UN assembly meets amid continuing Covid-19 crisis

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A police officer stands at an empty entrance during the the 75th UN General Assembly in New York on September 22 last year. AFP

Presidents, prime ministers, potentates and kings will converge in New York for the 76th session of the UN General Assembly.

The annual meeting and debate among the UN’s 193 member states is nonetheless still shadowed by the clouds of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the deteriorating global security situation marked by conflicts and refugee flows.

Last year’s UN session, the high level week where key political figures speak and discuss key international issues, was largely online; thanks to WEBEX diplomacy it moved forward surprisingly smoothly. While some delegates spoke from the marble UN rostrum, most speakers addressed largely near empty audiences in the cavernous Assembly hall.

Sadly the UN’s much anticipated 75th anniversary celebrations were largely lost in the virtual reality of cyberspace.

Now restrictions have been loosened but not lifted. Delegations which usually comprise scores of diplomats, ministers, and media have been trimmed down to 10 people for each member state. Approximately 80 delegates will speak in person but the online hybrid option assures that some will take a pass on this formality without a built-in audience.

Let’s face it, the continuing Covid-19 crisis combined with a tumultuous political situation in the US for the past year has seriously marginalised the UN’s reach and message; a dependency on online diplomacy has sometimes seriously diluted the message where nuance and the “feel” of a meeting or discussion was lost in limbo to technical glitches or simply in virtual reality.

The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover remains a key concern; so does the military takeover in Myanmar and continuing violence in Syria, Yemen and Ethiopia.

Refugee spillovers from these crises strain neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Bangladesh.

Reflecting on the past year, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres stated somberly that the past UN session was “held under the shadow of a formidable foe: the Covid-19 pandemic. By any measure, this has been the most challenging period facing the world since World War II . . . The pandemic has deepened inequalities.”

Covid-19 has taken more than four million lives.

Guterres warned: “Business as usual is not an option.”

Addressing the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, Guterres stated candidly: “Even before the dramatic events of the last weeks, Afghans were experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.” He appealed for emergency aid of $600 million to bring urgent assistance to 11 million people by year’s end.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has slated $64 million in humanitarian aid for the Taliban-run state.

Anticipating wider terrorism in the wake of the Taliban victory, Guterres told correspondents: “The fact that in Afghanistan, the Taliban were able to win might embolden other groups in different parts of the world . . . We have seen several of them, not only congratulating the Taliban, but showing stronger enthusiasm about their own capacity. And these are two things that make me be very worried.”

He cited the deteriorating threat sub-Saharan Sahel where he warned: “The terrorists have been gaining ground and they must feel emboldened by the present situation. I’m very worried with the terrorism.

“I’m very worried that many countries are not prepared to fight it. And we need a much stronger unity and solidarity of countries in the fight against terrorism,” he implored.

But the aftermath of continuing conflicts, while sometimes overlooked, continue to grow.

The UN’s humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths offered a blunt assessment of the Syrian crisis. “Humanitarian needs in Syria are greater than they have ever been . . . an estimated 13 million people across Syria require humanitarian assistance. This is the highest since 2017.”

As a shocking reminder, at least six million refugees have also fled their country to neighbouring lands or to Europe. The situation in Myanmar is equally complex with a military junta which seized power earlier in the year. According to UN envoy Christine Schraner Burgener, Myanmar faces an attempt by the military to legitimise its rule. “This is an attempt to promote legitimacy against a lack of international action taken,” she said.

Even before the coup, Myanmar’s previous government ousted more than a million Rohingya Muslims who remain refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Interestingly, the Myanmar seat in the General Assembly as well as Afghanistan’s are both held by the previous governments; which will lead to an interesting credentials debate with the new regimes.

Nonetheless, New York City must now brace for the motorcades, the hyper security and the frozen streets that are part of the diplomatic folklore known as “UN Week”. It’s back again!!


John Metzler is a UN correspondent covering diplomatic and defence issues and the author of Divided Dynamism – The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.