FEATURE: Behind the Scenes – when the world comes to UN Headquarters

News satellite trucks line the UN complex as the annual general debate continues. UN/JC McIlwaine
News satellite trucks line the UN complex as the annual general debate continues. UN/JC McIlwaine

FEATURE: Behind the Scenes – when the world comes to UN Headquarters

Gridlock and fanfare – are two words often associated with the United Nations.  And at no time do these words crop up more frequently than when the General Assembly meets in the fall every year. 

Gridlock and fanfare – two words often associated with the United Nations. At no time do they crop up more frequently than when the General Assembly opens its high-level session in the fall every year.

World leaders descend on Turtle Bay, the nickname given to the stretch of high-priced real estate along the East River where UN Headquarters is located, choking traffic in midtown Manhattan. New Yorkers wait patiently at crossing points as police on high alert and sniffing dogs secure access to the buildings.

Motorcades, security personnel with dark glasses and walkie-talkies, diplomatic retinues and hordes of press correspondents swarm into the historic, now refurbished, complex serving as home to the Organization of 193 Member States and thousands of staffers.

It is the time of year when world leaders present their views at the UN about pressing world issues, in what is known as the “General Debate”.

Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens, Emirs and Foreign Ministers take centre stage during the two weeks of the General Debate. The UN is in the eyes of the world and media coverage is at its height.

From 24 September for a week, more than 130 world leaders are here to deliver an address incorporating their country’s laundry-list of priority issues in the kick-off to the 68th General Assembly session.


Above, a motorcade winds its way up First Avenue en route to the General Assembly. Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

The impressive line-up this year includes 84 heads of State, 41 heads of Government, 11 Deputy Prime Ministers and 65 Foreign Ministers scheduled to address the Assembly on sustainable development, poverty eradication, climate change, human rights, and a range of peace and security issues.

As everyone gears up for the frenzy of meetings, the Department of Public Information stretches itself to make sure that what is sometimes referred to as an annual “talkfest” is carried on airwaves and cyberspace and in print to the farthest corners of the planet.

Multiple teams of UN photographers, TV camera crews, radio producers from UN Radio, website experts and news writers make it possible for all the major meetings to be webcast, to be carried on TV and captured in photos by staff hauling cameras and racing around the UN buildings. Others prepare succinct and quick summaries and stories that can be carried by radio, TV, social media and online news portals to bring UN events closer to the world.

Whether you are in Nauru in the Pacific, or Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina, or close to the rooftop of the world in Nepal, it is possible to follow the deliberations of the General Assembly and the debate in real time as the proceedings unfold. That is because gavel-to-gavel live streaming of the General Debate and major events on the margins of the sessions are carried by UNTV and its webcast team.

In one of the newest developments, most of the meeting rooms have been equipped with robotic cameras which allow the discussions to be broadcast live, and to be heard in all of the UN’s six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish). Over the three busiest days this week, more than 715,000 unique visitors from over 200 countries and territories checked in on webcasts of UN events via multiple platforms including mobile devices, said webcast team leader Andreas Damianou.


Pictured, a crowd of journalists gathers to cover a press briefing outside the Security Council Chamber. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

In addition, a few years ago an online news portal was created for the UN’s own news service, where wire-style stories are posted, covering activities of the UN and its agencies and programmes across the world, in all official languages. These stories, with links to multimedia elements of interviews and TV clips, go up quickly and provide readers and RSS subscribers with authoritative and comprehensive news about the UN.

Last Friday, the news service’s story on Security Council action to rid Syria of its chemical weapons was posted within minutes of the resolution being adopted. “A Reuters training team was surprised we do so much with so little,” said Elizabeth Philip, one of the news writers, who stressed the attention to detail in the coverage and the limited resources devoted to it.


UNTV’s French version of “21st Century”, a programme taped at UN Headquarters, is anchored by Charlotte Le Grix de La Salle. UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

In 2012, more than 19,000 photos were distributed and some 2,700 international media were accredited for the General Debate. The UN YouTube page was constantly in use and more than 16 million page views of the un.org site were registered in this period. Some 170 events with simultaneous live feeds were covered by UN Television alone. Over 400 interviews with world leaders and UN officials and live recordings of meetings and events were uploaded for use by broadcasters worldwide.

“It is history in the making and we want it to be part of our legacy too,” says Sophie Farigoul, a staffer who oversees a site that lists all speakers along with full searchable text of their statements as well as associated multimedia products, such as audio files and videos in available languages and much more.


Reflecting a sign of the times, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon answers some of the 5,000 questions from social media users around the world during an event streamed live on Facebook, Livestream, Tumblr and UN Webcast, with moderator JuJu Chang of ABC News. UN Photo/Mark Garten

UN photos, in addition, provide a rich treasure trove of the Organization’s history. On the eve of the debate, UN photographer Mark Garten, veteran of 12 General Assembly sessions, was attempting to capture UN Headquarters as the sun was fading. “UN Headquarters is a magnificent architectural monument. But it’s really hard to grab that sweep of the 39-story tower and the domed building and the flags along First Avenue,” he mused.

Many other offices, including the conference and meetings staff, interpretation and translation teams, security personnel and countless others are caught up in the logistics of making the General Debate a success.

Although these weeks go by in a blur with late nights and little time to pause for meals or chatter, UN staff enjoy the buzz and revel in the fact that they are at the centre of the universe for at least a few days. As Garten commented: “It’s mayhem, but we survive.”