The Latin America and the Caribbean Countries at the UN General Assembly (2016-2019): What are their speeches on sustainable development telling us?


Once a year,  the 193 UN Member States meet to share their main positions, concerns, and wishes on the international situation. Convened uninterruptedly since its first session in 1945, the United Nations General Debate arouses a special interest in the world press.

Not for less, the General Debate has been the scene of some of the most memorable moments in multilateral diplomacy:

1. In 1960 Nikita Krushev, furious at the Philippine leader's denunciation of Soviet imperialism, took off his shoes and repeatedly struck his bench with them as he tried to continue his speech.

2. Muammar Al-Gadaffi used that space to launch a tirade against the UN itself in 2009, throwing a copy of the Organization's Charter into the air.

3. In 2019, when the President of the United States, Donald Trump, affirmed that his presidency had been the best in the history of his country, participants laughed for more than a few seconds. "I didn't expect that," he said.

Latin America and the Caribbean leaders have also had memorable moments during the General Debate:

1. In 1960 Fidel Castro spoke for four and a half hours in the longest speech recorded in a General Debate.

2. In 2006, Hugo Chávez took the stand the day after George W. Bush did, and launched a well-remembered phrase: "This place smells like sulfur."

3. The speech delivered in 2017 by Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, just days after his country was devastated by Hurricane Irma, is one of the most moving presentations on the effects of climate change.

As a contribution to the analysis of what will happen during the 2020 General Debate, Cepei has reviewed the speeches presented by each of the 33 Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) countries since the approval of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to identify the references to topics considered priorities to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The result shows some unexpected elements.

The 2020 United Nations General Debate

Although countries are free to decide what issues they will address in their speeches, each session of the General Debate has a central theme that is proposed by the President of the General Assembly. During the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) the presidency will be held by Volkan Bozkir, from Turkey, who has defined the following theme “The Future we want, the United Nations we need: Reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism. Confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action”.

This year's General Debate will have some particular elements. In the first place, due to the pandemic, it will be the first opportunity in history in which it will be held virtually, and the speeches will be pre recorded and not presented live.

Second, it is a special session given that it will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UN, celebrating (also virtually) a special event on September 21.

Speeches will be broadcast on September 22-29, followed by three high-level virtual meetings:

--> The Biodiversity Summit (September 30)

--> The High Level Meeting to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women (October 1)

--> The High Level Meeting to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (October 2)

Source: Own elaboration

Speeches of LAC countries at the General Debate from a sustainable development perspective (2016-2019)


The analysis is based on the study of the speeches presented at the General Debate (2016-2019) by the 33 countries of our region, since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Each speech was analyzed following previously defined keywords to locate in its content references to each of the topics addressed in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and a set of general references to the 2030 Agenda. The results obtained were collated to ensure the coherence of the fragments identified. After reviewing them, the paragraphs that repeated the same concepts were annulled within each speech.

The final result allowed us to build two data subsets. The first one with fragments of the speeches that can be tied to the SDGs. Here it is necessary to clarify that given the interlinking that exists between these Objectives, the same paragraph can integrate elements of different Objectives. When this occurs, it is listed under each of the relevant SDGs.

The second data subset contains references that allow to identify certain elements of the 2030 Agenda beyond the SDGs, such as principles of the Agenda, development visions, relationships to other international documents.

Both subgroups are presented as interactive visualizations in this data story, in order to allow readers to work with them according to their own needs (and curiosity).


References to the SDGs

The first thing that stands out is that out of the 132 speeches surveyed, 121 include references to climate change, making SDG 13, Fight against Climate Change, the most considered by the region as a whole.

In the second place, we found that peace, security, and institutionality have 111 mentions, which makes SDG 16, Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, the second most mentioned SDG, followed by 103 mentions to partnerships, grouped under SDG 17, Partnerships to achieve the goals.

Source: Own elaboration

Poverty appeared in the fourth place (77 mentions), almost at the same level as references to inequality (73 mentions) and somewhat above the 66 mentions that can be linked to SDG 8 on decent work. However, the fight against hunger and the strengthening of food production systems lags behind: 40 mentions. SDG 2, Zero Hunger, occupies the position number 13, only above production and responsible consumption (SDG 12, 32 mentions); Innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9, 29 mentions), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11, 23 mentions), and water and sanitation (18 mentions), which together constitute the topics less referenced. 

