COVID-19: In a first, world leaders cannot attend UNGA session

The first day of the high-level General Debate of 75th UNGA session is likely to be on September 22

United Nations, Makki declared terrorists
UNSC's sanctions committee said that Makki was involved in raising funds, recruiting and radicalising youth to violence and planning attacks in India | Photo: iStock

For the first time in 75 years, world leaders will not travel to the UN headquarters in New York to attend the UN General Assembly session this September due to the COVID-19 pandemic, announced the UNGA President Tijjani Muhammad-Bandeon Monday (June 9).

The first day of the high-level General Debate of the 75th UNGA session, expected to begin September 15, is likely to be on September 22, according to SDG Knowledge Hub website, an online resource center for news on the United Nations.

“World leaders cannot come to New York because they cannot come as single individuals. A president doesn’t travel alone. We don’t expect therefore to have presidents here,” Tijjani Muhammad-Bande told a news conference.

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Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which is battering nations across the world, in-person meetings at the UN headquarters were highly unlikely in the coming months, added the UNGA president.

He said his office along with UN Member States were looking at mechanisms to ensure the General Debate, where leaders speak about national and multinational priorities, is held in a format compatible with the coronavirus restrictions.

“In terms of the broad direction, we are not going to have Heads of State and Government come into New York because it is impossible at this stage to think that it is possible in September,” he said, adding that the General Debate will be not be shifted to a future date and will be held as scheduled.

“But we cannot have it in-person as has happened in the last 74 years,” said the president.

He said the UN Secretariat, Member States, his office as well as other stakeholders were discussing possibilities of conducting the General Debate and a clear direction will emerge in the next two weeks. “We have had many conversations around the subject. And I’m confident in the next two weeks the mechanics and the broad direction will become more clear,” he said.

While in-person meetings seem highly unlikely in September due to the pandemic, there is a possibility that “maybe hundred or so” people could be allowed to be present in the General Assembly hall for the high-level week “but not a whole lot of people coming to New York or coming to the General Assembly,” he said.

The president said that several logistical and security arrangements have to be made for a visiting world leader and there is still uncertainty over what COVID-19-related medical guidance will be in place in the US and New York in September. The first phase of reopening in New York City began on Monday and the UN too is gearing up for its return to normalcy in three phases.

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Last month, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had suggested Muhammad-Bande to hold the General Assembly session under a “different format”, such as using pre-recorded messages provided by world leaders, saying it was “highly unlikely” that Heads of State and Government will be able to travel to New York for the high-level week due to COVID-19.

Guterres had said that the medical community anticipated that the COVID-19 pandemic “will continue to cycle with varying degrees of severity” across the world in the coming months, requiring international travel restrictions to remain in place for some destinations, as also social distancing measures and restrictions on large gatherings.

The UN chief had suggested that the General Assembly President consider using pre-recorded messages provided by Heads of State and Government or Ministers, with physical presence in the General Assembly Hall limited to one delegate per delegation based in New York.

The General Debate is held at the beginning of each session of the General Assembly in September and usually runs for over a week when leaders and ministers from the 193 UN Member States address the world from the iconic lectern in the General Assembly hall.

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The high-level General Assembly session had particular significance this year as it would have commemorated 75 years of the existence of the United Nations and would have seen high participation from leaders from 193 Member States to mark the anniversary.

Muhammad-Bande said while no one knows how long it would take to achieve normalcy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, commemorating the milestone UN anniversary cannot be postponed either.

“We cannot hold off such an important celebration because it is an important moment for all of us and facing challenges is one of the things the UN should do. The celebration of the 75th anniversary is not conceived as one moment. It’s conceived as some activity that can proceed throughout the year,” he said.

(With inputs from agencies)