Working for the President of the UN General Assembly: exclusive interview with Ambassador Nagaraj Naidu

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The Office of the President of the General Assembly is a mini-UN in itself; President Shahid has taken a pledge not to participate in any panel discussion which is not gender balanced

Ambassador Nagaraj Naidu, Chef de Cabinet to the 76th United Nations General Assembly President, Abdullah Shahid. PHOTO: courtesy Ambassdor Naidu

In an extensive phone interview February 19, 2022, with News India Times, Ambassador Nagaraj Naidu, Chef de Cabinet to the 76th United Nations General Assembly President, Abdulla Shahid, spoke about his role at the Office of the President of the General Assembly (OPGA), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s UN visit, challenges faced by the GA in organizing the General Debate where 194 world dignitaries visited the UN during the pandemic, GA’s role in mitigating the impact of COVID, gender balance at the UN, his previous role at the Indian Mission to the UN, reforms at the UN, special initiatives adopted for the Least Developed Countries among  other important aspects.

You assumed charge as the Chef de Cabinet to the 76th United Nations General Assembly President (UNGA), Abdulla Shahid in August 2021. This is the first time an Indian diplomat has been appointed to this crucial position. How do you feel about your appointment? What does this role entail?

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Yes, indeed this is the first time an Indian diplomat has been appointed to this position. I am extremely honored to be chosen as the Chef de Cabinet to the 76th President of the United Nations General Assembly. When President Shahid requested for an Indian diplomat to be his Chef de Cabinet, my name was suggested by the Government of India’s Ministry of External Affairs. There is no blueprint for how to organize the OPGA as it has no permanent staff. Since the OPGA is constituted for essentially 12 months, its contingent on the incoming Chef de Cabinet to essentially lay down office management procedures and staff guidelines. At present, I have put in place a multicultural team of 55 members from 45 nationalities and have rewritten the office handbook. It is the largest office in the history of the OPGA. Essentially, the OPGA is a mini-UN in itself. As far as my work is concerned, I am responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the GA processes, problem solving and to implementing the priorities of the President of the GA.

What is the role of the GA at the UN?

As you’re aware, the GA is the main deliberative, policymaking and the only universally representative body of the UN. Comprising of 193 Member States, the GA provides a unique forum for multilateral discussion on international issues. As delineated in the Charter of the UN, the function of the GA is to discuss, debate, and make recommendations on subjects pertaining to international peace and security, including development, disarmament, human rights, international law, and the peaceful arbitration of disputes between nations. The GA plays a significant role in the process of standard-setting and the codification of international law. The GA through its six committees meets twice a year and considers current issues of critical importance to the international community in the form of High-level Thematic Debates organized by the President of the GA in consultation with the membership. The GA also conducts informal consultations on a wide range of substantive topics as mandated by its resolutions. The GA elects the non-permanent members of the Security Council and other UN bodies, such as the Human Rights Council, and appoints the Secretary-General based on the Security Council’s recommendation. It considers reports from other organs of the UN, assesses the financial situations of Member States, and approves the UN budget. The GA works with the Security Council to elect the judges of the International Court of Justice, and monitors the performance of UN Peacekeeping through its Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations. The President of the GA also has to take decisions on whom to appoint as co-facilitators for the various mandated processes (ranging from Security Council reform to the International Review Forum on Migration, to mention just a few) based on the interests and capabilities of individual ambassadors and with a view to a North/South and gender balance.

Soon after you took charge, around 100 Heads of State attended the 76th United Nations General Assembly session in-person in September 2021. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the UNGA session in-person as well. What has been your experience given that you were part of the team that organized the high-level event?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the President of the 76th United Nations General Assembly Session, Abdullah Shahid, at the United Nations on September 25, 2021. PHOTO: https://mobile.twitter.com/ambtstirumurti

We were glad that the High-Level Week and the General Debate of the 76th session saw in-person participation by 194 dignitaries including 100 Heads of State, 52 Heads of Government, three Vice-Presidents, and 34 Ministers. The images of world leaders entering the building were momentous. We were also delighted to have PM Modi attend the general debate in-person. In his speech, he mentioned that India’s progress in the scientific and technological sectors could benefit the world because of its scalability and cost-effectiveness. His message that development should be all-inclusive, universal and one that nurtures all and that India is ensuring a balance between economy and ecology resonated well with the wider UN membership.

