Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

BLUE SMOKE: A new monthly newsletter, from PassBlue and UNA–UK, which shines a spotlight on senior appointments at the UN

A Covid-19 Vaccine for UN Folks?; Steering Biden to the UN; Guterres Goes to Germany


Shri Vikas Swarup, from India’s Ministry of External Affairs, addressing the General Assembly virtual session on Covid-19, Dec. 14, 2020. A closed virtual meeting with UN member states on the status of the vaccine rollouts in the United States was held with Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, on Dec. 15, 2020. No details were released on the event. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO 

Does UN Secretary-General António Guterres deserve another term; as Covid-19 vaccines are rolled out in New York City, what about UN staff and diplomats there; and how far will President-elect Biden go at the UN?

You’re reading This Week @UN, a summary of the most-pressing issues facing the international organization. The information is gathered from the UN spokesperson’s press briefings, original PassBlue reporting and other sources.

We’ll be quick as everyone is superbusy: We heartily thank everyone for helping us nearly reach our fund-raising goal of $11,500, so please donate today, if you haven’t already, and double your gift by Dec. 31.

Show of influence: Following up on our story of Africans being sidelined in decision-making on the UN’s support mission in Libya, Raisedon Zenenga of Zimbabwe has just been named the mission coordinator, a new post separate from the UN special envoy for Libya. (Nickolay Mladenov, a Bulgarian, was named to that post; and Tor Wennesland, a Norwegian, is succeeding Mladenov. Update Dec. 22: Mladenov will not be taking up the Libya post because he has resigned from the UN as of Dec. 31, 2020, when his current post as UN coordinator for the Mideast peace process ends.)

Monday, Dec. 14

• Barbara Crossette reports early into the speculation game as to whether Secretary-General Guterres, soon free of the Trump presidency, will get a second chance, in another term, to pursue his agenda more vigorously under an internationalist Joe Biden team. Guterres has refused to say publicly whether he will run again, but that could change soon. Crossette asked four UN-watchers to assess Guterres’s first four years of his five-year term. It is currently our top story.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres is traveling on Dec. 16 to Berlin, where he will address the German Parliament on Dec. 18. While in Berlin, he will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to discuss the pandemic, climate crisis and international cooperation, among other issues. It is Guterres’s first official trip since the pandemic began.

A reporter asked, “Why is it so important to go to Germany, in particular taking into account the current strict COVID measures in Germany right now?” Response: “The Secretary General will be tested before leaving, as will his delegation. This was a very important invitation by the German Government. It’s not every day that a Secretary General is invited to address the Bundestag. So, we’ve accepted the invitation.” The spokesperson said that Guterres was traveling commercially, though he did not answer an email from PassBlue as to who was paying for the trip.

Additionally, marking the second anniversary of the Stockholm Agreement, to end the war in Yemen, Guterres is “calling on the parties to fulfil the commitments they assumed in Stockholm, including through full and unconditional participation in the Redeployment Coordination Committee and its related joint mechanisms, and the implementation of the terms of the ceasefire on the ground.” Two years later, the nationwide cease-fire has failed, full humanitarian access has not been achieved and the foreign-aid pot is grossly underfunded, the spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, told reporters.

Tuesday, Dec. 15

• Although it was not mentioned in the spokesperson’s briefing, the UN held a closed virtual meeting with Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator in the White House, and UN member states on the status of the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccines in the US. The session was preceded a week earlier by a physical visit to the UN by Dr. Birx, who was accompanied by US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, and met with Guterres and Volkan Bozkir, the president of the UN General Assembly. The two meetings occurred as diplomats and UN personnel in New York City are seeking information from UN authorities and New York City officials on the availability of Covid-19 vaccines as they are being rolled out in the US. (The US administered its first vaccine, to a nurse in New York City, on Dec. 14. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines describe the phased allocation of vaccines in the US.)

No readout was issued by the UN or the US mission to the UN on the Dec. 15 briefing, but Bozkir’s spokesperson told the media: “Dr. Birx had provided a snapshot of the situation of COVID-19 in the United States and how the US was responding to it. It had been an important opportunity for Member States to be presented with data and understand the current dynamics, given that UN diplomats resided in the US and the US was the UN’s host country.”

A diplomat confirmed with PassBlue that the briefing was similar to the White House task force briefings on trends in the spread and positivity rates, but no announcement was apparently made on vaccine availability to UN staff or delegates. Another source said that UN staff who travel extensively for their work are hoping to get the vaccine as soon as possible to return to their pre-pandemic schedules, but this information was not confirmed.

