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What to expect from this year’s UN General assembly, so far

A view of the Secretariat Building, with Members States’ flags flying in the foreground, at United Nations headquarters in New York, 2017. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

This year’s United Nations General assembly could make or break the future of in-person meetings at the gathering in New York City.

After a year of carefully negotiating, adapting, and crafting health guidelines, UNGA organisers are hoping to avoid a repeat of last year's first almost entirely virtual gathering.

But the threat of the Delta variant in the United States still looms large and many countries will likely wait until the last minute to confirm their plans as to whether to travel to the UN in September.

Yet a provisional schedule, first obtained by PassBlue and Geneva Solutions, provides insights into which countries may come to New York City and which are not likely to make the trip. The high-level week – the annual general debate – starts on 21 September and lasts until the 27th.

The organisation of this year’s opening session of the 76th General Assembly has already met some roadblocks. Mark D. Levine, a member of the New York City Council, denounced that the UN (like its host country) isn’t requiring that people attending the UNGA be vaccinated to visit New York City, tweeting on 13 August “The UN is not requiring vaccination for participants. This will expose them, and NYC, to serious risk. The UN needs to announce now that vax will be mandatory.”

In a surprise reversal only a few days before the high-level week started, New York City authorities sent a letter to the President of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, making vaccination mandatory for visiting delegates. The decision infuriated the Russians, and undoubtedly complicated some delegations' plans.

“There is improvement [from last year] but there is also worry,” Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, Nigeria’s ambassador to the UN and President of the 74th General Assembly, said in an exclusive interview.  “The urge is to be cautious, to limit the number that are coming in, they have to come and to still have substantive discussions.”

You’re welcome, but please don’t come

The US mission to the UN sent a letter to its fellow 192 UN missions on 16 August urging them to send a pre-recorded message to avoid the risk of the week becoming a “superspreader event”.

“The United States needs to make clear our call, as the host country, for all UN-hosted meetings and side events, beyond the General Debate, to be fully virtual,” the letter says. It also says that “heads of delegation should consider delivering their statements to the UN General Assembly’s General Debate by video.”

While some countries inferred that the letter was a request to stay home, many of them saw it coming and had planned only small delegations to make the trip, as the General Assembly had already decided that only four delegates, including the head of state or government, could attend the debate in the Assembly Hall during the high-level week.

“The desire is to have an improvement over what we had last year, a hybrid meeting, which allowed one delegate, part, one person per delegation,” Bande said. “The improvement in terms of vaccinations has been clear in the position now, so this desire is not to be fully hybrid, from my standpoint as a member of the assembly, not as President.”

“I think many are coming,” Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, told journalists in mid-August. “We hear that many delegations will be represented in-person, I believe, including ours.”

Estonia Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets didn’t see the US letter as an invitation not to come to New York City, but her country is still taking a wait and see approach: “We follow the rules,” she said, “but we suggest to have a debate to have the conversation as much as possible during this week.” Estonia is planning to send a team of 10-15 people to Manhattan.

While many heads of state and government want to come, many countries are facing several factors affecting their decisions. World leaders tend to travel with an entourage: security, communication, chief of staff, photographers – so it’s hard to cut down the team. With only a maximum of four people allowed to sit in the General Assembly Hall during the high-level week for each country, some delegations are trying to figure out how to manage that restriction. One country even said it was trying to “borrow” seats in the Hall of other countries who may not be sending a delegation. Neither the Secretariat nor the office of the President of the General Assembly was able to say if swapping was a possibility.

The UN is supposed to have “bilateral booths” for meetings between delegates inside the headquarters. A June 23 letter sent by the current President of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, says: “Presence of leaders and Ministers in New York for high-level week will result in significant opportunities for bilateral meetings, which will be logistically challenging to accommodate in Midtown, especially for smaller delegations, and difficult to justify from a health perspective when UNHQ itself would have more room than hotels or Missions.“

Liimets thinks meetings can be productive while at the UN: “We can use hotels, we can use our offices, and of course we need to brainstorm where to organise the side events,” she said, “but I would say that here in New York, there are many appropriate facilities like Bohemia house of the Czech Republic.”

To vax or not to vax?

After City Council member Levine complained about delegations' vaccinations status, the UN spokesperson was asked repeatedly how it would ensure that UNGA would be held safely in the pandemic without requiring every diplomat attending to be vaccinated.

After much deliberation between the UN and health authorities, the UN had initially decided to make vaccination mandatory for its own staff members but not for foreign diplomats. While diplomats coming to New York were asked to “voluntarily disclose” their vaccination status, the UN has decided to go with an “honour system”.

​​“We're dealing with a very responsible group of people from around the world,” Bande said.  “Nonetheless, the advice is to continue to state what the circumstance is, for the rules of the UN, as well as the city itself, for the delegations coming into the city have been fully cleared and tested. As to whether we'll need vaccine certificates, I think this is a hugely difficult call to make and discussions should continue.”

Everybody inside the UN headquarters must wear a mask and, according to the secretary general spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric, “to align with what's going on here in New York City, people who use ... the dining facilities on campus will also need to show proof of vaccination”.

In its 9 September letter, New York City states that as the UN Headquarters is considered a “convention center”, delegates must follow the city's guidelines of providing proofs of vaccination. Russia's letter asked for an urgent meeting on 16 September to convene on the matter, but it's still unclear what the response was on the UN's side.

Is America back?

While everything remains in flux, the UNGA speakers' list is indicative, for now, as to who is scheduled to come to New York City in person. One is the host country’s president.

The US is the second country due to speak at the General Assembly and the White House has confirmed that President Joe Biden will attend in person. It will be his first UNGA as US president and a chance to reaffirm his “America is back” foreign policy at the UN high-level body.

If he does, Biden will come during a difficult time for US foreign policy, amid the 20th commemoration of 9/11 and the controversial withdrawal and evacuation of Afghanistan. When asked about the country’s plan, a spokesperson for the US mission said: “We continue to monitor the conditions and health risks in New York and around the world. At this time, we do not have information to announce on travel or the US delegation. As plans come together we will provide you with more information."

Last year, President Donald Trump snubbed the event, sending his video only a few hours before.

Who’s coming so far

Among some of the countries to attend  – if the Covid situation doesn’t change – are the leaders of the United Kingdom, India, Ireland, Turkey, Switzerland and Moldova. On 7 September, France's ambassador to the UN said that President Emmanuel Macron was not coming to UNGA. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are not expected to attend – and Russia will instead send its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to speak on behalf of Moscow. China’s deputy prime minister is also scheduled to show up. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari also plans to come, according to Bande.

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This article is a joint publication with PassBlue, the US-based independent non-profit journalist site covering UN news

This story was updated to include the latest information.