Dhaka Courier

75th UNGA: Imprint of a Pandemic

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina delivering a statement virtually at a special session of the 75th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) from Ganobhaban on Tuesday, 22 September Photo: PID

When world leaders descend on the United Nations for their yearly meeting in September, U.N. headquarters and its surroundings in the Turtle Bay area of New York City transforms into a hectic, vibrant place.

Reporters and TV crews start lining up to enter the building very early in the morning. Usually, more than 1,000 members of the media converge on New York from all over the world to cover the global gabfest and hundreds of side events. Media work areas are expanded but still cramped because there are so many writers, photojournalists and video journalists. Lounges and conferences rooms buzz with diplomats and ministers attending events or meeting one-on-one on the sidelines.

That is decidedly not the case this year, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic. In fact, whereas every year the arrival of world leaders and their delegations from the 193 member states of the U.N. presents a hassle for New Yorkers, this year they would hardly know it is taking place.

Till this year, which had to be its Diamond Jubilee as well, the spectacle has always unfolded in grand and scripted fashion: Leader after world leader striding to the podium inside the colossal U.N. General Assembly chamber to uncork carefully calibrated speeches, posture publicly and speak the language of statecraft.

This year, the spectacle part is still happening — remotely this time, on video, in prerecorded fashion, far from the madding diplomatic crowd. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, that other, more personal part of U.N. diplomacy is silently, deafeningly absent. The part that takes place in the hallways of the United Nations and the hotels that surround it, intensive doses of more intimate, more genuine diplomacy take place in quiet conversations, in small bilateral meetings, in one-on-one huddles that gestate subtle understanding and, sometimes, even prevent wars.

At the General Assembly’s yearly high-level “meeting” of leaders, the U.N.’s halls were mostly empty. On the chamber’s floor, delegations were limited to one person for each of the U.N.’s 193 member nations. The giant screens were full — of far-off leaders who took no planes to convene but, instead, recorded messages in the safety and isolation of their home countries and their offices.

“I expect not very much, to be honest,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director for Crisis Group, in comments to the Associated Press. “The idea that prime ministers and presidents are going to be sitting at home with a bucket of popcorn watching each other’s televised speeches is a bit silly.”

Pandemic-era diplomatic gatherings might be safer, less expensive, less logistically challenging. They might even be more efficient; optimists may look back to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance’s Summit that took place in June. It was meant to be hosted by the UK this year, but went virtual and ended up smashing its replenishment target, securing a record $8.8 billion in funding for 2021 to 2025 (its target was a modest $7.4 billion).

“We will miss that contact, that personal contact that I believe is very important for diplomacy to be effective,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week.

A theme emerges

Speaking of vaccines, it is only fitting that a year that has given us the entirely new phenomenon of ‘vaccine diplomacy’, should also see it dominate proceedings at the world’s premier event that places diplomacy at its heart.

Many world leaders at this week’s virtual U.N. summit expressed the hope that a vaccine for COVID-19 will be made available and affordable to all countries, rich and poor. But with the U.S., China and Russia opting out of a collaborative effort to develop and distribute a vaccine, and some rich nations striking deals with pharmaceutical companies to secure millions of potential doses, the U.N. pleas are plentiful but likely in vain.

“Are people to be left to die?” Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, a COVID-19 survivor, said of the uncertain way forward in his recorded message.

More than 150 countries have joined COVAX, in which richer countries agree to buy into potential vaccines and help finance access for poorer ones. But the absence of Washington, Beijing and Moscow means the response to a health crisis unlike any other in the U.N.’s 75 years is short of truly being global. Instead, the three powers have made vague pledges of sharing any vaccine they develop, likely after helping their own citizens first.

The U.N. gathering could serve as a wake-up call, said Gayle Smith, president of the ONE Campaign, a nonprofit fighting preventable disease that’s developing scorecards to measure how the world’s most powerful nations are contributing to vaccine equity.

“It’s not enough for only some G20 countries to realize that an equitable vaccine is the key to ending this virus and reopening the global economy,” she told AP.

With weeks remaining before a deadline for countries to join COVAX, which is co-led by the U.N.’s World Health Organization, many heads of state are using the U.N. meeting as a high-profile chance to wheedle, persuade and even shame.

Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, pointed out the illusory nature of borders and wealth in his speech: “The virus has taught us that we are all at risk, and there is no special protection for the rich or a particular class.”

The president of the COVID-free Pacific island nation of Palau, Tommy Remengesau Jr., warned against selfishness: “Vaccine hoarding will harm us all.”

And Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, appealed to the universal desire for a return to normal: “Ensuring equitable access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics will speed up the end of the pandemic for everyone.”

Just two days into nearly 200 speeches by world leaders, it was clear the urgent need for a vaccine would be mentioned by almost everyone. Considering the mind-popping challenges ahead, that’s no surprise.

That has led to difficult questions: Who will get vaccine doses first? Who is making private deals to get them? This week’s speeches make clear that such questions have existential meaning.

The vaccine quest must not be a “purely mercantile act,” Iraq said (through their leader). Nor “an issue of competition,” Turkey said.

“We must take the politics out of the vaccine,” Kazakhstan said. “We need true globalization of compassion,” Slovakia said.

The Dominican Republic deployed all-caps in a statement: “WE DEMAND this vaccine be available to all human beings on the planet.” More gently, Mozambique warned that “nationalism and isolationism in the face of a pandemic are, as far as we are concerned, a prescription for failure.”

