Explained: Why Brazil always speaks first at the UN General Assembly

Every year since the 10th UNGA in 1995, Brazil has been the first to address the delegation, followed by the United States.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro after speaking during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, US, September 21, 2021. (Reuters)

Representatives from all over the world, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will be addressing the chamber of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York during the week-long Annual General Debate, which started on Tuesday. According to the provisional list of speakers released by the UNGA, PM Modi is slated to speak on September 25.

During the debate, widely considered the highlight of the annual gathering, discussions are likely to centre around the impact of the Covid pandemic, climate change and security.

Long-standing traditions govern several of the practices followed by the United Nations even today. Everything from the order of speakers, to the length of their speeches, is laid down in a complex set of conventions and bylaws. The General Assembly Debate is divided into two segments each day — a morning session and an afternoon session.

Every year since the 10th UNGA in 1995, Brazil has been the first to address the delegation, followed by the United States. After the first two speeches, the order of speakers is not fixed and is based on factors such as the level of representation, and the importance of the speaker representing the country.

But why does Brazil always get to speak first?

Brazil has been the first speaker at the UNGA annual general debate for over six decades now. While some assume that the order is determined alphabetically, this is not the case. This tradition dates back to the early years of the United Nations, following its formation soon after the end of World War II.

In those days, most countries were reluctant to be the first to address the chamber. Brazil, at the time, was the only country that volunteered to speak first.

Some say that the tradition dates back to 1947, when Brazil’s top diplomat Oswaldo Aranha presided over the Assembly’s First Special Session. He was also elected president of the second session of the General Assembly. Since the 10th Session in 1955, Brazil has always spoken first, followed by the United States, with only a few exceptions.

#tbt to 1947, when a tradition begins! Brazilian diplomat Oswaldo Aranha presided the 1st #UNGA Special Session & its 2nd Regular Session. Since then (with rare exceptions) Brazil has been the 1st Member State to address the annual General Debate of the @UN General Assembly! ??? pic.twitter.com/R4Tbhjdqbq

— Brazil Mission UN (@Brazil_UN_NY) September 20, 2018

This year, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro kept the tradition going by delivering the opening speech at the international forum on Tuesday.

As per tradition, Brazil opens the United Nations General Assembly. In his speech, this morning, President @JairBolsonaro highlighted the Brazilian government’s steadfast commitment to bettering not only our country, but the world as a whole. #UNGA76 #BolsonaroUN21 @Brazil_UN_NY pic.twitter.com/LTgy9QmLYF

— Government of Brazil (@govbrazil) September 21, 2021

So, why does the US go next?

In the list of speakers, the United States always goes second after Brazil as it is the host nation. US President Joe Biden addressed the chamber on Tuesday, detailing his vision for a new era of diplomacy in his first-ever UNGA speech since assuming office, earlier this year.

We stand at an inflection point in history. The United States intends to work with partners and allies to answer these questions and help lead the world toward a more peaceful, prosperous future for all people. pic.twitter.com/3JYwybRezw

— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 22, 2021

What is the order of the General Debate?

To begin with, the General Debate is called to order by the President of the General Assembly, which this year is Ecuadorean Foreign Minister María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés. Then, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will introduce the Annual Report on the Activities of the Organization. The debate is then opened after the president makes a speech.

How is the order of the remaining speakers determined?

After the US and Brazil, the order of speakers depends on a number of factors. Generally the order is determined by the rank of the representative — heads of state, heads of government, crown princes, and foreign ministers would be amongst the initial speakers, followed by deputies and ambassadors.

Other criteria like geographic balance also play a role in determining the order.