NEW YORK - The U.N. General Assembly will hold its first major vote Wednesday since the coronavirus pandemic forced United Nations headquarters to essentially shut down in mid-March.
Member states will hold an election for five seats on the powerful 15-member Security Council. The annual event normally draws hundreds of diplomats to the assembly hall in a collegial atmosphere, where candidate countries hand out small treat bags with national goodies to promote their candidacy, capping off months of campaigning and parties to raise their profiles.
U.N. headquarters is in the heart of New York City, which has been one of the hardest-hit places globally by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The complex closed in mid-March to all but a few hundred essential personnel who could not perform their duties from home.
Since then, the secretary-general has held virtual news conferences, the Security Council has taken its public meetings online, and the United Nations, like many individuals and businesses, has had to navigate an evolving reality, which included the cancellation of events promoting candidacies.
"The pandemic initially upset the candidates' campaign plans in March and April, but they have got back to lobbying via phone and Zoom as the vote approaches," said Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group and a longtime U.N. watcher. "Justin Trudeau and other leaders have been popping up in webinars and placing calls to wavering leaders."
Trudeau is Canada's prime minister, and his government is running in a tight race with Ireland and Norway for two available seats in the regional group dedicated to Western Europe "and others." Canada lost its last bid for a seat in 2010 and has a lot on the line.
Both Ireland and Norway are popular contenders. The European Union's 27-strong bloc will be behind Ireland, especially as it seeks to maintain its influence on the council. With permanent council member Britain now no longer part of the bloc, it has lost one influential seat and could see its current hold on four seats cut in half as Belgium and Germany complete their two-year terms and exit the council at the end of the year, leaving France and Estonia.
Norway is not an EU member but has a solid reputation in multilateral diplomacy and conflict resolution.
"Norway is a strong candidate, and has emphasized diplomatic experience mediating in Colombia, Venezuela and the Middle East," Gowan noted.
In the other contested race, Djibouti and Kenya are competing for a single seat in the African Group.
Typically, the African bloc rotates seats among its sub-regions and presents one agreed-upon candidate. This year it is East Africa's turn, but there was initially a lack of consensus on who should run. Kenya subsequently received the endorsement of the African Union's Permanent Representatives Council, but Djibouti has challenged the PRC's authority to make the endorsement and has continued with its bid.
Mexico is the candidate from the Latin America and the Caribbean bloc, and India for Asia-Pacific. Both are running uncontested.
Member states cast secret ballots and candidate countries must win a two-thirds majority of votes to succeed, even if running unopposed. The current General Assembly president will oversee the proceedings.
Diplomats will also vote simultaneously for members of the social and economic council and to approve the uncontested bid for the next president of the General Assembly.
On Wednesday, diplomats will vote in person during designated time slots in the assembly hall to respect social distancing and guidelines prohibiting large gatherings. Several rounds of voting are often needed to settle contested races.
"The new voting process will be quite onerous, and diplomats will not be happy if they have to troop in and out of headquarters for repeated rounds of ballots," Gowan predicted.
The countries running for the Security Council are looking to replace exiting members Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa. The winners will take up their two-year terms on Jan. 1, 2021.