Source: Own elaboration

Note: The interactive tool that has been included in this story allows us to carry out this same analysis for each of the 33 LAC countries in particular. We will limit ourselves here to present an overview by subregions.

Source: Own elaboration

We see that the pre-eminence of references on climate change responds to the subgroup of Caribbean countries, which was to be expected given that in three of the four years reviewed, hurricanes and tropical storms wreaked havoc in Caribbean countries a few weeks or days before the General Debate. In Latin America, climate change issues occupy a prominent place, but not the main one, since they are surpassed by peace, security, and institutionality (SDG 16).

Another difference is that while the Caribbean countries make more mentions to the protection of life below water (SDG 14), those of Latin America pay more attention to life on land (SDG 15).

While Latin American countries give priority to poverty (SDG 1) issues over those related to health (SDG 3), this relationship is reversed in the Caribbean countries. This is mainly due to the repeated references that the latter make to non-communicable diseases. This also explains, at least partially, that health is given more attention in the Caribbean speeches than education, conversely than in Latin America.

The relative priority given to partnerships for the goals is inverted in relation to that given to peace, justice, and strong institutions between both subregions: While the Caribbean devotes more attention to partnerships, Latin America shows a greater focus on peace and justice. This is aligned to the different needs and capacities of the countries. Once again, the need for post-disaster reconstruction explains the weight given by the Caribbean to partnerships.

Apart from these differences, both subregions present similarities: The environmental dimension (references to climate change, biodiversity, and terrestrial and marine ecosystems, SDG 13 to 15) has had greater attention than the economic or social. This breaks the logic of other documents related to the monitoring of the 2030 Agenda, prepared by these countries, such as the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs): The analysis of these showed that the environmental sphere of sustainable development is the most delayed.

References on the alignment with the 2030 Agenda

To go beyond the SDGs and explore the general alignment between the speeches and the 2030 Agenda, the presence of these other elements was analyzed:

--> General references to development and underdevelopment

--> General references to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs

--> Reference to the inclusion of the SDGs at the national level

--> Mention to "leaving no one behind"

--> References to the use of GDP as a measure of sustainable development

--> References to statistical systems/data

--> Mention to the Paris Agreement to combat Climate Change

--> Mention to the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development

--> Mention of Sendai's Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

The general result for the 132 speeches of the 33 LAC countries is as follows:

Source: Own elaboration

We see that the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs are highly referenced (102 mentions), and that general concerns about development continue to occupy a prominent place in the international positions of the region (74 mentions). In line with the previous analysis based on the SDGs, the Paris Agreement is repeatedly cited (68 mentions). These are the only three elements among those surveyed that appear in more than 50% of the speeches.

However, neither the Addis Ababa Action Agenda nor the Sendai Framework for Action has been sufficiently considered by LAC countries. 

Let's take a different comparative perspective and look at how this has changed over the years (2016-2019):

Source: Own elaboration

We can see that the 2030 Agenda has become an undisputed benchmark, although general references to development/underdevelopment have not been excluded from the debate. Likewise, we see the progressive loss of references that the Paris Agreement has gone through, even in a better situation than the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, which is not cited by any country in 2016 or 2019. It is also clear that in recent years the commitment to "leave no one behind" has been strongly integrated into the discourses of the LAC region in the General Debate. For Latin America and the Caribbean, the confrontation with the idea of using GDP as a measure of sustainable development is also a cross-cutting issue, a repeated claim throughout the analysis.


In an ever-changing map of international relations, this exercise allowed us to identify the way in which different elements have been brought to the General Debate by the countries of the region. Based on them, it is possible to recognize the issues to which they give greater relevance within the international agenda.

Additionally, this analysis allowed to identify areas in which the LAC countries have greater opportunities to reach agreements (such as, for example, addressing the notion of GDP as a measure of sustainable development) and issues in which work at the subregional level can be advanced with greater facility for having greater political interest.

Finally, the exercise carried out is a gateway to what this year's speeches will be, where, without a doubt, the new situation imposed by COVID-19 will have great impact. Also to identify possible shifts in thematic priorities and their alignment with sustainable development.