The United Nations Security and Safety Service is the Division charged with the strategic management of safety and security operations at Headquarters, Offices away from Headquarters, Regional Commissions, and International Tribunals. As part of its daily role, the Service enables a safe and secure operating environment for UN activities and high-level events such as the UN General Assembly (UNGA). With the UNGA around the corner, we take you behind the scenes to what it takes to prepare for High-Level week.
The UN security officers are at the front and center of this event, and they undertake their roles of safeguarding dozens of world leaders with the utmost seriousness, professionalism, and experience garnered from their daily responsibilities. Rodrigo Victor da Paixão, Deputy Chief of the Security and Safety Service, notes, “On any given day of the year at the UNHQ, we might have several VVIPs or Heads of State/Government coming in. We practically do a mini-GA every day,” he adds with a smile. “From a UN Security point of view, it is all about building on what we do all year round and scaling up for GA week. September witnesses intensified efforts due to the sheer volume of participants”, he mentions. The number and level of participants call for a strengthened security posture, as per any event in the international arena. This involves flying in additional UN security officers from other duty stations to reinforce the New York staff.
As a National Special Security Event (NSSE) that requires full protective, crisis management, incident response, and counterterrorism capabilities at all levels, from local to the federal government, the UNGA is recognized by the host government as having both national and international significance. The host government deploys the full power of its law enforcement and emergency response, often incorporating around 17 or 18 distinct US agencies led by the Secret Service.
Preparations for the UNGA
In a sense, the GA never really ends. Da Paixão explains that “For us, it never stops. The day after the last event of the GA High-Level week, we are already preparing for next year, through reviewing lessons learned and how we can do it better next time.”
For all that, there is a process specific to each year’s GA with the stopwatch beginning in May. “That’s when we start doing our first internal coordination meetings. At first it is one every other week, then starting in July, every week,” Da Paixão notes.
Various drills are conducted in July and August, ranging from fire drills to mock medical emergencies to diverse mass casualty scenarios like terrorist attacks, natural disasters, etc. “We have a thorough plan in place in the event that we need to transport several people to the hospital at once. There is also close cooperation with the NYC fire department, our medical service, and hospitals nearby,” Da Paixão says, “We have prepared for all the worst-case scenarios.”
A specific security risk assessment for the UNGA is prepared by the SSS-NY Crisis Management and Strategic Planning Unit, in consultation with the relevant host country law enforcement authorities. Red Team exercises are conducted by various SSS teams to account for any vulnerabilities and implement mitigating measures. In addition, a Security Operations Plan with evacuation, emergency, and safety plans is also prepared and updated continuously, along with various security concepts and needs analysis for the event that prompts a review of all procedures in place and safety inspections. Additional checkpoints are coordinated with NYPD to extend the outer perimeter to Second Avenue. Bomb sweeps of the complex are also conducted before and during the event in coordination with the host country. SSS also coordinates and reviews with NYPD the traffic patterns outside the UN premises and manages vehicles and motorcade access and movement inside the complex. The Special Services Unit (SSU) provides close protection to visiting dignitaries in coordination with host country agencies and visiting national security elements accompanying the VVIPs while on UN premises. SSU also liaises and provides briefings and walk-throughs for security counterparts before the GA.
During the GA
Months of efforts culminate at the UNGA High-Level week. Statistics from the previous year UNGA-77 revealed screening of a total of 55,580 persons and 67,698 items, with the daily highest record of 13,508 persons and 13,165 items. The Pass and ID Unit issued a total of 146,940 ground and overlay passes with around 43% (9,524) ground passes, 38% (8,404) mission overlay passes, 16% (3,645) staff overlay passes and 3% (546) media passes.
In addition, the Executive Protection Unit ensured the highest standards of safety and security to the designated Senior United Nations Officials (SUNOs) while the Secretary-General (SG) attended 161 bilateral meetings and 48 events, the President of the General Assembly (PGA) attended 75 bilateral and 29 events and the Deputy Secretary General (DSG) attended 7 bilateral and 82 events.
The Special Services Unit assisted Member States in providing safety and security to 140 Heads of State (HOS) and Heads of Government (HOG), 63 Foreign Ministers (FMs), and 34 other VIPs. To add, 745 motorcades were allowed into the UNHQ compound with their 86 high and medium threat level HOS/HOG representatives, while 73 of them requested walkthrough escorts through the UN compound.
Furthermore, a Joint Operation Center is set up at the UN for the High-Level week, where various US agencies continuously coordinate with the UN Security representatives to ensure the smooth operation of the event.
“The GA entails more than its central proceedings. Numerous side events, dinners, and themed events and functions occur concurrently. This year, for instance, will feature the Sustainable Development Goal summit,” Paixão says. “This will bring in a lot more people and it is going to be a lot busier than a regular GA.”