What were the challenges faced by you and the GA team while organizing this mammoth event in the midst of the ongoing pandemic?

Last September, COVID-19 infections were still high globally. Though vaccinations were available, not all countries were able to secure adequate dosages and there were travel restrictions and quarantine measures put in place in many countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) had issued the Emergency Use Listing (EUL) with a limited portfolio of approved COVID-19 vaccines. There were questions as to what would happen to those delegates who had taken vaccines which had not yet received WHO EUL. If proof of vaccination would be needed? We faced a huge dilemma whether we should still go ahead with convening the GA High-Level Week virtually or conduct in a hybrid mode. President Shahid strongly believed in in-person diplomacy and wanted us to work with all parties to ensure that world leaders returned to the UN Headquarters. With clear directions from the President, and working closely with the United States Mission to the United Nations, the New York City Mayor’s Office, and the UN Secretariat, we were able to successfully hold the high-level week in hybrid mode but with strong in-person participation by Heads of State, Government and Ministers from across the world. To make it convenient for Member States an honor system was put in place for vaccines. The Mayor’s Office apart from implementing necessary security and protocol measures also helped arrange vaccine vans outside the UN premises to give single-dose COVID-19 vaccines to visiting delegations that desired to get vaccinated. Essentially, almost after one-and- half-years, we had the UN re-open and witnessed strong participation by world leaders. The 2021 High-Level Week of the GA was the first big global gathering since the onset of COVID and we were happy that the opening occurred under President Shahid. It also signaled the return of in-person diplomacy.

What is the role being performed by the GA to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19?

The GA is like a global parliament. It has a tremendous convening power considering it’s the only forum in the world where 193 countries are represented. Essentially, the UN brings with it the moral authority and is a force for good. On the issue of COVID-19, President Shahid has made recovery from COVID-19 as one of his key priorities. On 25th February, President Shahid convened a high-level debate on galvanizing momentum to ensure vaccine equity. The hybrid event will see participation by Heads of State/Government, ministers and experts from WHO, GAVI, and vaccine manufacturers to discuss the challenges and solutions to achieve universal vaccination. Meeting global vaccine targets is crucial, and this is precisely what the GA would be addressing. President Shahid is of the view that we have the resources and the solutions, and what we need is the political-will to deliver. His objective through this event is to mobilize political momentum worldwide to ensure that vaccine equity goals are met. In May, President Shahid will also be convening a high-level event on Tourism, which is part of his priority on recovering from COVID-19. The aim is to build a global tourism sector that is resilient to shocks.

President Shahid, soon after his election as the UNGA President, tweeted that you will be instrumental in delivering his vision for the #PresidencyOfHope. Prior to assuming this role, you served as the Deputy Permanent Representative (DPR) at the Permanent Mission of India to the UN in New York. How has that experience helpful in your current role in delivering his vision?

Abdullah Shahid, President of the 76th United Nations General Assembly Session, and Ambassador Nagaraj Naidu, Chef de Cabinet, at an event in the UN Headquarters in New York. PHOTO: Ambassador Naidu

We’re already halfway through our year-long tenure, and it has been a tremendous learning experience delivering on the agenda of the General Assembly for the Member States and President Shahid’s priorities as part of his “Presidency of Hope.” My previous role as the Ambassador and DPR at the Indian Mission was immensely helpful. As the DPR, I had developed a fine understanding of the functioning of all the six UN committees and India’s approach to the issues handled in these committees. Furthermore, the opportunity of getting to know fellow diplomats from 193 countries and their negotiating styles, approach to specific issues, red lines and focus areas has enabled me to prepare well for the position of Chef de Cabinet. Additionally, a good understanding of the UN Secretariat system and its workings proved useful. Moreover, India is an active delegation at the United Nations. Our approach to global issues, contribution to peacekeeping, hosting of several side events, contesting high-profile elections, administering the India-UN Development Partnership Fund and preparing for the two-year term on the Security Council helped me gain a 360-degree understanding of the UN system. The tenure at the Indian Mission also enabled me to understand the needs of delegations and helped me in putting in place a system in the OPGA that is extremely transparent and Member State-friendly.

