UN General Assembly: NYC’s annual headache

September 21, 2010

UN-ASSEMBLY/For world leaders, foreign ministers and diplomats from the 192 members of the United Nations, the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly is a chance to stand at the iconic dark green marble podium and trumpet their countries’ successes, voice their concerns — or occasionally to attack their enemies. (Such as when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called former U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” during his address to the assembly.)

But for people who live or work in, or travel through, the east side of midtown Manhattan, the General Assembly is a headache that runs for three or four days every September. It causes regular traffic jams as official motorcades speed through the city. It’s difficult to book a hotel as prices soar and availability plummets. Scores of heavily armed NYPD officers line the streets. The city’s trademark incessant honking of car horns is punctuated with the roar of helicopters overhead scanning for suspicious activity on the streets below. NYPD checkpoints are set up to screen everyone trying to get within a few hundred yards of U.N. headquarters and those without proof that they live or work in the area are told to get lost.

This year’s General Assembly is an extended headache for the neighborhood. In addition to the assembly’s annual General Debate, world leaders agreed to spend an extra three days discussing the need to redouble efforts to meet a set of U.N. targets aimed at drastically reducing poverty and improving the quality of life for the world’s poor by 2015.

During their speeches, leaders pledged to step up efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — agreed 10 years ago — but offered little in the way of new resources. Among those addressing the summit later in the week are U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose annual attacks on Israel and the United States inevitably prompt a mass walkout by U.S. and European delegations.

Ban has described the MDG summit, and the draft declaration leaders are expected to approve before the week is over, as evidence of an “unprecedented level of support” for the world body’s crusade to improve quality of life for the poor.

Another unprecedented aspect of this year’s General Assembly is the difficulties journalists face covering the world’s top newsmakers, who the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (DSS) are taking extra precautions to keep away from journalists.

With much of the building closed due to a $1.9 billion renovation, the traditional areas where delegates and journalists could quietly mingle are gone. It was only after reporters complained that a media stakeout area was set up in the so-called North Lawn Building, a temporary structure where many of this week’s most important meetings — on Sudan, the Middle East peace process and other issues — are taking place. (The chalk-white container-like North Lawn Building has acquired a number of nicknames, including Bantanamo and Walmart.)

Journalists braving the 15-minute journey to Bantanamo/Walmart have found themselves facing an array of ad hoc restrictions. One Reuters reporter was told she needed a U.N. staff member to escort her if she wanted to attend a news conference. Another was told jointly by NYPD and DSS officers that journalists were not allowed to enter the main U.N. entrance at 42nd Street and 1st Avenue (U.N. officials later said this was a mistake on the part of the NYPD and U.N. security officer.)

The lockdown will get worse as the week progresses. Obama arrives in New York on Wednesday and will remain in the city for three days.

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly on Monday estimated the cost of U.N. security for the General Assembly to between $5 million and $7 million.

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