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UN Re-Surfaces After Long Pandemic Lay-off

The UN’s empty corridors will soon be back to normal. Credit: United Nations

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 14 2022 (IPS) - After several on-again and off-again pandemic lockdowns, the United Nations is planning to return to normal beginning this week.

A circular from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on March 11 says “based on the new guidelines, we are now able to institute associated changes in our workplace, returning to full operational capability while still prioritizing the health and safety of personnel, and balancing the operational needs of the Organization”.

Guided by the Senior Emergency Policy Team and the Occupational Safety and Health Committee in New York, Guterres has decided to make the following changes:

As of Monday, 14 March: mask use will be voluntary throughout the UN building and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), mostly denied entry since March 2020, will now be given access to the UN premises.

While diplomats were never barred from the UN during the lockdown– since they “own“ the building — all CSOs were banned from the premises. The UN also refused to renew their passes to enter the headquarters building.

The mounting protests last year came from several NGOs, most of whom have been partnering with the UN and providing humanitarian assistance in conflict-ridden countries, including Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Ethiopia.

“Civil society organizations are elated about the resumption of their access to the UN building,” said a former senior UN official who interacts regularly with CSOs.

Andreas Bummel, executive director, Democracy Without Borders, told IPS: “We welcome that civil society representatives will be given routine access again at UN headquarters. We certainly hope that similar closures will not be required again”.

“Should a need arise, civil society access should be treated equally to that of diplomats and other stakeholders. This not only pertains to the premises in New York or Geneva, but all conferences held under UN purview. We are concerned, for instance, about reports that CSO representatives weren’t allowed to attend the Oceans treaty negotiations,” he added.

The empty racks on the UN’s third floor, home to several news organizations. Credit: IPS

Until now, most meetings and briefings were described as “hybrid”, partly in-person, but mostly via video conferencing.

As of Monday 28 March, Intergovernmental meetings will also resume as “normal”, and by Monday, 4 April, UN headquarters will enter the “Next Normal” phase.

Decisions regarding the opening of the buildings to visitors, the general public, including for United Nations Guided Tours, to non-resident correspondents, and the holding of side events/receptions will be taken in April, said the circular addressed to over 3,000 UN staffers in New York.

The UN’s decision to go into “full operation” comes following criticisms from member states over the lack of UN staffers to service some of the meetings.

Ambassador Boubacar Diallo of Guinea, the outgoing chairman of the Group of 77 plus China, the largest single coalition of developing countries at the UN, warned late last year that the Group continues to be disappointed that due to security concerns, the Administrative and Budgetary Committee was being deprived of interpretation services (in the UN’s six official languages) during informal consultations.

“We look forward to the day that multilingualism is fully restored, and we can enjoy interpretation services as we are doing here today. We are committed to a thorough consideration of the agenda items allocated to the Committee, and in this regard, note with disappointment that several reports are still outstanding,” he added.

This endemic situation, he pointed out, significantly compromises the Committee’s work. With a resolution being adopted by consensus, including the 134 members of the G77, he said, “It is not possible to turn a blind eye to a General Assembly resolution and a deaf ear to the two-thirds majority of the General Membership.”

The UN has still barred scores of UN retirees living in the tri-state area—New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. One of them who retired after nearly 22 years working in the Secretariat, told IPS, UN security officers barred him from entering the building last month and said his retiree UN pass was invalid.

“I was treated as if I was a security risk—after all these years of service to the UN”, he complained.

Asked about the status of UN staffers in Geneva, which hosts one of the largest conglomerations of UN agencies, Ian Richards, former President of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA) told IPS masks are still required for now in public spaces.

“Many meetings are back to normal. The car park is filling up. We are starting to see a more settled pattern now of colleagues alternating between office and home,” he added.

In Geneva, he said, retirees have been able to enter since last year. “No reason to keep them away,” said Richards, an economist at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

In his circular, Guterres said “after a long two-year struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic, we have encouraging news to report. COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations and transmission rates have significantly improved in New York City and the Tri-State area”.

Cases amongst UNHQ personnel have also sharply declined and have been at very low levels for some time. As you know, State and City authorities in New York have now lifted or revised their pandemic mitigation measures, he said.

“From the beginning, our approach on health and safety measures, as well as our transition from Phase Zero to the “Next Normal” phase has been closely guided by advice and the guidance of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and that of the local health authorities in New York City and State,” said Guterres.

The CDC has introduced a new “community level” tool to help formulate prevention steps based on the latest data. Levels – which are determined by hospitalization and test positivity rates – are characterized as low, medium or high. New York is currently at the low community level, for which the CDC recommends the following:

On the question of masks, the circular says people may choose to mask at any time. People with symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a mask.

On COVID-19 vaccine: “Stay up to date (meaning a person has received all recommended COVID-19 vaccines, including any booster dose(s) when eligible)”.

Meanwhile, the authorities in New York City have decided to end COVID-19 vaccination requirements at restaurants, gyms, fitness studios, entertainment and cultural venues.

But the City will continue to mandate masks in public transit, as well as in healthcare facilities, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, schools/day care for children aged 2 to 5, and Broadway theatres. Individual businesses can choose to mandate masks while indoor school mask mandates have been discontinued in the Tri-State area.

“Based on the new guidelines, we are now able to institute associated changes in our workplace, returning to full operational capability while still prioritizing the health and safety of personnel, and balancing the operational needs of the Organization,” the circular added.

Guterres thanked staffers for their resilience, dedication and extraordinary efforts over this long and difficult period.

“We have learned many lessons together – including how to work effectively in innovative ways. Let us build on those lessons as we carry out our essential mission to advance peace, sustainable development and human rights for all,” he added.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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