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Because Of Global Pandemic, U.N. General Assembly Will Be Online


September usually brings traffic to a standstill in New York City, where world leaders gather for the annual United Nations General Assembly. This year, the event is largely moving online, except for President Trump, who is expected to address in person those foreign dignitaries who are allowed in the building. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Swedish diplomat Olof Skoog usually looks forward to the buzz of the U.N. General Assembly high-level debate.

OLOF SKOOG: It's just an opportunity to discuss some of the real urgent issues, be that, you know, the war in Libya or the situation in Yemen or disarmament problems - whatnot. I mean, it's just an incredible jamboree (laughter) for diplomacy which has gone missing this year.

KELEMEN: He now represents the European Union at the U.N., and he's no fan of Zoom diplomacy.

SKOOG: You can't really grasp the body language. There's no small talk. All of that is really important, I think, in international relations.

KELEMEN: Skoog is currently in quarantine so that he can actually attend the U.N.'s high-level debate starting September 22. Some diplomats have to be there even if the coronavirus pandemic is keeping foreign ministers and world leaders away.

SKOOG: We will socially distance but still be in the room, one ambassador per country and organization. So, yes, I'll be there.

KELEMEN: Though President Trump has pulled out of some U.N. agencies and international agreements, he says he wants to show up in person to give his annual address. The Russian and Chinese leaders are to speak soon after him, though they're expected to be recorded. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric says that's for technical reasons. He jokes that setting up a small office Zoom call is hard enough.

STEPHANE DUJARRIC: I cannot imagine having a Zoom call with 193 permanent members and two permanent observers in different languages and different time zones. I think it would make for a wonderful "Saturday Night Live" skit.

KELEMEN: Some diplomats are looking on the bright side of this virtual U.N. General Assembly, or UNGA. Elizabeth Cousens runs the U.N. Foundation, which promotes the work of the United Nations.

ELIZABETH COUSENS: One thing we're all learning is that the virtual world is more inclusive in a way. It does allow for a greater diversity of voices and perspectives to come into conversations. Some of that may be about countries who haven't always been able to come to the GA who may find they show up in a virtual way.

KELEMEN: That's true for activists, too. Lou Charbonneau of Human Rights Watch remembers last year when a Syrian activist couldn't get a U.S. visa to travel to U.N. headquarters in New York.

LOUIS CHARBONNEAU: Someone like that - in this virtual world, it's not a problem. All they need is a computer and an Internet connection, and we can bring them in.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Olof Skoog worries, though, that world leaders may not see the U.N. as such an important platform if they're not in New York in person.

SKOOG: There is a risk that the U.N. fades a little bit in the level of priority and interest in some of the world capitals. And that would be a huge setback, I think, when the U.N. is more needed than ever.

KELEMEN: This is the 75th anniversary of the world body. And Elizabeth Cousens says the U.N. was hoping this would be a time to highlight its work.

COUSENS: I think we're all going to learn an enormous amount about what's possible in this historic and unusual General Assembly.

KELEMEN: She advocates for a stronger U.S. role at the U.N., a challenge with the Trump administration.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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