DISTANCED ASSEMBLY, DISTANCED U.N.?

 

OCTOBER 1, 2020

DISTANCED ASSEMBLY, DISTANCED U.N.?

September in New York this year was markedly different. Habitually, when the United Nations General Assembly opens, streets around that area are mostly blocked. Protracted barriers are guarded by police officers restricting passage to limited holders of special passes. Security measures usually spread from First to Fifth Avenues. The barriers placed on 22 September were lifted by morning of the following day. As the General Debate opened, First Avenue was flowing with traffic, public transport, including busses, and puzzled hurried pedestrians.

One more unintended consequence of the unprecedented persistent global virus was the erosion of a landmark U.N. 75th anniversary session. An initially festive gathering for which a special Under-Secretary-General is designated to oversee was eroded into a distanced solitary gathering of almost subdued single delegates. The new Assembly President, Turkey's accomplished diplomat, Volkan Bozkir, made the best out of an almost impossible task. His management had a positive internal impact. A large flag of Turkey floated in front of the renovated Turkish mission opposite the U.N. delegates entrance. Yet overwhelming limitations are beyond any individual control -- not only due to Covid 19 -- but to other factors, including a negative impact of a drastic action by the government of Turkey on the status of the global cultural icon Aya Sofia.

A published list of speakers indicated a week-long agenda of statements. In fact, all heads of state and government made recorded messages. A maximum of two only in each delegation attended, keeping "social distance". One delegate introduced a virtual video of each listed speaker.

A noted exception was the President of the "host country", the United States. President Donald Trump also happens to be a New Yorker, despite his recent official move to Florida. He was born and raised across the East River from U.N. Headquarters, has a hotel bearing his name across the street from the Assembly compound, and, among other things, a Trump Tower on nearby Fifth Avenue. Habitually, the U.S. ("host country") President is the first main speaker after an initial statement by Brazil. Although his recorded statement focused on the virus and China's adversity, he ended with: "God bless the U.S.A." and "God bless the U.N." President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany cautioned about the tense relations between powerful countries. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who was present in person, made an outstanding opening statement calling for a unified global response to the global virus, maintained his appeal for a worldwide ceasefire, and appealed for collective efforts to advance human development. Most Asian and African heads of state demanded more financial resources to help their societies handle the global virus, which some described as the "fifth horseman of the apocalypse". They would need about $100 billion annually for the next three years to cope. Debt cancellation would help free national resources. A number of African leaders, including the president of Niger, a current member of the Security Council, and the Cote d'Ivoire president stressed the need for special drawing rights at the International Monetary Fund.

A main concern is the impact on an already "distanced" performance of the United Nations. We certainly hope that every effort will be made to maintain -- indeed highlight -- its role, which will be substantively needed worldwide at these crucial times.