NEW YORK: As his one-year tenure as the president of the UN General Assembly comes to an end, Volkan Bozkir spoke of the necessity for diplomatic talks to be held “over coffee,” with “handshaking and eye contact” if they are to be successful.
“Nothing can replace this kind of communication,” said the Turkish diplomat in his final briefing to reporters at the UN headquarters in New York. “It helps people to understand what others think and (to gauge) whether there’s a possibility for a compromise.”
His statement came at the closure of a year during which UNGA organizers tirelessly negotiated health guidelines with authorities of their host city in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last year’s gathering, which took place entirely online.
New York, the pandemic’s epicenter in the US last year, saw a 90 percent decline in visitors, causing untold economic losses, especially in the city’s bottom line.
Its hotels, which usually reap about $20 million from UNGA attendees’ room rentals alone, were instead hosting essential workers, offering them more than 17,000 free nights.
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This year, although on the outside everything seems to have gone back to normal in the city — with its traffic congestion, deafening noise, and thriving restaurants and bars — the delta variant of COVID-19 still looms large, and the recent rise of infections is keeping both city officials and federal authorities on their toes.
“I hope that with the support of technology, we’ll be able to minimize the negative dimension of a General Assembly that isn’t done in the full presence of full delegations from all over the world,” said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“This is what I believe is the best way to serve diplomacy, the best way to create contacts, to forge forms of dialogue. The presence of everybody, here, together, during a meaningful period, is a very important instrument that nothing can replace,” he added.
“We’ll be … mobilizing all our resources to allow for a maximum of interaction among member states.”
And so, on the eve of the UNGA’s 76th session, with the signature high-level debate only one week away, there is still lingering uncertainty as to who will come to New York — a stark reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
Although the UN has made vaccination mandatory for its staff, it has issued no such requirement for foreign diplomats, triggering condemnation from New York City Council, which said the decision will expose foreign delegations and the city to serious risk.
The US mission to the UN urged heads of delegation to send a pre-recorded video message to avoid turning the UNGA into a “superspreader event.”
The mission said in a letter: “The United States needs to make clear our call, as the host country, for all UN-hosted meetings and side events, beyond the General Debate, to be fully virtual.”
The UNGA had already decided that only four delegates, including the head of state or government, could attend the debate in the Assembly Hall during the high-level week.
This, however, has added to the hesitation of world leaders who tend to travel with a large entourage.
It is not even clear whether the president of the host country, Joe Biden, will come to Manhattan or will send a link from Washington, DC.
Last year, then-President Donald Trump spurned the UNGA, sending a video shortly before the beginning of the session.
According to a very provisional list of speakers issued by the UN, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be represented in person on a ministerial level, whereas Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI will send pre-recorded messages.
Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas will travel to New York, as will his Tunisian counterpart Kais Saied, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Lebanese President Michel Aoun. The prime ministers of Iraq and Sudan will also attend in person.
Whether world leaders will gather online or in person, however, the stakes could not be higher this year for the world body: The pandemic rages on amid a continuing politicization of vaccine distribution.
The pandemic has fueled new conflicts, exacerbated older ones, caused an unprecedented wave of displacement and humanitarian disasters, and widened the inequality gap between nations.
A recent spike in natural disasters — from fires to hurricanes, droughts and floods — has also prompted UN officials to sound the alarm yet again, urging those listening to immediately begin reducing emissions and speeding up the transition to clean energy.
It is becoming more and more clear that women are disproportionately affected by such disasters, and the call for women’s rights, inclusion and gender parity across all levels will be loud this year.
The president-elect of the UNGA, the Maldives’ Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, has vowed not to take part in any panel that is not gender-balanced.
Guterres released a landmark report on Friday titled “Our Common Agenda,” setting out his vision for the future of global cooperation.
He gave a severely critical overview of the plight of the world, and warned of the risk of a future of “serious instability and chaos.”
He added: “From the climate crisis to our suicidal war on nature and the collapse of biodiversity, our global response is too little, too late. Unchecked inequality is undermining social cohesion, creating fragilities that affect us all.”
The UN chief offered two visions of the future: One in which rising temperatures will make the planet inhabitable and COVID-19 will perpetually mutate because rich countries hoard their vaccines, or one where vaccines are shared, recovery is sustainable, and the global economy is reconfigured to become more resilient and inclusive.
Guterres called for a new era of multilateralism in which countries come together to achieve a vision of a world at peace; where terrorism, crime and human trafficking are kept at bay; and where the world comes together to end poverty, protect the vulnerable and create a sustainable economy.
UNGA highlights include a high-level meeting on Yemen, a high-level dialogue on energy — the first of its kind since the early 1980s — and a food system summit.