UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council met in its chamber at U.N. headquarters in New York for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York in March on Thursday, and despite wearing masks and being separated by plexiglass dividers, U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft said “It was so great to be home.”
“We’re all practicing our social distancing — but we’re just so happy to be together,” she said as she left the council meeting on Mali’s transition after a recent coup. “Fantastic!”
Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who started lobbying for the U.N.’s most powerful body to resume in-person meetings in its chamber when his country held the council presidency in July, agreed. “The Security Council is coming home, and it was wonderful to be there,” he said.
Like most businesses and organizations, the council was forced to meet virtually because of the pandemic, but the heart of diplomacy is face-to-face contact and interaction, and as the months rolled by pressure grew to resume in-person meetings.
Heusgen succeeded in getting council members to meet in the much larger chamber for the Economic and Social Council on several occasions in July, and that practice has continued several times in the succeeding months, despite the majority of U.N. staff members still working from home.
But as France’s U.N. Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere said Thursday, the larger ECOSOC chamber is for its 54 members, and the smaller Security Council chamber is for its 15 members.
It was “really good” to be back in the council’s own familiar surroundings, he said, and with masks, plexiglass, and only two diplomats allowed from each country, “we’ll do that a couple of times each week.”
“The council is back at work,” echoed South Africa’s U.N. Ambassador Jerry Matjila. “It was fantastic.”
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, the current council president who strongly supported Germany’s push for a return to the council chamber, told reporters as he left Thursday’s meeting: “I think everybody was happy to come back home, finally.”
“It was a long road,” he said. “Seven months it took us, and finally we are back, and that’s a good message as well. All members of the council were saying ECOSOC is fine, but still, the image passed in the Security Council itself is a very important message.”
During Thursday’s meeting on Mali some ambassadors took their masks off when they spoke and others left them on.
“I think we are pretty safe with and without masks,” Nebenzia said. “It’s not the distance that is the crucial thing, it’s not even the partitions, it’s that you are confident that you are not infected. ... And I encouraged my colleagues to test as often as we can so that they reassure themselves and they reassure the rest of the council.”
Nebenzia told council members he had just tested negative for COVID-19.
At U.N. headquarters, and in much of the diplomatic world before COVID-19, diplomats would shake hands with their male colleagues and kiss their female colleagues on each cheek, sometimes twice or three times. The pandemic ended that, but Nebenzia joked that he hasn’t totally given up.
“If you are not infected ... we can kiss all right and nothing happens,” he told several female reporters. “OK? I’m always ready!”