As the president of the United Nations General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir said, “We had to celebrate the 75th anniversary. Things went differently.”
“A distinct lack of drama”
On the first day – Tuesday – almost all permanent members of the UN Security Council speak: US President Donald Trump; Chinese President Xi Jinping; Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rarely speaks to the UN; French President Emmanuel Macron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani all address the Assembly Hall within hours of each other.
Within weeks of the US presidential election, there was much anticipation for what President Trump might have said in person about Iran, China, or maybe even Joe Biden. But it is unlikely to go off script in its White House taped statement. Without him, “there will be a distinct lack of drama,” said Richard Gowan, director of the United Nations at the International Crisis Group.
Thanks to the convenience of calling, there’s a bright side: the United Nations can claim the largest number of heads of state and government speaking this year – 170 in all. German Ambassador to the United Nations Christoph Heusgen cites participation as proof that “the underlying concept of multilateralism has not lost its appeal in the 75th year of the UN, even if the UN is not perfect”.
But who will look and listen? In typical years, attendance in the Assembly Hall dwindles after the President of the United States and other powerful dignitaries are gone – woe to the foreign minister stuck speaking at 9pm on Saturday night. In this virtual world at home, no world leader can be sure someone is tuning in.
“I really doubt the presidents, prime ministers, will be sitting at home with a bucket of popcorn watching all their counterparts,” Gowan says.
Another notable absence this year in a system that is committed to supporting gender equality: women. It won’t be until the 51st head of state or government on the list of speakers before a woman takes her turn, in this case the president of Slovakia Zuzana Čaputová.
Diplomacy without diplomats
Diplomacy may have been especially urgent this year, as the nations of the world face major differences on issues ranging from climate change to the Middle East.
But “diplomacy requires personal contact to be effective,” said UN Secretary-General Guterres, who should know – he usually meets hundreds of visiting officials in person.
The face-to-face meeting has been powerful in the past few years, with dozens of world leaders leading what is known as “diplomatic speed dating” from handshake to cocktail party; seeking funding from Wall Street bankers; and sometimes making a deal that can actually promote a little slice of peace somewhere. Plans for the Iranian nuclear deal gained momentum at the UNGA during the Obama administration.
In a normal year of nudging at the UNGA, “you have frank discussions and you know people – now we can’t meet in person,” laments UN senior political officer Rosemarie DiCarlo.
Even New York City restaurant and store owners, already shocked by the impact of the virus, will miss the waves of big-spending leaders and their delegations. However, some locals are thrilled.
Many New Yorkers have complained for decades about limo parades and security locks blocking public transportation and supporting traffic throughout Manhattan. “The people of New York will be happy to have their streets back for two weeks,” said interim British Ambassador Jonathan Allen.
And even some longtime UN diplomats and staff confess that they are secretly relieved to take a break from the grueling 20-hour days of the week at a high level, which traditionally involves entertaining or holding their president or prime minister’s hand with huge delegations. itinerant.
Gift bags with masks and hand sanitizer
The iconic Assembly Hall won’t be completely empty this week – one diplomat per country will be able to introduce their leader’s videotaped speech, speaking from their socially distant seats instead of from the podium.
“Until the situation is resolved, we must act in this way,” said French UN ambassador Nicolas de Rivière.
Countries were asked to send videos at least four days before the speech. Required execution time including speech and introduction: 15 minutes. Somewhere, record-breaking speeches Fidel Castro and Moammar Gaddafi are frowning.
Extra hand sanitizers will be installed in the wings of the room. Malta is donating gift bags with masks and disinfectants outside the hall.
In total, about 210 people are expected in the Assembly Hall, compared to 2,500 people with standing room in the regular weeks of the General Assembly, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
On the sidelines, largely virtual meetings will also take place on topics such as climate change, biodiversity and Lebanon.
It is a marked change in a symbolic moment. In 1945, the original members of the United Nations ignited diplomatic history by signing the famous charter of the fledgling organization in San Francisco.
Fast forward and the images ahead of what would have been the organization’s 75th gala anniversary couldn’t be more ominous: smoke from the fires cloud the air of San Francisco, while in New York, the great “celebration” ‘General Assembly will be practically empty.