U.N. Diplomacy In The Age of Contagion

Some delegations are repatriating vulnerable staff from New York amid a surge in coronavirus infections.

The U.N. Security Council chamber sits empty
The U.N. Security Council chamber sits empty before the start of a meeting in New York on Jan. 5, 2018. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The corridors of the United Nations headquarters took on a ghostly silence this week as some vulnerable diplomats began to pack their bags and flee New York City, while all but essential U.N. staff were ordered to stay away from Turtle Bay and told to manage the world’s problems from the safety of their computers at home.

But the world’s most intractable crises—wars in Syria and Yemen, the masses of refugees seeking safety beyond their borders, nuclear standoffs in Iran and North Korea—refused to go away, heightening concerns about the ability of the U.N. and its member states to manage an international order that was already stretched to the limit.

In recent weeks, the U.N. has stopped rotating new soldiers into its peacekeeping missions, fearing the spread of the new coronavirus into some of the most vulnerable countries on earth. Private consultations by the Security Council on a range of crises—such as Syria and Yemen—have been put on hold indefinitely. Disrupted supply chains are imposing strains on the U.N.’s ability to ship essential goods—from computers to truck parts—to its far-flung operations. U.N. relief officials, and international charities, are growing increasingly concerned that the crisis will prompt donor governments to redirect foreign assistance into domestic stimulus programs aimed at keeping their economies afloat.

The epicenter of world diplomacy has stalled as diplomats struggled to fundamentally rethink the way they do business in the wake of a chilling Saturday warning by New York health officials that the coronavirus had spread widely throughout the city. “Everyone in New York should consider themselves exposed,” to the coronavirus, Demetre Daskalakis, New York City’s deputy commissioner for disease control, told a group of more than 200 foreign diplomats on Saturday, according to the transcript released on Monday.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Diplomatic delegations, including Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, and Indonesia, informed colleagues that they were sending nonessential staff to their homes in the New York area to work over the coming weeks. Others were sending those more vulnerable to the virus back home.

“We are sending a few people back who are at special medical risk (prior conditions) or feel particular emotional stress (recently arrived, not settled),” one U.N.-based diplomat wrote in a text to Foreign Policy. Other delegations are taking a similar approach, the diplomat said.

“The Permanent Mission of Canada will continue to maintain its reduced footprint for essential staff only, with all other personnel working remotely from home until Monday, March 30,” according to a diplomatic note issued on Monday. “The mission stands in solidarity with the diplomatic community in its collective effort to contain this unprecedented situation across New York City and the Tri-State area.”

St. Lucia, meanwhile, informed other member states that it would be closing its U.N. mission as of Monday, March 16.

The U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, has essentially stopped meeting in its chamber around its iconic horseshoe table and is unlikely to reopen for the foreseeable future, issuing its edicts from a remote computer. One council diplomat said that sensitive closed-door meetings that are critical for hammering out differences would be put off for the “foreseeable future.”

On Tuesday, the U.N. and China—which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month—were testing a new, secure teleconferencing program to allow the 15-nation council to hold public meetings.

In a Monday’s letter to council members, China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said that all meetings of the council would be canceled throughout this week.

But Zhang, who is facing pressure from Russia to continue meetings at the U.N., said the council is “considering a physical council meeting next week” to adopt a number of measures, including a pair of resolutions renewing the mandates of a U.N. political mission in Somalia and a panel of experts monitoring sanctions violations against North Korea. In the event that the council does meet, Zhang urged his colleagues “to do their utmost to minimize the risks of transmitting infection and to ensure the safety and well being of all colleagues, taking necessary measures during physical meeting such as using hand sanitizer and wearing face masks.”

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Russia has insisted in recent days that the U.N. Charter requires important decisions of the council be taken inside the chamber.

“In the current circumstances it is important to show to the rest of the world that [the] UN and its Security Council are functioning,” Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, wrote Monday in a letter to Zhang. “We shouldn’t be afraid to gather from time to time in [the] UNSC Chamber. After all the preventative measures taken by the Secretary General [the] UN is one of the safest venues in NYC and the risk of getting the virus there is much lower than when we go to a shop for basic needs.

“With this in mind, we are ready to further explore technical options for some members to join others via VTC, but only upon the understanding that Russia and others who are prepared to be heading to [the] UNSC [the U.N. Security Council] chamber, will be given such an opportunity to,” he added. “Let’s show to the world that the Security Council is ready to face the challenge posed by COVID-19 and that its members are not intimated to fulfill their responsibilities assigned to the U.N. Charter.”

On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres ordered all but essential staff to “telecommute and work remotely, unless their physical presence in the building is need to carry out essential work in New York and around the world,” according to a copy of the letter, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. He said he would reassess the order—which would end on April 12—in three weeks.

The decision—which expanded on a previous, more limited telecommuting order—was issued just hours after three staff members at UNICEF showed up to work with flu symptoms. At the time, they were not diagnosed as infected with coronavirus. But New York City’s senior infectious disease official, Daskalakis, told delegates Saturday that “if someone in New York currently is experiencing upper respiratory symptoms like the flu, it is less likely going to be the flu than it’s going to be COVID-19.”

“Our aim is twofold: reduce our physical presence at United Nations headquarters and continue delivering on our mandate,” Guterres said. “It is essential that we reduce social contact to a minimum and follow the clear instructions of the World Health Organization to minimize the risks of transmitting the infection.”

The order has left the U.N. building largely empty. A photograph posted by a reporter on Twitter showed the typically crowded U.N. delegates lounge empty, with the exception of a lone bartender. It was dubbed “Ghost Lounge.”

“It is strangely quiet,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the U.N.’s chief spokesman, noting that Guterres and a small core of essential staff remained in the building this week.

Dujarric said the U.N.’s chief immediate priority in New York is to take mitigation measures to “make sure we do not make the crisis in New York any worse. We are trying to mitigate the threat in terms of being good neighbors in the city in which we live.”

U.N. sources say the organization is still grappling with how to best reorient its works to address the crisis. Last week, the U.N.’s top officials met behind closed doors to try to develop a strategy to pursue their mandates in a time of pandemic.

The U.N. chief has tasked Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed to lead an effort to think about bigger-picture issues, such as the impact this crisis may have in widening already yawning economic inequality gaps.

“The secretary-general has asked the deputy secretary-general to bring the U.N. development system together to address the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, in all its aspects,” Dujarric told Foreign Policy. “It is important that the response is centered around the human crisis, as much as it is focused on inclusive economies.”

The U.N. peacekeeping department, for instance, has frozen rotations of troops from contributing countries into peacekeeping missions. The move follows expressions of concern, particularly in Africa, that foreign peacekeeping troops from countries that have been hit hardest by the virus not spread it in their countries.

For instance, the U.N. asked South Korea, where the coronavirus saw an early surge, not to rotate in new peacekeepers into South Sudan, which has yet to confirm an outbreak of the bug. South Korea—which has had greater success than most countries in containing the virus’s spread—has agreed to extend one of its units in South Sudan for another three months. But South Korean officials remain concerned that those staying behind might face greater risks if they were to be infected on their mission.

“Some countries have been asked to delay rotations by three months to maintain operational strength and execute their mandated tasks,” according to a statement by a U.N. peacekeeping spokesperson “We will continue to review as the situation develops. In the meantime, peacekeeping missions are putting in place a series of mitigation measures to promote the safety, security and health of all U.N. personnel, while maintaining continuity of operations.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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