No matter their reputation at home or on the global stage, leaders are finding a shred of common ground as the world nears a staggering 1 million confirmed deaths from the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 vaccine must be considered a global public good. Let us be clear on this,” said Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres kicked off the General Assembly by declaring in an interview with the U.N.’s media arm: “To think that we can preserve the rich people, and let the poor people suffer, is a stupid mistake.”

Although Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recorded message is not scheduled to be played till after this briefing is filed, it too has been previewed with a focus on the COVID-19 vaccine (see below).

The show must go on

The centrepiece of any new General Assembly session is the General Debate which began on September 22, a week after the official opening.

In his address to the historic yet underwhelming 75th session of the UNGA, Secretary-General António Guterres appealed for global solidarity to overcome COVID-19, and again called for a global ceasefire during the pandemic, by the end of the year.

Addressing the largely empty General Assembly Hall in New York on September 22, Guterres characterized the pandemic from the podium as “not only a wake-up call” but “a dress rehearsal” for challenges to come.

“In an interconnected world, it is high time to recognize a simple truth: solidarity is self-interest. If we fail to grasp that fact, everyone loses”, he said, delivering his annual report on the work of the Organization.

He urged the UN’s 193 Member States to move forward in humility and unity in the face of the disease.

“And we must be guided by science and tethered to reality”, he added. “Populism and nationalism have failed. Those approaches to contain the virus have often made things manifestly worse.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, like other global leaders, is joining the 75th UN General Assembly (UNGA) virtually due to Covid-19 pandemic.

She will virtually deliver her key speech at the 75th UNGA on September 26 highlighting global issues including Rohingya crisis and vaccine with a call to ensure vaccine for all at an affordable cost.

The pre-recorded speech will be delivered at 8pm (Bangladesh time), said Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen. Like previous years, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will deliver her speech in Bangla.

The prime minister will highlight the vaccine issue, urging that everyone gets access to the vaccine at an affordable price.

She will also highlight steps taken by the government in addressing people's sufferings and protecting them from Covid-19 and the importance of working together to ensure availability of a vaccine for all and end people's sufferings.

She will also talk about climate change, migration, women empowerment and child rights, exchange of technology and gender balance.

The prime minister will emphasise that all must work together to address the global challenges.

Rohingya Crisis

Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen said Bangladesh will take up the Rohingya issue in the UNGA like previous years, especially ongoing legal procedures at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Bangladesh will raise the Rohingya issue for the fourth time and reiterate the five-point proposals placed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina earlier seeking solution to the crisis.

Dr Momen said he would attend a number of events virtually apart from representing the prime minister in some programmes.

Bangladesh has sought immediate steps on Myanmar by the UN Security Council asking Myanmar to refrain from escalating the situation and targeting the Rohingya minorities in the pretext of security operation.

Bangladesh also urged the UNSC to remind Myanmar of their responsibility to protect its civilian populations during any military or security operations.

Bangladesh Permanent Mission to the UN in New York shared the "aide memoire" with the UNSC President on recent developments near the international border between Bangladesh and Myanmar on September 15.

Bangladesh is now hosting over 1.1 million Rohingyas in Cox's Bazar district and failure to ensure the protection of civilians and their properties during the security operations in Myanmar's Rakhine State may lead to further influx of Myanmar citizens and residents of various ethnic background to Bangladesh.

Virtually there

Prime Minister Hasina is scheduled to deliver pre-recorded speeches in a number of programmes.

The first one, she delivered on September 22 at the high-level event to mark the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations.

She called for not allowing geopolitical rivalries to weaken the United Nations as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that both developed and developing nations need the UN more than ever.

“We must not allow our geopolitical rivalries to weaken the UN. We owe it to the founding fathers and future generations to make the UN a truly effective global body for humankind as a whole,” said the Prime Minister.

She said the challenges of the present time, including the current pandemic, go beyond borders and the COVID-19 has made the achievement of the 2030 Agenda more challenging. “It has exposed the inadequacies of the current international order.”

Dr Momen said this year the UNGA with the theme “The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism and confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action” is a very important one.

Issues related to international community's support, especially development partners, for keeping Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) implementation unhurt and giving equal attention to overcoming COVID-19 challenges and SDGs will be discussed this year, he said.

In light of World Confidence on Women held in Beijing in 1995, issues like women empowerment, removing gender discrimination and preventing women repression will widely be discussed this year.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has already attended a high-level dialogue on “Digital Cooperation: Action Today for Future Generations”, and spoken at the high level roundtable on Climate Action where she highlighted climate issues as the chair of Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF).

On September 29, the prime minister will virtually attend the high-level event on Financing for Development (FFD) in the era of Covid-19 and beyond. The next day, she will address a summit on biodiversity.

Sheikh Hasina will also take part in a high-level meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for action (Beijing +25) on October 1.

The theme of the event is ‘Accelerating the realization of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls’.

Dr Momen and State Minister for Foreign Affairs M Shahriar Alam will attend a number of events including high-level plenary meetings to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

The General Debate is a globally unique occasion at which presidents and heads of state (or sometimes their deputies or foreign ministers) take to the dais, and address a world audience on an issue of their choosing. This year, because of the pandemic, the UN said, world leaders are staying away and have been invited to send in pre-recorded videos of their speeches which will be broadcast “as live”. Speeches are expected to be introduced by a New York-based representative of each state, who will be physically present.

Additional Reporting by AK Moinuddin & Ted Anthony (AP)

  • City
  • Rohingya Crisis
  • United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)
  • New York
  • Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
  • Pandemic
  • Covid-19
  • Rohingya

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