Taking a moment to mark a milestone.
The General Assembly will begin its annual speeches by world leaders on Tuesday, but on Monday it held a separate and largely virtual gathering to commemorate the passage of the United Nations into its fourth quarter-century.
In the cavernous hall at the headquarters of the organization, each delegation was limited to one or two envoys spaced far apart and wearing masks. The new president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir of Turkey, opened the commemoration by declaring the organization’s commitment to multilateralism, a tenet of the United Nations Charter that obliges nations large and small to work together.
“Without your continued commitment to multilateralism, we would not be sitting here today,” he said.
The secretary-general, António Guterres, told the gathering that the avoidance of a third world war was a “great achievement of which member states can be proud — and which we must all strive to preserve.”
The delegates later unanimously adopted a resolution commemorating the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, “born out of the horrors of the Second World War” in 1945. “There is no other global organization with the legitimacy, convening power and normative impact of the United Nations,” it stated.
What may have once been conceived as a simple celebration now had a more poignant, even elegiac air.
“The U.N. is marking its 75th anniversary at a time of great disruption for the world, compounded by an unprecedented global health crisis with severe economic and social impacts,” the organization says on a website dedicated to the milestone. “Will we emerge stronger and better equipped to work together? Or will distrust and isolation grow further?”
The 193-member organization facing challenges on numerous fronts.
The pandemic has not only illustrated worrisome tendencies among many countries to turn inward but may also be worsening them.
Add to that the rise of xenophobic strongmen around the world, climate change and a new cold war between the United States and China, and the magnitude of the problems confronting the world body become clear.
Trump was on the schedule to speak. He didn’t.
The anniversary commemoration’s agenda listed the Head of State from the United States — meaning President Trump — as the first of many national representatives scheduled to speak, as leader of the host country.
But Mr. Trump, who has made his disdain for the United Nations clear, did not make a speech. There was no immediate explanation for his absence; the office of the President of the General Assembly referred inquiries to the American mission to the U.N., which has not responded to email queries yet.
The United States was instead represented on Monday by its acting deputy permanent representative, Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet.
“For the Trump administration, this anniversary is an important moment to mark the many successes of the United Nations, but to do so with clear eyes and a renewed determination to see this important body serve its intended purpose,” she said. “The 75th anniversary of the U.N. is the right time to ask questions about the institution’s strengths and weaknesses, review and learn from its failures, and celebrate its accomplishments.”
Like other world leaders, Mr. Trump was still expected to deliver a prerecorded speech on Tuesday, the first day of the General Debate. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, no leader has traveled to the General Assembly this year.
Mr. Trump has been a critic of the United Nations over his first term, renouncing membership in agencies including the Human Rights Council and World Health Organization, and rejecting accords such as the Paris Climate agreement and the Iran nuclear agreement. Still, the United States remains the biggest single donor to the United Nations budget.
A General Assembly, minus the assembly.
There had already been a lot of speculation, but in June, U.N. leaders made it official: For the first time in the organization’s history, world leaders would not be gathering in personfor their annual meeting.
No pointed provocations from pariahs at the podium. No fervent pleas for world peace. No speeches ostensibly aimed at the assembled luminaries but really intended for constituencies back home.
At least, not in person, anyway. Not in a time of pandemic. This is no year for an entourage.
“World leaders cannot come to New York, because they cannot come simply as individuals,” the General Assembly’s outgoing president, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria, said in announcing the bad news inherited by his successor, Volkan Bozkir of Turkey. “A president doesn’t travel alone. Leaders don’t travel alone.”
So when world leaders give their addresses this week during the General Debate, it will be in prerecorded videos shown on a giant screen in the General Assembly Hall at the U.N.’s Manhattan headquarters. But most viewers — like the speakers themselves — will be nowhere in the vicinity.
The speeches can, however, be introduced in person by representatives of member states who are based in New York. (The 75th anniversary commemoration will be handled in similar fashion.)
As it happens, should a world leader turn up intent on speaking in person — if to a largely empty chamber — he or she will not be turned away. And as recently as a few days ago, there was speculation that some, including President Trump, might opt to appear. But last week, aides said he had decided against it.
As the focus returns to diplomacy, a new push for a nuclear weapons ban.
Three years after U.N. negotiators formally adopted a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons, it remains six ratifications shy of the 50 it needs to take effect.
On Sunday, on the eve of the General Assembly, a coalition of former world leaders decided to give it another push.
Fifty-six former prime ministers, presidents, foreign ministers and defense ministers from 20 NATO countries, plus Japan and South Korea, released an open letter imploring their current leaders to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
“All responsible leaders must act now to ensure that the horrors of 1945 are never repeated,” the letter urged, referring to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan by the United States, the only wartime use of nuclear weapons. “Sooner or later, our luck will run out — unless we act. The nuclear weapon ban treaty provides the foundation for a more secure world, free from this ultimate menace.”
The signers of the letter made note of the pandemic, which U.N. officials have called the greatest challenge in the organization’s history. “We must not sleepwalk into a crisis of even greater proportions than the one we have experienced this year,” they said.
World War II’s deadly legacy continues.
Even as the United Nations was commemorating its birth at the close of World War II, that war’s continuing and deadly legacy was driven home by the news that an old bomb had killed two explosives experts on the island of Guadalcanal, in the South Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands.
The victims — Stephen Atkinson, 57, of Britain; and Trent Lee, 40, of Australia — were working to map unexploded munitions left over from the war. After finding the bomb, they apparently took it to the house they shared in a residential area near the capital, Honiara, where it detonated.
An official investigation is underway, and the site is being treated as a crime scene, said Clifford Tunuki, the police inspector. It was unclear whether nearby homes were damaged.
The Solomon Islands, a mountainous archipelago about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia, is littered with shells and bombs left behind by Japanese and Allied forces during World War II. Guadalcanal, in particular, was the scene of one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Pacific war.
Though unexploded munitions from the war pose a threat all over the world, they have been particularly deadly in the Solomon Islands, where more than 75 percent of the population works as agricultural laborers in the fields where the bombs once fell. Experts estimate that around 20 people are hurt or killed by them each year.
Mr. Lee, the Australian expert, acknowledged the danger of his work last month in a Facebook post where he described an American naval round as “pretty much the most dangerous WW2 ammunition we find.” The device, he wrote, was “cocked and ready to fire.”
“One bump,” he added, and it’s “all over.”
Well, at least there’s no gridlock alert.
The headline in The Times put it baldly a few years ago as diplomats and officials from around the world prepared to descend on Manhattan: “Don’t Even Think of Driving in Manhattan,” it warned.
It might also have advised people not to try snagging a table at a high-end restaurant, or a prime room at a trendy hotel.
“What began as a bureaucratic gathering of diplomats at the United Nations,” a Times writer observed back then, “has in recent years morphed into a business and political free-for-all, a champagne-soaked workweek of panel discussions, private dinners and high-minded pronouncements of important initiatives.”
Not this year, though.
“Restaurants are just trying to survive,” Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, said Sunday.
As for next fall, when it is time for the 76th General Assembly? First, restaurants need to make it through the winter, when the outdoor dining that has sustained many of them will become a lot more difficult.
“We have a deep hope that next year for U.N. Week, our city’s restaurants will be operating at 100-percent indoor occupancy, so we can welcome our worlds’s diplomats inside with a hospitality they’ve become accustomed to all the years,” Mr. Rigie said.
Rick Gladstone, Eric Nagourney, Livia Albeck-Ripka and Jason Gutierrez contributed reporting.