UNITED NATIONS (CN) — Facing the prospect of deeply tightened purse strings from Washington, the United Nations General Assembly’s new leader Miroslav Lajcak opened up this year’s 72nd session by directing his focus beyond any government.
“The people who need the U.N. the most are not sitting in this hall today,” Slovak diplomat Lajcak noted as the General Assembly kicked off on Tuesday afternoon. “They are not involved in the negotiation of resolutions. They do not take the floor at high-level events.”
Circling around the theme of “Focusing on People,” Lajcak’s speech nodded to the organization’s charter, which in turn invokes the U.S. Constitution with the phrase “We the People.”
The U.N. must contemplate a new direction in the face of massive cuts from its U.S. funding, with President Donald Trump threatening to cut billions from its budget in service of his “America First” foreign policy reducing the country’s role as the body’s largest funder.
Trump plans to make reform one of his top priorities when he visits the assembly on Sept. 19 for the start of general debate.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the organization stands ready for change.
“People around the world are rightly demanding change and looking for governments and institutions to deliver,” the secretary general noted in his opening remarks. “We all agree that the United Nations must do even more to adapt and deliver. That is the aim of the reform proposals that this assembly will consider.”
The last U.N. General Assembly President Peter Thomson’s tenure was book-ended by the ratification of the Paris climate agreement and its withdrawal by the United States under successive White House administrations.
While expressing openness to Trump’s goals of U.N. reform, Thomson slammed the 45th U.S. president’s climate-change denial at his farewell press conference on Friday.
“Climate change is happening,” Thomson said as Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean.
“You can deny it until you’re the last man on the planet who doesn’t believe that it’s happening even as your house got blown away, but it’s happening and we have to address it,” he added. “The Paris climate agreement is our best shot and we have to stay faithful to it.”
Expressing optimism for the future, Thomson said that the United States remains “at the table.”
“We had very positive signals given to us in the South Pacific about the U.S. administration’s willingness to stay engaged in this process,” he told reporters on Friday.
For Thomson, the concern is also personal: His island nation of Fiji faces an ongoing threat from rising sea levels, an experience that inspired his effort to create an international law of the seas at the Ocean Conference that he convened this past June.
He will now serve as the secretary general’s special envoy for the ocean, a role created in time for its slated debate on the provisional agenda.
Speaking one day after the U.N. Security Council passed new sanctions against North Korea, Lajcak acknowledged that balancing competing priorities could be difficult.
“Someone who has seen rising sea levels threaten to claim their village could say climate change,” he said Tuesday. “Someone who has lost a loved one in a bomb blast could say counter-terrorism. Someone who is suffering from persecution for their beliefs could say human rights.”
As the United Nations considers its new role, the organization started the morning by looking to the past.
Before the 72nd session formally kicked off, Guterres spoke Tuesday morning about the enduring mystery surrounding the death of one of his predecessors: the legendary Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld.
“We owe him a great debt,” Guterres said at a wreath-laying ceremony. “Dag Hammarskjöld not only believed in the United Nations. He inspired so many others to believe in it too.”
The U.N.’s second secretary general died in a fatal plane crash at the age of 56 on Sept. 18, 1961, in an incident still unsolved more than half a century later.
Celebrating Hammarskjöld’s legacy in front of a stained-glass artwork by Marc Chagall, Guterres quoted the Swedish diplomat’s remark about another great artist from the Cubism movement.
“Everything will be alright — you know when? When people, just people, stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves,” Hammarskjöld said.
The U.N. continues to investigate the plane crash that killed Hammarskjöld and his staff as they were en route to Northern Rhodesia, the British colony of the mineral-rich country now known as Zambia. Hammarskjöld had been part of a peacekeeping mission that threatened entrenched business and colonial interests.
The investigation is currently slated to land before the General Assembly on Dec. 6.
Swedish Ambassador Olof Skoog said that, in his country, Hammarskjöld’s death ranks as “perhaps our Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy moment.”