Why does Brazil speak first at the UN General Assembly?

. Sep 23, 2019
unga A curious quirk of United Nations history means that the opening speaker of every UNGA is Brazilian; this year, Jair Bolsonaro has the job 2019 will be Jair Bolsonaro's debut at the UN General Assembly

Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro will give the opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly tomorrow morning, in what is his most important international appearance since taking office in January.

Mr. Bolsonaro will not just be among the first speakers, he will be the first, in what is an odd quirk of United Nations tradition, dating back to the 1940s.

</p> <p>As the story goes, in the primordial years of the UN, member states were hesitant to take the initiative to speak first at assemblies. In the second session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 1947, diplomat Oswaldo Aranha—head of Brazil&#8217;s delegation—offered to make the opening speech.</p> <p>This continued in following years, becoming a tradition that the opening speaker at the UNGA will always be Brazilian—despite never hosting the event or being a member of the Security Council. The United States, the hosts and biggest economy in the world, speak second.</p> <h2>Brazil at the UNGA</h2> <p>In early decades, Brazilian diplomats and foreign ministers would take charge of the UNGA opening speech. It was only in 1982 that Brazil&#8217;s head of state addressed the Assembly for the first time, when <a href="">military regime </a>leader João Figueiredo took the stage.</p> <p>Since then, the presence of Brazilian presidents at UNGA has been somewhat inconsistent. José Sarney took charge of the opening speech twice, as did Fernando Collor de Mello. His successor, Itamar Franco, sent his foreign ministers at both opportunities, as did Fernando Henrique Cardoso on all but one year (2001).</p> <p>Lula opened the UNGA six times, <a href="">Dilma Rousseff</a> five, and Michel Temer three.</p> <script src="" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>What to expect from Bolsonaro&nbsp;&nbsp;</h2> <p>A few months ago, Jair Bolsonaro speaking before the UN General Assembly would be somewhat of a non-event. However, after the diplomatic disaster of the <a href="">Amazon fire crisis</a>—with Mr. Bolsonaro picking fights with <a href="">France</a>, Germany, <a href="">Norway</a>, <a href="">Bolivia</a>, and <a href="">Chile</a>—there is much interest in what Brazil&#8217;s brash head of state will have to say.</p> <p>In fact, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s appearance at the assembly was no certainty. Recovering from a surgery to remove a hernia—itself the result of <a href="">previous surgical procedures</a> from the last 12 months—there was a suggestion that he wouldn&#8217;t make it to New York City for his opening speech.</p> <p>However, in an effort to dissuade doubts about his health—or suggestions that he was fleeing the debate—Mr. Bolsonaro disobeyed doctors orders and will open the event tomorrow morning.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>The president is expected to reaffirm Brazil&#8217;s <a href="">sovereignty over the Amazon,</a> defend sustainable development, and bash his left-wing opponents in Brazil and around Latin America. His words will also be closely monitored in Brazil, as agricultural producers fear losing markets if their products are associated with deforestation and climate change-inducing practices.</p> <p>His words are likely to be in line with the government&#8217;s new &#8220;Brazil by <em>Brasil</em>&#8221; marketing campaign, launched this week. The message is clear: Brazil&#8217;s agribusiness is responsible for feeding a massive amount of the world&#8217;s population, pressure on the government will disrupt supply and exports.</p> <h2>A matter of time</h2> <p>Among the aspects of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s speech that observers will be keen to see is its runtime. Speakers at the UNGA are given a symbolic time limit of 15 minutes, which is nearly always disobeyed. In 1960, Fidel Castro spoke for a recorded 269 minutes, only beaten by Indian envoy Krishna Menon in 1957, who spoke for eight hours, having to be taken to hospital during the speech, only to come back and do another hour.</p> <p>There is no danger of Jair Bolsonaro of touching these records, in fact, the concern is more about whether he will be able to fill 15 minutes.</p> <p>Back in January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr. Bolsonaro was pencilled in for a 45-minute speech. He delivered a rushed, teleprompter-heavy delivery which lasted <a href="">seconds over six minutes</a>.</p> <h2>Off on the wrong foot</h2> <p>It remains to be seen how Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s words will be received however, as the focus of this year&#8217;s UNGA is firmly on climate-related matters. Things haven&#8217;t started well for Brazil&#8217;s delegation either, with the UN calling a Climate Summit for this afternoon and not inviting Brazil to speak.</p> <p>Speaking to newspaper <em>Folha de S. Paulo</em>, one envoy of the UN secretary-general said Brazil &#8220;did not submit any plan to increase their commitments to climate issues,&#8221; and thus was not selected to take part in the event.

Euan Marshall

Euan Marshall. Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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