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Vaccination problems may vex UN General Assembly gathering

  • Rick Gladstone, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-09-17 19:29:06 BdST

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Tourists walk past the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Mar 24, 2008. At left is the UN General Assembly building and at right is the UN Secretariat building. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The United Nations is facing a potentially disruptive wrinkle over New York City’s COVID vaccination requirements that could derail attendance by at least some participants in the annual General Assembly gathering, just as many world leaders are about to arrive.

While the 193-member organisation requires that all staff members at its New York headquarters have proof of vaccination, it has been imposing less-stringent rules for visiting dignitaries and diplomats, relying on an honour system for all guests to declare they are vaccinated or have tested negative for the virus.

But New York City municipal officials said this week that the General Assembly meeting, even though scaled down from pre-pandemic years, qualified as a “convention centre” event and that under the city’s current health rules, all those who attend must show proof of vaccination.

In a letter to the newly chosen president of this year’s General Assembly, Foreign Minister Abdulla Shadid of the Maldives, municipal officials also said that under the host city’s pandemic rules, visitors must show proof of vaccination before indoor dining, drinking or exercising within the 16-acre UN campus.

UN officials have said the organisation is obliged to follow the city’s health rules. It remained unclear as of Thursday exactly how many visiting diplomats and others who had planned to attend lacked vaccination proof.

But word that all visitors would need to show such proof generated confusion and anger. Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, called the rules a violation of the UN Charter, arguing that they were discriminatory.

While President Vladimir Putin of Russia had no prior plans to attend — and has been self-isolating anyway for possible exposure to COVID from infected aides — more than 100 leaders including President Joe Biden, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain have planned to deliver their speeches in person.

Others have opted to deliver them via prerecorded video, as was done by all leaders last year when vaccines were still under development and each delegation in the General Assembly hall was limited to two people. Nearly all events at the 2020 event were conducted virtually.

Bolsonaro, an avowed vaccine sceptic whose popularity has fallen in Brazil partly over what critics call his disastrous handling of the pandemic, is scheduled to be among the first leaders to speak in person when the speeches begin Tuesday. News reports from Brazil have said he does not intend to be vaccinated.

Asked how the problem would be resolved with just days to go before the speeches begin, Stéphane Dujarric, the chief UN spokesperson, told reporters Thursday that discussions were underway to continue the honour system “in a way that is acceptable for all.”

The United Nations has been aiming for at least a partial restoration of the person-to-person diplomacy at this year’s General Assembly that its leaders regard as critical for the organisation’s ability to function. Still, many of the meetings will remain virtual or a hybrid mix this year.

© 2021 The New York Times Company