The UN General Assembly Session after Covid

By Syed Sharfuddin*

For the first time in post world war history, the UN General Assembly is holding a virtual plenary session at the GA Chamber at its headquarters by the FDR Ave in Manhattan, New York. This year world leaders are delivering their country statements through video link from their home countries. As we all know, no one listens to these speeches except media and diplomats who are paid a salary for doing so. These speeches are more for domestic audiences than for international actors. There is also nothing new in these statements which contain a formula mix of each country’s known international positions and domestic policies which impact on their commitment to UN positions, resolutions, declarations and loads of other international covenants and protocols.
It therefore makes economic sense to make such virtual sessions a permanent feature of the UN annual activity. Yes there will be a small collateral damage by way of loss of bilateral meetings of leaders in the margins of the UNGA, but these meetings were hardly substantive. These meetings provided only a photo opportunity to small leaders for shaking hands with tall leaders and addressing a joint press briefing to look equal. Heads of developing countries also found these meetings as an opportunity to reach out to the rich and powerful countries who run the world, the international financial institutions, the UN and its huge institutional family.
If the online country statement delivery experiment turns out to be successful then staggering these speeches like in the old days when a Daily Journal was compiled informing everyone which country head was scheduled to speak on an allotted day or time would make no sense. Online speeches can always take place individually or simultaneously in a span of 24 hours taking into account the differences in international time zones. In the new format, the President of the GA should request leaders to upload their speeches on the first day of the opening of the session. The UN bureaucracy can webcast these speeches live as these are delivered and within 24 hours add subtitles in the approved UN languages. Any one can access these speeches on the UNGA website without waiting for the present system of delivery which has a minimum wait of three days in its duration. Imagine how much UN cost will be saved by cutting down on the format and doing away with the simultaneous interpreters and paperwork. How much carbon print will be reduced by leaders and their entourages not flying to New York on jets and returning within a couple of days. Savings from not hiring those petrol guzzling bullet proof Limousines and extra long Saloons will help those countries who find it hard to get the money to attend the UN session in NY year after year. The citizens of Manhattan will be grateful for not having all these multinational foreigners disturb their lives, as well as traffic, in the monstrous last days of September. The US will take a sigh of relief for not having to deploy so much security detail on the incoming visitors and keep an eye on the unwanted characters. Countries too will be happy not seeing renegade foreign funded NGO representatives shouting negative slogans against their countries and governments in pickets and protests organised outside the old rickety UN building. Bloomingdales’ and Macy’s annual sales will go online with rich leaders from poor nations using Amazon delivery or instructing their PRs to collect the merchandise at their missions and despatch to their capitals by normal cargo. Most of this shopping is done by the ladies of the household to pass time while their miserable husbands are busy attending UN contact group meetings and attending UN business at unearthly hours.
I know old habits die hard and there will be a strong push from everyone to revert to the old format of the UNGA. But realistically this year’s online session, forced by Covid 19, is the best thing that has happened to the UN and should remain in place for the foreseeable future. Let us not forget that fanfare and flashy protocol cars aside, the real UN work is done behind the scenes by hard working diplomats sitting inside the UN Secretariat and at the over two hundred foreign missions, technically called Permanent Missions to the UN in New York, the seat of the UN.

*The author was Alternate Representative of the Commonwealth at the UNGA Sessions from 2000 to 2006. The Commonwealth is accredited to the UN as an observer organisation and is invited at the UNGA without speaking slot.