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UN marks 75 years with virtual meeting as pandemic keeps world leaders at home

An empty United Nations General Assembly hall, September 18th, 2020.
An empty United Nations General Assembly hall, September 18th, 2020. © Jessica Le Masurier

The United Nations marks its 75th anniversary on Monday but, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there will be barely any guests. World leaders will stay at home for what is usually the biggest diplomatic event of the year, sending pre-recorded speeches for the first-ever, almost entirely virtual United Nations General Assembly.

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The only audible sound in the huge empty hall of the United Nations General Assembly, ahead of this year’s scaled-down General Assembly, or UNGA as it is often dubbed, is a small child crying, “I don’t know what that’s about” quips Stéphane Dujarric, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ spokesperson, from behind his face mask, which sports the UN logo.

Two years ago in the same hall, it was not the sound of screams but laughter that rang out as US President Donald Trump, whom his opponents have described as a petulant child, gave a self-congratulating, nationalistic speech. At the time, his speech amused UN delegates but the policies Trump previewed in this speech turned out to be no laughing matter.

“I don’t think anyone finds Donald Trump funny at the UN anymore,” observed Richard Gowan, the UN Director of International Crisis Group. “This year, he’s really ramped up his aggressive diplomacy in the multilateral system by pulling out of the WHO and picking a big fight with allies like France and the UK over whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran.” 

Donald Trump is no friend of the world’s most important multilateral organisation, yet UN staff (most of them working virtually at home) expressed disappointment when Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told reporters last Thursday that the US president was no longer considering coming to New York to give his UNGA address in person. He is expected to send in a pre-recorded speech from the White House.

There will be no wine-filled luncheons, while a teetotal Trump sips on a Coca-Cola, no press scrums chasing after the US president and the traffic around 42nd Street and 1st Avenue will run smoothly, unimpeded by the security barriers, heavily armed police and secret agents usually posted around the UN during UNGA.

Trump’s presence might have brought some action and excitement to the high-level week - perhaps his advisors decided that the optics of a president standing before an empty hall, in an organisation where the US has found itself increasingly isolated, would not look good. 

“Trump, I think, will have a very tough, ‘America First’ message in his speech to the General Assembly," said Richard Gowan. “I think he will tell other leaders that if they don’t work better with the US in future then he would be willing to walk away from the UN. That said, I don’t think that Trump is actually going to crash the US-UN relationship entirely. He knows that the US does need the UN, for example, to help manage sanctions on North Korea which is a priority for this administration.”

At a time when the world is facing a global pandemic, economic inequalities, a climate crisis and rising tensions between countries, diplomacy is needed more than ever.

When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addressed the press ahead of the General Assembly, he told journalists that “In this 75th anniversary year, we face our own 1945 moment.” He stressed the importance of meeting that moment and working together to ‘recover better’ from the current crisis. 

The theme at this year's General Assembly is “confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateralism”. A debate on global governance post-Covid19 will take place on Thursday, September 24 at ministerial level. Speculation is brewing over how China will position itself, especially if Trump is very critical of China in his GA speech on Tuesday. 

In the absence of presidents and prime ministers, countries, for the most part, will be represented by their ambassadors. A single chair has been put in place for one representative for each country inside the GA hall.

“If this were a typical first day of the high-level week of the General Assembly on a Tuesday, there would be 2,500 people packed into this room. This year you’ll have a bit over 200 people,” explained the UN secretary-general's spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, who has been present for the last two decades of UN General Assemblies. 

“You get an electricity, a magic of having all these heads of state, heads of government in one room and you won’t have that.”

Were it not for the Covid-19 pandemic, this year could have been one of the best-attended UNGAs ever; the leaders of the world’s superpowers, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping, were slated to attend in person for the UN’s 75th anniversary.

A dozen or so heads of state, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, did reportedly consider attending in person but a 14-day quarantine imposed by New York State for anyone who has travelled to a country deemed at risk by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made travel to New York near impossible for world leaders.

Jessica Le Masurier reports from the United Nations Headquarters in New York
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Instead, the UN asked them to send recorded messages, no longer than 15 minutes (and preferably shorter), four days in advance. Despite the request for short speeches, the UN will not cut off recordings mid-speech.

The speakers list for Tuesday, September 22 starts with Secretary-General António Guterres, who intends to send a stark warning about the dire state of the world; followed by Brazil’s Bolsonaro and then Donald Trump. China’s Xi Jinping, Russia's Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani also speak on Tuesday morning. 

North Korea comes last on the list of speakers. A virtual summit might have been the opportunity for Kim Jong-un to actually address the UN himself, but the UN has confirmed that the North Korean leader will not be the one giving the video address.

The UN is concerned about potentially left-field video entries from some states. When questioned over how many heads of state had left it until the last minute to send their videos in, Dujarric said he did not have "the naughty or nice list." 

The speakers' list also indicates that the first woman to speak, Bolivia’s interim President Jeanine Añez, will be number 68. Only 11 of the 196 speakers will be women. 

The hundreds of bilateral meetings that usually take place between countries on the sidelines of the high-level week will not happen this year. “Nothing replaces human contact," explained France's UN Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière, "and so we urgently need to have something more than video conferences, which just aren’t sufficient." 

Most leaders are expected to pitch their speeches at domestic audiences. 

"Prime ministers and presidents are not going to be sitting in their offices watching each others' video speeches — that's absurd," said Gowan. 

"Everyone will watch Trump, everyone will watch Xi Jinping, especially if Xi makes a strong statement about how China has a leadership role at the UN now. And then everyone's gonna switch off."

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