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United Nations

Seven anecdotes from UN General Assembly debates

What do a leather shoe and paint on a church wall have to do with international politics? DW takes a look at oddities and memorable moments from the gathering of the world’s most powerful people.

1) First things first: Brazil

Since 1955, Brazil has (almost) always been the first nation to speak in the general debate. Why? In the early days of the UN, Brazil's representative chaired the first two assemblies and it kind of just became a tradition. Apart from that there is no fixed running with the exception of the US, which as the host country traditionally speaks second. Usually, that is. Last year, Chad's president, Idriss Deby, got to jump the queue because the then US President Barack Obama was running late.

2) Championing gender equality - only, not really

Before the countries take to the podium at the general debate, though, the President of the General Assembly delivers a statement. In 1953, India's Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was the first woman to be elected to this position - a whole seven years before Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became the world's first female head of government. Quite progressive there, General Assembly! That said, it has only had two other female presidents since. And over 70 male ones.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit speaking at the UN General Assembly in 1946

3) Attendees should bring patience. A lot of patience.

All nations have agreed that speeches should not be longer than 15 minutes. On the podium there are even traffic lights warning speakers when the time limit is approaching. But many seem to consider it more of an optional guideline, not a strict rule. Former Libyan leader Colonel Moammar Gadhafi spoke for 96 minutes during his first appearance at the General Assembly in 2009. The longest speech ever recorded came from the then Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro in 1960. It lasted four hours and 29 minutes.

Colonel Moammar Gadhafi did not stick to the 15-minute time limit

Colonel Moammar Gadhafi did not stick to the 15-minute time limit

4) That's it, we're leaving.

Disagreements are inevitable when 193 countries get the chance to voice their opinions to diplomats from all over the world. When then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched into a tirade against the West in 2010, delegates from the US and several EU countries just got up and left. Such walkouts are a common way of showing disapproval at the general debate. Last year, a string of South American countries left during a speech by Brazilian President Michel Temer, who they said only got into office through a coup d'etat.

5) A political bang (that might just be UN urban legend)

Walking out of the room is one thing. Repeatedly banging your leather shoe on the table with rage is quite another. But that's what the then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev is said to have done in protest of a Philippine delegate's anti-Soviet speech in 1960. This outburst is often said to have become the perfect metaphor for the Cold War. But did it really happen? Eyewitnesses give conflicting answers, with some saying he only brandished the shoe; film recordings of the event seem to have vanished. Khrushchev's granddaughter wrote in 2000 that her family believed that he did whack the desk with his shoe.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev addressing the UN in 1960. Here he's waving his fist, rather than his shoe

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev addressing the UN in 1960. Here he's waving his fist, rather than his shoe

6) Product placement

At the general debate 2006, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez turned the political stage into a marketing event. During his speech, in which he also branded former US President George W. Bush as "the devil," he waved around a book by left-wing writer Noam Chomsky and urged people to read it. "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance," which had been published three years prior, subsequently shot to the top of bestseller lists.

Hugo Chavez recommending Noam Chomsky's book to the UN

Hugo Chavez recommending Noam Chomsky's book to the UN

7) Humble beginnings

Before the UN General Assembly settled in New York in 1952, it was held in a different city every year. The first time it convened was in 1946 in London's Westminster Central Hall, a Methodist church opposite Westminster Cathedral. The UN emblem, a world map flanked by olive wreaths, was hung on the wall — the wrong way around. In the end, the delegates from 51 nations were so grateful to be allowed to use the premises that they voted to fund the repainting of the walls.

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