Another UN official said there were several aspects of the vaccine’s availability concerning diplomats and UN personnel: the responsibility of the host country, the US, to diplomats and UN personnel there and to UN staff overseas who may need help in obtaining vaccines. (President Putin of Russia offered in September its new SputnikV coronavirus vaccine free to UN personnel in New York City, but so far, the UN has not taken up the offer.)

In addition, Guterres sent a letter to member states, seen by PassBlue, asking them to ensure that UN personnel and their families “serving within your borders” figure into their national vaccination plans. Given that the UN will be relying on the WHO’s Covax program to ensure fair distribution of vaccines among all countries, it is unclear how that goal can be met since the program is severely underfinanced. Reuters reported, for example, that people in poor countries may not get vaccinated until 2024.

On Dec. 18, the deputy UN spokesperson, Farhan Haq, elaborated on the possibility of vaccines for UN personnel, saying it is “in touch with local authorities, including city authorities and state authorities, and we’ll see what we can do once there is a vaccine available.” He added: “In major UN duty stations, we expect that UN staff and their dependents will rely on national vaccination programmes and adhere to established prioritisation policies in each nation. We’re in the planning stages of this, but in places where it’s not possible for staff and their dependents to obtain the vaccine through national programmes, we will endeavour to make the vaccine available.”

Separately, the UN said that in the Secretariat in New York City, there have been 169 cases of the virus and “no cases of workplace transmission.” The spokesperson did not know the number of staff who have died offhand and was not including information about diplomats. — Reporting by Laura E. Kirkpatrick and Dulcie Leimbach. 

Wednesday, Dec. 16

• “As President-elect Joe Biden finds his footing in foreign affairs, one of his foremost challenges will be re-engaging with the United Nations. So far, he has said little about the organization, but he has just appointed a new UN envoy-in-waiting, an experienced and articulate diplomat, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and former envoy to Liberia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield,” writes Stephen Schlesinger, a longtime UN and US historian. The question is how quickly he can upend the previous administration’s “hypernationalist ‘America First’ policies that have constrained the US role at the UN and steer American leadership back where it has historically belonged — front and center.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Senior UN leadership in Africa met with Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister/foreign minister, Demeke Mekonnen Hassen to reiterate the UN’s call “for full humanitarian access, protection of civilians and restoration of basic services.” This week, the World Food Program got an 18-truck convoy into Tigray to deliver 570 metric tons of food, enough to feed about 35,000 refugees (Eritreans) for a month there, the spokesperson said.

Thursday, Dec. 17

• A record-breaking vote on a resolution for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty has been passed by the United Nations General Assembly, with 123 countries voting in favor, 38 against and 24 abstaining. The vote, held on Dec. 16, was an improvement over an earlier vote, on Nov. 17 in the Assembly’s human-rights committee, where the draft resolution was approved by 120 countries, 39 against and 24 abstaining: so begins an op-ed written by the Madrid-based International Commission Against the Death Penalty, led by Navi Pillay, a former UN high commissioner for human rights from South Africa. The US voted against the resolution, along with such bedfellows as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: In Berlin, Guterres met with Foreign Minister Maas and thanked him for the “great dedication and personal engagement throughout Germany’s membership of the Security Council,” which ends Dec. 31. Tomorrow, Guterres will meet with Chancellor Merkel and President Steinmeier at the Bundestag. Guterres read his speech to the Parliament in German, a first for him, stressing how German thinking, leadership and vision have helped to shape his political life and praising Germany for being “a pillar of multilateralism.” (The video.)

In addition, Deborah Lyons, the UN special envoy for Afghanistan, briefed the Security Council on developments in the country, saying that Afghanistan and the Taliban have agreed to the “rules and procedures” for negotiations, formed a working committee to discuss the agenda and presented to each other a list of topics for discussion.

Friday, Dec. 18

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres welcomed the release on Dec. 17 of some of the schoolchildren who were abducted in Katsina State, Nigeria, on Dec. 11. He commended “the swift action taken by the Nigerian authorities to rescue the children and calls for the immediate and unconditional release of those who remain abducted.”

This article was updated on Dec. 19.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Ivana Ramirez is from South Carolina. She will begin matriculating as an undergraduate student at Yale University in 2021. She writes PassBlue’s This Week @UN news summary and is the researcher for PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

A Covid-19 Vaccine for UN Folks?; Steering Biden to the UN; Guterres Goes to Germany
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Related Posts
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs


Global Connections Television - The only talk show of its kind in the world

Don't Miss a Story:

Subscribe to PassBlue

Sign up to get the smartest news on the UN by email, joining readers across the globe.​

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously​