UN General Assembly holds unique annual session, lacks usual security

United Nations General Assembly

by William M. Reilly

The annual UN General Assembly high-level week featuring a marathon of speeches by world leaders was launched on Tuesday, but this year they speak “virtually” because of COVID-19, and security around the UN headquarters is remarkably reduced.

Traffic zips by on the adjacent 1st Avenue, which would have been blocked during a normal annual session except to police-escorted motorcades.

Only a few extra police officers have been posted along the avenue outside the headquarters.

There is an extra contingent of TV reporters crowded onto a small traffic island near the General Assembly Hall. It is not unusual throughout the year to see some extra media personnel for special meetings.

Metal crowd-control barricades have been lined up in front of the complex. That too is not an unusual sight outside the United Nations or elsewhere in New York City, especially in these days of Black Lives Matter and other demonstrations.

No security boats patrol the East River on the other side of the nearly seven-hectare UN complex. River traffic flows unimpeded.

With no world leaders expected in the General Assembly Hall, there is barely any sign of increased security for this unique session on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.

However, the speeches go on, despite the fact that they have been pre-recorded.

At this virtual meeting, the leaders are shown in the recordings at a variety of scenes in their home country: from behind desks to behind podiums, but most assuredly near at least one of their national flags that are sometimes accompanied by the blue UN banner.

There are very few people in the hall. Officials said only a few more than 200 diplomats are allowed in, compared with the usual 2,500 or so attending an opening of the week-long session.

On the floor of the assembly, there are six seats for each of the 193 UN member states. But, to keep social distancing, only one mask-wearing representative of each delegation is allowed to sit in one of those six seats. That delegate then can introduce the recording of their country’s speaker.

Any other year at this time, access around the UN headquarters complex is tightly controlled. Nearby streets had barricades and checkpoints with swarms of federal, state and local law enforcement officers.

The usually quiet Turtle Bay neighborhood around the UN headquarters appeared almost sleepy on this sunny day.

“I remember last year, there were a lot of people,” said a woman who identified herself only as Maria in a Second Avenue Subway franchise sandwich shop, a block away from the UN headquarters. One customer was in the store.

It was busy and kind of exciting last year with all the meetings going on, she said.

Business could pick up for her later when delegates discover there is no restaurant, cafeteria or coffee shop open in the UN complex. Only a handful of vending machines scatter through the building.

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