UN Holds Elections With COVID-19 Social Distancing

Historic vote determines Canada's Security Council bid
June 17, 2020 Updated: June 17, 2020

TANZANIA, Tanzania—The U.N. General Assembly president banged his gavel to open elections Wednesday under dramatically different voting procedures because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including for two hotly contested seats on the U.N. Security Council.

The U.N. headquarters complex remains open for essential workers, but Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has ordered staff to work from home until July 31 because of the pandemic. So instead of having ambassadors from the 193 U.N. member nations in the General Assembly chamber together for elections, a new procedure was adopted.

On Wednesday morning it went into operation—a few ambassadors arriving at the assembly during spaced-out time slots starting at 9 a.m. to avoid a large gathering and ensure social distancing.

And instead of voting separately for the next General Assembly president, five new members of the Security Council, and 18 new members of the Economic and Social Council, the three elections are being held at the same time by secret ballot.

Each arriving ambassador wore a mask, presented a voting card to a U.N. staff member, received three different colored paper ballots in an envelope, and went up an escalator into the nearly empty chamber where Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande sat in the presiding seat, overlooking the cavernous space.

Among the early voters were U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft and the ambassadors of Poland and Turkey. Each sat in a spaced-out seat behind the nameplate of their country, marked their ballots, and then walked to the front of the chamber to deposit them in three colour-coded, separate boxes.

The most watched election is for seats in the Security Council, the U.N.’s most powerful body which has 15 members. There are five permanent members—the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France—and 10 members elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms, with seats allocated to regional groups.

Five new members are elected every year and this year Canada, Ireland and Norway are battling for two Western seats and Kenya and Djibouti are competing for one African seat. India is running unopposed for the Asia-Pacific seat and Mexico is running unopposed for the seat for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Winning a seat on the Security Council is considered a pinnacle of achievement for many countries because it gives them a strong voice on issues of international peace and security ranging from conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Ukraine to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and Iran, and attacks by extremist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida.

Before COVID-19, countries running for Security Council seats often invited ambassadors for lavish visits to their nations, put on dinners and held receptions with entertainments, and sent senior government officials around the globe lobbying for votes. But the pandemic has curtailed all of that since March.

In the other elections, there is one candidate for president of the 75th session of the General Assembly which begins in September. The post rotates annually by region and Volkan Bozkir of Turkey was selected this year from the Western Europe and other states group. Greece, Cyprus and Armenia asked for a vote rather than electing him by consensus.

The 18 candidates for seats in the Economic and Social Council are all running unopposed.

They are Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Nigeria and Zimbabwe from Africa; Indonesia, Japan and Solomon Islands from Asia-Pacific states; Bulgaria from Eastern Europe; Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala and Mexico from Latin America and the Caribbean; and Austria, France, Germany, Portugal and the United Kingdom from the Western group.

Muhammad-Bande is expected to announce the initial results sometime Wednesday afternoon, and additional rounds of voting may be needed.

By Edith M. Lederer