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Covid Forces the UN to Pause Physical Meetings Just as It Slowly Returns to Normal

Volkan Bozkir, the new president of the UN General Assembly, Sept. 10, 2020. A Turkish diplomat, Bozkir wants to raise the UN’s profile amid the distractions of the pandemic. Coincidentally, he was rebuffed in a request to meet New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, a week before the UN reported a flare-up of Covid-19. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

After finally reopening the United Nations Security Council chamber to physical meetings in October, the UN just announced that five members of one national delegation have tested positive for Covid-19. That means ending all in-person meetings in the Council chamber and General Assembly sessions in New York City headquarters for the rest of the week while the UN assesses the extent of the exposure and conducts contact tracing.

Russia leads the Security Council in October as the rotating president, and its wish to have Council members return to in-person meetings in the chamber came true early in the month. The Council has been meeting virtually since the pandemic lockdown in New York City was imposed in late March, a change that the Russians, traditionalists at heart, resisted. After the lockdown began to be eased in the metro area, the Council met occasionally in a large conference room in the UN, at the urging of the German delegation, but not in the chamber itself. That space was fitted with plexiglas partitions for social distancing this month.

An Oct. 26 statement from the office of the UN president of the General Assembly said that all Assembly and Council in-person meetings were canceled only for the next day because of the new Covid-19 cases: “Following information from the Secretariat regarding five COVID infections at a Mission of a Member State, the advice of the Medical Unit is to cancel in-person meetings at UNHQ tomorrow, Tuesday 27 October, pending contact tracing. Accordingly, after consulting the Main Committee Chairs, and in light of the need to safeguard public health, all in-person meetings of the Main Committees of the General Assembly tomorrow are cancelled.”

On Tuesday, the Security Council meeting on Syria was supposed to be held in person but suddenly switched to online. A diplomat from the Niger mission confirmed with PassBlue that the five Covid-19 cases originated among its delegation. Niger is currently an elected member of the Council.

Coincidentally the week before, the president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, a Turkish diplomat, announced that he had asked to meet with the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, “to foster dialogue and coordination between our two administrations,” according to a statement released on Oct. 23.

He also revealed that day that de Blasio had declined the invitation for the two to meet. Bozkir, who became president of the 75th session of the Assembly in mid-September, has been striving for more in-person Assembly meetings at the UN, albeit with local health authorities’ guidelines. From the start of his yearlong term, Bozkir said he wanted to raise the profile of the UN globally as he contends that the Covid-19 crisis has shrouded the institution from public view.

In September, Bozkir noted at his first and only media briefing so far that some in-person meetings had started again at UN headquarters, saying, “Without physical meetings, I don’t think UN can be followed throughout the world to virtual meetings.” Nothing, he added, can replace person-to-person communication between diplomats.

But when “everything went virtual” at the UN — in early April — people “in many parts of the world,” Bozkir said, started asking, “Why is the United Nations not meeting?”

He added that though the lockdowns forced people to migrate online, the UN appeared to be “not working.” (UN public meetings, however, have been webcast live for most of the duration of the pandemic.)

With the UN pausing in-person meetings again this week, Bozkir’s goals may be thwarted for now. He has also requested a meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York State but has not heard back from his office yet.

With his request for a meeting with de Blasio turned down — and no reason given, according to Bozkir’s press office — Bozkir tweeted his reaction on Oct. 23 along with releasing his statement, saying: “On the eve of United Nations Day, I fondly acknowledge the deep ties that have always existed between our Organization and the City of New York.”

The UN, he added, whose headquarters have been in New York City since “the middle of the last century,” is “happy to generate billions of dollars in economic benefits and tens of thousands of jobs in New York City.”

Then he wrote: “I was saddened to learn that the Mayor was unavailable to meet with me. This lack of interaction concerns me as policies devised by the City of New York directly affect the work of the United Nations and by extension millions of lives across the globe.

“Nevertheless, I will continue my work as President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, in the hopes of protecting the world’s most vulnerable populations and advancing efforts towards a healthier and more sustainable planet. I hope the City of New York will continue to be a strong partner in that regard.”

Penny Abeywarena, New York City’s international affairs commissioner, responded to Bozkir’s statement, saying on Oct. 23: “We are surprised and saddened by the statement released today by His Excellency Mr. Volkan Bozkir, the newly-appointed president of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. Mayor Bill de Blasio has an excellent relationship with UN Secretary General António Guterres. And over the course of the de Blasio Administration, the City of New York has had a deeply collaborative relationship with Mr. Bozkir’s predecessors. . . .”

One pressing issue for the UN’s 193 member states is the New York State rule since March mandating that travelers entering the state from certain countries, all but 31 globally, must self-quarantine for 14 days. This rule has been on the radar of Bozkir, one UN official told PassBlue, as it affects the Assembly’s work and diplomats who want to come to the UN — or leave New York City and then return.

The rule sank efforts by high-level officials of the General Assembly to hold its annual opening session physically in September. Instead, it held its most important gathering of world leaders by screening prerecorded videos.

The session was also a financial blow for New York City. Every year, the gathering of world leaders and their entourages descend on the metro area for about a week. The revenue generated by the influx is lucre for the local tourism industry and other economic sectors of the city, the state and the region. It is also a prestigious event, as presidents from around the world jet in to meet in the UN and outside it, creating a buzz that the city thrives on every September.

According to a 2016 study done by the de Blasio administration and based on 2014 data, the UN produced a total economic output of $3.69 billion that year for the city. About 16,000 people in the UN community worked every day in the city, and they “took home household earnings of approximately $1.64 billion,” the report said — helping to create and sustain 7,940 jobs for New Yorkers.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has not commented on Bozkir’s requests for meetings with de Blasio and Cuomo.

Dulcie Leimbach is the founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal) as well as from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, NHK’s English channel and Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. She has also worked as an editorial consultant to various UN agencies. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver before she worked in New York at Esquire magazine and Adweek. In between, she was a Wall Street foreign-exchange dealer. Leimbach has been a fellow at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and was a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.

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