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.

“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. 

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, from behind his face mask, which sports the UN logo.

At a time when the world is facing the COVID-19 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.

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 Erdogan, 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.

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. 

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.” 

SOURCE: France 24

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