 What about issues of gender-balance at the United Nations?

President Shahid has ensured that all issues in the OPGA are approached through the gender lens. We have been conscious about female representation across at levels of the Office. The OPGA has more women representation than men. President Shahid registered as an International Gender Champion has taken a pledge not to participate in any panel discussion which is not gender balanced. He also took the pledge for zero tolerance on gender-based violence. The Office has a Special Adviser on Gender Equality, a position created for the first time to ensure that gender equality is approached in a holistic manner and mainstreamed across all GA processes and activities. We have reconstituted the Gender Advisory Board of the President with an expanded membership to ensure that the views of Member States, the UN Secretariat, Civil Society and the private sector are duly taken on board. We are currently working towards improving the infrastructure of the lactation rooms at the UN and are looking forward to launching them on March 8th when the world celebrates International Women’s Day. The PGA Youth Fellowship has five women out of the eight candidates that were selected. President Shahid as part of his informal approach to understanding global issues has had interactions with young women diplomats in the “Holhuashi” dialogue format. The goal was to understand the issues faced by women diplomats in their jobs. He has also made it a point to interact with women leaders in all his official visits abroad.

From Left, Ambassador Nagaraj Naidu, Chef de Cabinet, President of Maldives, Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, and the UN General Assembly President, Abdullah Shahid during the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York. PHOTO: Ambassador Naidu

Are there any new programs initiated at the OPGA since you took over?

Yes, for the first time in the history of the UN General Assembly, we have started the President of the General Assembly’s Harnessing Opportunities for Promoting Empowerment of Youth Fellowship – the PGA’s Fellowship for HOPE – which is aimed at nurturing the next generation multilateralists. The program is targeted at enhancing capacities of young diplomats drawn primarily from underrepresented countries at the UN, particularly from Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries, and Small Island Developing States. Developed in partnership with the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the fellowship will allow the Fellows to garner a deeper understanding of the UN system, its organs and subsidiary bodies through training components that shall cover the full gamut of issues relevant to the world today, from climate change to COVID-19, from peace and security, to human rights and gender equality. The 2022 HOPE Fellowship program will see eight Fellows rotate through OPGA’s six substantive working teams (Peace & Security; Human Rights; Humanitarian; Sustainable Development; Reform, Legal & Budget; and Communications); work with their respective Permanent Missions on various responsibilities; and receive weekly UNITAR training workshops on UN processes and relevant topics.

Can you talk about the “Our Common Agenda” report and the ongoing consultations at the United Nations?

The Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda” report responds to the September 2020 declaration on the commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary. It identifies actions that could advance the 12 commitments made by world leaders in that declaration in ways that also accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. As per the direction by Member States through the 76/6 resolution, the President of the General Assembly has put in place a process whereby Member States will have an opportunity to discuss threadbare the UN Secretary-General’s proposals for Our Common Agenda.  It comprises of 90 recommendations to help realize a “greener, safer, better” future and avert a historical breakdown of societies. The informal consultations organized in five thematic clusters have already commenced on February 10th 2022. The consultations will end on March 8th. Out of five scheduled consultations two have already taken place. Our objective through the informal consultations is to identify those initiatives that gather broad support among the membership and whose implementation could start during the resumed part of the 76th session of the UNGA and those that would require the GA to identify processes to facilitate further consideration.

Both, you and President Shahid are alumni of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. When did you meet him first?

The United Nations has a number of diplomats who are graduates from the Fletcher School. However, I was unaware that President Shahid was an alumnus of the Fletcher School till I met him for the first time, which happened only after he was elected as the President of the 76th session of the General Assembly.

 

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