Pandemic retools diplomacy as world leaders gather virtually

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Pandemic retools diplomacy as world leaders gather virtually

Saturday, September 19, 2020

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — With COVID-19 still careening across the planet, the annual gathering of its leaders in New York will be replaced this year by a global patchwork of prerecorded speeches, another piece of upheaval in a deeply divided world turned topsy-turvy by a pandemic with no endpoint in sight.

As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it: "The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis unlike any in our lifetimes, and so this year's General Assembly session will be unlike any other, too."

This is the first time in the 75-year history of the United Nations that there will be no in-person meeting. Gone will be the accompanying traffic jams, street closures for VIP motorcades, stepped-up security to protect leaders and noisy crowds in the halls of the sprawling United Nations complex overlooking New York's East River.

Only one diplomat from each of the UN's 193 member nations will be allowed into the vast General Assembly hall. All will be socially distanced and masked.

Guterres said the virtual meeting will see speeches from "the largest number of heads of state and government ever" — 171, according to the latest speakers list.

World leaders are not barred from coming to speak in person. But presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and ministers travel with large entourages and at a time of pandemic and quarantine requirements, including in New York City, the General Assembly members agreed that crowds needed to be avoided.

They recommended that leaders each deliver a 15-minute pre-recorded speech, to be shown in the assembly hall and introduced by the ambassador or a diplomat from the country.

Turkish diplomat and politician Volkan Bozkir, who took over the one-year presidency of the General Assembly on Tuesday, said 10 leaders wanted to come to the UN to speak, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He lamented that they aren't able to because of US quarantine requirements.

This leaves US President Donald Trump as the one leader who could travel to New York. Even though reports say he will not be appearing in person, the metal barricades police always put in place for a presidential visit went up Friday along First Avenue outside the United Nations.

The high-level meetings begin Monday with a commemoration of the UN's 75th anniversary, including statements from world leaders and formal adoption of a declaration approved by all 193 member nations. It recalls the UN's successes and failures and calls for "greater action" to build a post-pandemic world that is more equal, works together and protects the planet.

The United Nations was born out of the horrors of World War II with a mission to save succeeding generations from the scourge of conflict. The declaration says the UN has helped mitigate dozens of conflicts and saved hundreds of thousands of lives through humanitarian action. But it points to a world "plagued by growing inequality, poverty, hunger, armed conflicts, terrorism, insecurity, climate change, and pandemics".

"The stakes could not be higher," Guterres told a news conference Wednesday.

But even without face-to-face interactions, Bozkir said that after six months of almost entirely virtual meetings, "I think with all the high-level meetings and summits, we're going to show that the UN is back."

"Many people were thinking, `Where is the UN?" he said. "So now we will say, `Here is the UN.”


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