This year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) General Debate, like so many parts of life in 2020, was completely different this year. The General Debate, though it is dominated by long and dry speeches by world leaders, has always led to some noteworthy moments and drama. This year, the debate was mostly virtual, and it lacked notable breakout moments in the video messages, even from the speakers who are known to be more bombastic.
For B’nai B’rith, the General Debate period focused on the opportunity to meet with world leaders and discuss issues of primary concern to both our organization and the wider Jewish community. As such, for many years, we have served as the coordinator of a group of major American and international Jewish organizations that seek meetings during this one week in September, in addition to other requests that we send out on our own.
When we began to discuss the UNGA internally in late spring it was somewhat unclear as to how to move forward. New York had suffered a catastrophic spring and it was apparent that our normal in-person meetings would not happen. And, of course, the coronavirus was still the only thing that many of us (world leaders included) could think about at the time. Would countries be too focused on combating the virus to participate in our normal discussions? B’nai B’rith has contributed to coronavirus relief efforts around the world, but our disaster relief is not typically a major focus during UNGA meetings, which tend to revolve around issues of anti-Semitism, Iran and Middle East issues.
As the summer came, though, political issues were still very much relevant, as there was much discussion about Israeli plans to extend sovereignty in areas of the West Bank, a landmark peace agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and the U.N. Security Council’s failure to extend an arms embargo against Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. Certainly, anti-Semitism has been a grave concern pre-COVID, but has spiked around the world in connection to the pandemic.
With that in mind, B’nai B’rith requested meetings, making it clear that these would be virtual meetings only. Just as we were unsure about what UNGA would like, so were our diplomatic partners in U.N. missions, New York consulates and embassies in Washington, D.C. Some were unsure if there would even be bilateral meetings surrounding the UNGA, virtual or not. Eventually, though, many countries engaged diplomatically on the sidelines of the UNGA, not wanting to miss an opportunity for dialogue on substantive issues.
Overall, the experience was a mixed bag. We met with fewer leaders than we normally would have and could not meet with some world leaders with whom we usually meet.
But, we were also able to stretch the horizon of these meetings out — from early September throughout October (and possibly beyond) — which allowed us to meet with some leaders that we might not have during a normal UGNA.
We are, as always, grateful to the world the world leaders who gave their time to engage with us on important issues in the global Jewish community during a difficult year. We also want to thank the diplomatic missions that helped us to pull off these meetings. We hope, though, that this will be the only UNGA that we have to experience virtually
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
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