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 organizers 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 this month.
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 Sept. 21 and lasts until the 27th.
The organization 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 Aug. 13: “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 76th president of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, making proof of vaccination mandatory for visiting delegates. The decision infuriated the Russians, and could undoubtedly complicate some delegations’ plans, but discussions are underway on the matter among New York City, Shahid and UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s office. As of Sept. 16, Shahid sent a letter to UN member states, saying the honor system, not requiring proof of vaccination, was back.
On Sept 14th, 1000s of diplomats from nearly 200 countries will be arriving to Manhattan for the UN general Assembly.— Mark D. Levine (@MarkLevineNYC) August 12, 2021
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.
“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 Aug. 16 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, 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 Councilmember Levine complained about delegations’ vaccinations status, the UN spokesperson was asked repeatedly how the UN 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 City were asked to “voluntarily disclose” their vaccination status, the UN has decided to go with an “honour system,” on the matter.
“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’s 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 Sept. 9 letter to Shahid, the president of the General Assembly as of Sept. 14, New York City states that since it considers the UN headquarters a “convention center,” delegates must follow the city’s guidelines of providing proof of vaccination. Russia’s letter asked for an urgent meeting on Sept. 16 in the General Assembly on the matter, but that didn’t happen, and by the end of the day, Shahid wrote to member states to say that the honor system was back.
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 high-level week, and the White House has confirmed that Joe Biden will attend in person, his first UNGA as president. As Biden’s foreign affairs slogan has is “America is back” — he is using the opportunity to bring the US back to the Assembly Hall when he speaks at the rostrum on Sept. 21.
Biden is coming during a difficult time for US foreign policy, amid the recent 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 U.S. 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 Sept. 7, 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 also 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.
• Turkey: One of the most likely leaders to come is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will be there mainly to inaugurate Turkey’s newly renovated mission to the UN and consulate, called the Turkish House — should be ready by then for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
• Britain: Delegates will also probably hear Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most-likely colorful speech in person. A British diplomat said that Johnson wants to come to make progress ahead of COP26, which will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in early November. Johnson’s speech is due to be delivered late in the week, on Friday afternoon, Sept. 24, because he is a head of government, not state.
• India vs. Pakistan: So far, only India’s Narendra Modi is supposed to fly to New York City — according to the schedule — and will speak on Saturday, Sept. 25; Pakistan’s Imran Khan is not likely to make the trip but will send a pre-recorded video for his speaking slot on Sept. 24.
• Latin America: Another speaker who could make waves is Peru’s recently elected left-wing President José Pedro Castillo, who is scheduled to speak on Sept. 21. Castillo could set the tone on what is to come for the country as he has portrayed himself as aligning with the likes of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is also scheduled to speak in person, as is Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, though Obrador is notorious for not traveling much outside the country. President Luis Lacalle Pou of Uruguay is scheduled to attend. For Cuba, Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla is expected to attend.
• Europe: Smaller countries that are planning to send high-level delegations include Switzerland’s President Guy Parmelin, Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander de Croo and Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheal Martin. (Ireland is presiding over the Security Council in September.)
• Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari also plans to come, according to Bande.
• Digital Africa: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah El-Sisi are planning to each send a pre-recorded video.
• Canada: While Canada’s speaker is listed as “head of government” on the provisional schedule, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called a snap election for Sept. 21 — the day the high-level week UNGA begins. That means that there could technically be a new government by then (although it’s unlikely). Asked who is going to represent Canada, the UN mission said: “Canada’s delegation to the 76th session of the UN General Assembly will be confirmed in the days leading up to the high-level week.”
• #whatshappeninginMyanmar: Competition for who is the authorized permanent representative for Myanmar, whose government was ousted by a military coup in February, will likely seize the spotlight at this year’s UNGA. The provisional speaking list indicates that the country is going to be represented by its ambassador, which means, for now, Kyaw Moe Tun. The UN’s credential committee has to discuss the matter but may not do so too soon.
• As to who will represent Afghanistan at UNGA is also unclear, as the current ambassador was part of the former Ashraf Ghani regime.
• After the military coup in Guinea, on Sept. 5, the country was moved on the UNGA list of speakers from Sept. 21 (notation “HS,” or “head of state”) to Sept. 27, with the notation of “CD” (corps diplomatique, or ambassador), along with North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan on the same day.
Women: From 52nd to 6th
• The low number of women speakers at last year’s UNGA has not been forgotten, given that the first woman to speak was 52nd in the lineup. While it looks like the number of women speakers has not risen this year, totaling approximately 16 so far, President Zuzana Caputova of Slovakia is going to be the first woman leader to stand at the General Assembly Hall rostrum, No. 6 on the list, on the morning of Sept. 21.
• Moldova’s Maia Sandu, the country’s first woman president, is 100 percent coming, according to the country’s UN mission, making her first appearance in front of the UNGA as president. (She was previously prime minister.)
• As she is up for re-election on Sept. 25, it is unlikely that Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir will come to UNGA, which is probably why the Icelandic speaker on the official list is a minister and has been delegated to Sept. 27.
• While the schedule indicates that New Zealand will be represented in person by the country’s head of government, Jacinda Ardern, diplomats say that New Zealand has no appetite to send a high-level delegation this year. In an email, New Zealand’s mission to the UN said that “consideration is being given to New Zealand’s representation at this year’s UNGA. Any announcement will be made in due course.”
Russia and China snubbing
• Traditionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin travels to the UN only for big events. Last year’s 75th anniversary would have been such a moment if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. This year, it’s going to be Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, a UN aficionado as he was also ambassador there for many years. The last time Putin came to UNGA was in 2015, when Pope Francis also spoke at the debate.
• China’s Xi Jinping is also not on this year’s schedule, although he was also at the UNGA in 2015. China’s deputy prime minister, Han Zheng, should speak on behalf of China this year.
The West vs. the rest
• Of the 38 countries planning to send pre-recorded videos right now, most are developing countries, where vaccine inequality persists. Three of the countries are European, the rest are from Africa (15), Asia or small island states.
• While most European countries say they will send the highest-level delegation possible, many countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are still unsure as of this writing. Josephine Latu-Sanft, a Tonga-born climate communications expert based in London, wrote on Twitter that half of Pacific region heads of states will send a pre-recorded video message, while most Caribbean leaders are going to attend in person.
“I think for the developing world, there are two things,” Bande said. “Either delegation might come to make the case as strongly as they can concerning access to vaccines and other support related to recovery or that they may choose not to come given the unfolding situation.”
A version of this article was co-published with Geneva Solutions.
This article will be updated with new information continuously.
Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.