The opening of the new session of General Assembly marking the start of a landmark year for the UN has eerie echoes of the start of the global organisation 75 years ago when the world was reeling from a crisis as well.
Then it was the founding 51 countries, India among them, emerging from the devastating World War II had just ended. This year it is the Covid-19 pandemic that has the 193 UN members in its deathly grip.
Just before the 75th session of the Assembly began yesterday, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has cut a swathe through our lives and our communities. We are all dealing with high levels of uncertainty; right now, we are still in the middle of the fog.”
The session was planned as a grand celebration of the UN that had seen nations rise from the ashes of the World War. It had since taken strides in fighting poverty and has seen no global war.
Presidents, prime ministers and potentates were to have attended the 75th session, renewing the pledge for a better world.
But the Covid pandemic laid waste to their dreams.
Instead, the world leaders will be speaking through pre-recorded videos to the Assembly’ high-level meeting next week at its chamber in New York with only a token cadre of socially-distanced diplomats.
“This year will be a critical one in the life of our organisation,” Guterres said at the start of the 75th session.
Before receiving the Assembly’s ornate gavel from 74th session President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande marking the transition, Volkan Bozkir, who will head 75th session, drew attention to the other danger to the UN — unilateralism.
“No state can combat this pandemic alone. Social distancing will not help at the international level. Unilateralism will only strengthen the pandemic,” Bozkir said.
“At this time of crisis, it is our responsibility to strengthen people’s faith in multilateral cooperation and international institutions, with the UN at their centre,” the new General Assembly chief said.
Outlining his mission, Bozkir said: “I see this hall as the parliament of humanity. And I intend to use this platform to amplify the voices of the most vulnerable people in the world. Here in the chief deliberative, policy-making and representative organ, we must consider the concerns of all people in need or under oppression.”
In a sign of the times, the gavel, a hatchet-shaped Icelandic artifact known as the Thor gavel, was not ceremonially passed along physically, but laid by Muhammad-Bande on a table and picked up by Bozkir after an aide sprayed it with a sanitizer.
India will have a front-row seat during the 75th session of the Assembly, which runs through September next year.
The seating is arranged alphabetically for each session on the basis of a lottery, which Iceland won giving it the first seat. India follows it on the alphabetic listing and Permanent Representative T.S. Tirumurti took the second seat.
Only one delegate from each country is allowed into the Assembly chamber in order to maintain social distancing.
And this was an advance from the way the last session was conducted after the pandemic, mostly without in-person meetings and except for elections, the voting conducted through the “silence procedure” that required unanimity to pass resolutions.
Later at a news conference, Bozkir said that physical presence, even if it was on a limited basis, was needed for diplomacy because the body language and the “electricity” emanating were important.
Also, he said, it would be possible to vote on resolutions and not give a virtual veto to any country as it was under the “silence procedure”.
He said that some leaders, including Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had wanted to attend the high-level meeting of the session that starts September 22, but could not because of the 14-day quarantine requirement.
The quarantine imposed by New York State seemed to apply to only leaders coming to the meeting from abroad.
The Health Department’s quarantine advisory mentions only about 30 US states and no foreign countries and travellers coming from abroad to New York airports have been told to register for quarantine.
There has been speculation that US President Donald Trump may come in person to the meeting next Tuesday, but Bozkir said that he had not seen any official notification.