be included in the verbatim records.

Surrounding this 75th general debate, the UN’s high-level week also will feature other meetings conducted in a largely virtual format, including:

  • First annual SDG Moment: Friday, 18 September
  • High-level meeting of the UNGA to commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary: Monday, 21 September
  • Summit on Biodiversity: 30 September
  • High-level meeting of the UNGA on the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing+25): 1 October

First SDG Moment

The SDG Moment will provide a high-level “annual SDG check-in” and snapshot of progress, rather than a comprehensive picture of implementation. Building on the most recent session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, it will highlight shortfalls in implementation and investment, and showcase actions underway to get the 2030 Agenda back on track.

Leaders mandated the SDG Moment in their 2019 SDG Summit political declaration. The new annual event will take place as part of every UNGA high-level week from 2020 to 2030. Each year, approximately 20 Heads of State and Government will address the gathering. The proposed criteria for participation would require States to: be represented at the level of Head of State or Government; have completed at least one Voluntary National Review (VNR); and commit to discussing their implementation gaps as well as plans for filling those gaps. The line-up for each year must also ensure regional representation, gender balance, and representation of countries’ different circumstances.

This first SDG Moment will take place over three hours on the morning of Friday, 18 September. Most statements are expected to be delivered virtually, although a hybrid format is being considered.

UN’s 75th Anniversary

The 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN will be celebrated with a one-day, high-level meeting of the UNGA on the theme, ‘The Future We Want, the UN We Need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism’. Leaders will adopt a declaration negotiated in advance and agreed in July 2020.

The text contains 12 commitments, stating “we will”:

  • Leave no one behind;
  • Protect our planet;
  • Promote peace and prevent conflicts;
  • Abide by international law and ensure justice;
  • Place women and girls at the center;
  • Build trust;
  • Improve digital cooperation;
  • Upgrade the United Nations;
  • Ensure sustainable financing;
  • Boost partnerships;
  • Listen to and work with youth; and
  • Be prepared.

The SDG Knowledge Hub is providing ongoing coverage of the UN75 process.

Summit on Biodiversity

In 2018, the UNGA decided (A/RES/73/234) to convene a summit on biodiversity “in support of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework that contributes to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and places the global community on a path towards realizing the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity.”

This meeting was expected to take place one month ahead of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP 15), in order to offer political direction and momentum for the future framework. While the conclusion of the negotiations on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework and the CBD COP have been pushed to 2021, the event has taken on additional meaning: “the COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of the relationship between people and nature…An investment in the health of our planet is an investment in our own future,” the Summit’s website notes.

Leaders’ dialogues during the Summit will address two themes:

  • Biodiversity loss and mainstreaming biodiversity for sustainable development; and
  • Harnessing science, technology and innovation, capacity-building, access and benefit-sharing, financing and partnerships for biodiversity.

The concept note and summit programme were issued on 10 August 2020.


Twenty-five years ago, governments gathered in Beijing, China, for the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW). They adopted a 38-paragraph declaration and a 129-page Platform for Action identifying 12 “critical areas of concern”: poverty, education and training, health, violence, armed conflict, economy, power and decision-making, institutional mechanisms, human rights, media, environment, and the girl child.

At each five-year mark since, governments have reviewed progress on these areas. The 2020 review provided the first chance to assess progress in the context of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs, including SDG 5 on gender equality. The appraisal in March 2020 was kept very short due to COVID-19, gathering only New York-based representatives for one day to adopt a political declaration pointing to challenges still facing gender equality and women’s empowerment 25 years on. In his remarks to the March session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres observed that Beijing’s vision “has been only partly realized.” The consensus declaration adopted by the CSW also underlined the importance of gender equality to progress on all 17 SDGs.

Also leading to the high-level commemoration in September, a multi-stakeholder hearing convened in July 2020. The UNGA President’s office is expected to release a summary.

The high-level meeting on 1 October will focus on ‘Accelerating the realization of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.’ The concept note indicates the plenary segment will focus on concrete actions to achieve this goal.

Side Events

The Assembly has encouraged Member States to hold all side events on virtual platforms to limit the number of people in UN Headquarters. If the number of virtual side events organized around the July 2020 HLPF is a guide, the sustainable development community will have ample opportunities to exchange ideas on new initiatives and ongoing shared challenges. 

In particular, the 2020 edition of Global Goals Week will take place virtually from 18-26 September and focus on accelerating progress towards the SDGs amid threats from the COVID-19 pandemic. The week will include Global Goals Day on 25 September – the fifth anniversary of the day the Goals were adopted in 2015.

Climate Week NYC 2020 organizers are planning events around ten thematic areas: Clean Energy Transition; Transport and Infrastructure; Industry and Built Environment; Finance, Investment and Jobs; Food and Land Use; Nature and Science; US and International Policy; Youth, Public Mobilization and Justice; Sustainable Travel and Tourism; and Climate Impacts and Adaptation. The week (21-27 September) will include some in-person events in New York, but organizers have encouraged virtual events around the world to take place under its banner.

This policy brief was authored by Faye Leone, Senior Policy Advisor, SDG Knowledge Hub, IISD.

related events

related posts