- The visit to the United Nations by Pope Francis during a General Assembly session, described as a historic first in the ageing 70-year-old organisation, has created a security nightmare both for the world body and New York city police.
The U.N. neighbourhood is expected to be turned into a war zone next week – with bomb-sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras, radiation detection units, armoured police trucks, a command centre in the middle of the street and robots trained to disarms bombs – besides thousands of police officers, road closures and security checks at every street corner and intersection.
Police Commissioner William Bratton told reporters it was unprecedented to have the Pope along with 170 confirmed world leaders in town – and at least for a day, and under one roof.
“That’s 90 percent of the world leaders in this city at one time,” he said.
Perhaps in terms of security, the only things missing outside the United Nations would be a drawbridge and a moat full of crocodiles of a bygone era.
Asked how he plans to cope with the restricted security environment, an unnamed U.N. official was quoted as saying with good-humoured grace: “Given the option, I may decide to take a vacation either in Syria or in Afghanistan.”
The Pope is scheduled to address the General Assembly on Sep. 25 and the high-level debate of world leaders begins Sep. 28.
Still, most heads of state and heads of government are due to arrive by Sep. 24 in time for the Pope’s address.
Perhaps the most valuable would be bilateral meetings between visiting leaders who will be engaged in closed door meetings with scores of their counterparts – without even crossing the street.
U.N. Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters: “As usual, world leaders will use their time in New York at the U.N. to have a number of bilaterals.”
For that purpose, he said, the U.N. Secretariat has set up 40 bilateral booths, in four different locations in the building.
“We don’t have the number of bilaterals expected yet, but as a point of reference, last year we had 1,321 bilateral meetings and we expect a larger number this year. Those do not include the Secretary-General’s meetings.”
There is speculation whether or not U.S. President Barack Obama will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin (his first visit to the U.N. since 2005) for bilateral talks.
Barbara Crossette, a former U.N. Bureau Chief for the New York Times who covered General Assembly sessions 1994 through 2001, told IPS: “If nothing else — and for better or worse — the autumn opening of the GA with so many government leaders in town does give the U.N. the best opportunity every year to get major news coverage, even if the media reports are mainly about national leaders (and this year the Pope) and not about the UN itself.”
In a visual media age, she said, it is also a time for people around the world to get a glimpse of leaders, their ideas and their personal quirks as they stand and deliver their speeches, which from time to time may be surprising or even entertaining.
“Certainly these appearances personalize powerful people whom the global audience may rarely see close up.”
As always, she pointed out, the meetings on the margins between and among world leaders could prove to be among the most important events in the long term.
The United Nations and the hotels and other sites occupied by national delegations around the city are still neutral ground for conversations away from capitals — substantive or just exploratory — where many of these talks would be difficult.
And a lot of socializing doesn’t hurt. It is part of diplomacy, said Crossette, who is currently U.N. correspondent for the Nation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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Samir Sanbar, a former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General who headed the Department of Public Information, told IPS annual gatherings were very valuable when the U.N. was at the mainstream of international decisions and when many national senior official had a credible leadership stature with a determined international approach.
An indicative sign of the times is an electronic traffic message to motorists warning: ”U.N. meeting. Expect Delays”.
Pope Francis may be one of the very few visitors with a global approach and focus on current pressing issues; but as they say in the Middle East ; one hand alone cannot clap, said Sanbar, a native of Lebanon, who served under five different U.N. secretaries-general and is editor and publisher of the online U.N. Forum.
U.N. Spokesperson Dujarric told reporters about 144 heads of state and government and 46 ministers are due to address the General Assembly.
Dujarric said the United Nations has accredited some 8,915 delegates, but that number is expected to rise by a couple of thousand by the time the General Debate starts Sep. 28, plus over 3,000 press accreditations have been issued as of last week.
“During the General Debate, we expect, we plan for 485 meetings. Those include side events, as well as general mandated meetings.”
As for the Secretary-General, he said, “we expect him to have about 230 various engagements during the week of the General Debate.”
Those include press interactions, bilateral meetings, statements read out to various meetings. “And we will try to keep you updated on numbers as we have them if you are interested.”
Besides U.S. President Barrack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, the heavy hitters who are due to address the Assembly include political leaders from Brazil, China, France, Canada, Iran, South Korea, Mexico, South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Argentina – all on opening day.
Among this year’s political highlights would be the raising of the Palestinian flag outside the U.N. secretariat, along with the flag of the Vatican, both longtime “non-member observer states” compared with the 193 full-fledged member states.
That decision was taken last week by a vote of 119 countries in favour, eight voting against it and 45 abstentions.
The noes included the United States, Israel, Canada and Australia, along with Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau and Tuvalu. The abstentions were mostly from Western Europe.
At his annual pre-General Assembly press conference Wednesday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters this year’s session opens “at a time of turmoil and hope.”
“Turmoil — because conflicts have deepened in so many places, and civilians are paying the price. And hope — because a historic number of world leaders will gather at the United Nations to forge solutions and adopt an inspiring new development agenda.”
Around the world, he said, about 100 million people – about one of every seventy people on earth — need lifesaving support. “Yet all our humanitarian appeals are chronically under-funded.”
Ban said brutal conflicts, breakdowns in basic governance, economic despair and other factors have generated displacements of people not seen since the Second World War.
And 60 million people have fled their homes, he added.
Ban said he looks forward to meeting with Pope Francis. “His call for climate action and a global ethical mobilization has resounded across the world, among people of all faiths.”
He is also touting the U.N.’s new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development “which embodies the yearnings of people everywhere for lives of dignity on a healthy planet,” – and which is expected to be adopted by world leaders at a meeting September 25-27.