The annual General Assembly of the UN, opening on September 15, will demonstrate, in diplomatic terms, the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the world. This year’s General Assembly will be unlike any other in history. The UN will turn 75 next month. So, the meeting should have been an occasion for a memorable celebration, similar to its golden jubilee in 1995, when the entire world descended on New York.
A commemorative meeting 25 years ago saw 150 world leaders jostling for speaking slots during two days, split into six sessions. On the UN’s founding day that year, on October 24, a special meeting gave 60 leaders the pride of place. Wherever one turned in Manhattan during that commemorative week, there was a party in progress. Security for the record presence in New York of heads of state and government was so tight that it was faster to walk to anywhere than to take a taxi or drive.
In striking contrast, the sombre start of the 75th General Assembly tomorrow reflects the state of the world today, after the outbreak. For those with decades-long professional associations with the UN, the unthinkable has happened. Its headquarters in New York has been shut since the middle of March.
The iconic, 38-storey building in Turtle Bay, which is normally a beehive of activity with 3,000 staff and an average of 1,000 daily visitors, was abandoned, like a haunted house. It is especially heartbreaking for those who spent their sweat and toil remaking the building in its original character during a recent renovation that preserved the image of the edifice that is imprinted in millions of minds across the world.
Soldiering on nevertheless, the incoming General Assembly President, Turkey’s Volkan Bozkir, and the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, have scheduled a high-level meeting on September 21 to commemorate the 75th anniversary, followed by the so-called General Debate lasting a week thereafter. The debate is what draws leaders from every continent in impressive numbers year after year to the Big Apple.
The seamless procession along Turtle Bay of those who have charted the destiny of post-World War II generations, leaders like Nelson Mandela, Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Anwar Sadat, is an impressive sight to behold. It is a tribute like no other to an art that professional diplomats have perfected over centuries: protocol.
This year, there will be none of that. Each of the 193 member countries has been allowed just two persons of their choice to enter the UN building. Most of the global leaders will stay away from New York and make virtual speeches. PM Modi is expected to record his speech and play it at the General Assembly.
All this does not mean challenges and opportunities for Indian diplomacy are any less at the UN. On January 1 next year, India will formally take its seat at the Security Council for a two-year tenure. India’s impressive Security Council victory should not make the political leadership complacent, although its Permanent Representative at the council’s table, TS Tirumurti, is a veteran of many UN skirmishes and victories in his long career in the Indian Foreign Service.
In the pandemic-hit General Assembly, Tirumurti, who was rushed to New York a few days before the voting, had to act like a campaign manager in a Lok Sabha election to secure India’s victory. It was an unprecedented break from what IFS officers are used to. The UN building was reopened to member countries, but only to enable them to vote for new Security Council members.
As if it were elections back home, Tirumurti had the unenviable task of rounding up a large number of his fellow ambassadors to make sure that they went to the UN headquarters, put up with Covid protocols, and voted when their specified group was called upon by the General Assembly Secretariat to do so.
Although India was the only candidate for the Asian seat, if it did not meet the threshold of two-thirds of UN members present and voting, the election would have been inconclusive. There are countries, whose Permanent Representatives do not bother to vote in UN elections. Believe it not, a fun-loving ambassador – and there are many – from a tiny country, smaller in size and population than the NCR surrounding Delhi, would rather go for a swim in his rooftop pool on a hot June day than queue up at the UN to be checked for Covid and be let in to vote in an election, whose outcome will not affect his government. He would rather go to East Village for a leisurely lunch with libations and a siesta afterwards.
Tirumurti’s ground-level efforts made sure that 184 out of 193 countries voted for India.
The biggest challenge for India will be not merely to make sure that its quest for a permanent seat in the Security Council moves forward. With a seasoned Assembly President in Bozkir of Turkey, which has no love lost for New Delhi, the enormity of this challenge will be to see that progress made in recent years does not slide back in favour of Pakistan and others who do not want a Security Council expansion.
Meanwhile, long-time India-hater, Munir Akram of Pakistan has just been elected President of ECOSOC, one of the six main organs under the UN’s Charter. This was a job held by the acclaimed Ramaswami Mudaliar for three sessions from 1946. If anyone wondered why Modi addressed the ECOSOC a week before Akram’s election, it is part of efforts that India will have to make to preserve and advance its legacy in the world body.
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