U.N. council members want option to vote virtually, Russia says 'don't be afraid'

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Most United Nations Security Council members want to be able to hold virtual votes during the coronavirus pandemic if needed, diplomats say, but Russia believes the 15-member body “shouldn’t be afraid” to meet in person in the council chamber in New York.

Russia has prevented the Security Council from approving a U.S.-drafted procedural note, seen by Reuters, for meetings held by videoconference, said diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity. Such notes must be agreed by consensus.

The note spells out how the council could meet and vote virtually “as a last resort” in the event of a serious public emergency, including a public health emergency. The council has already conducted several tests of virtual meetings.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to gather from time to time in UNSC Chamber,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia wrote in a letter on Monday - also seen by Reuters - to China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun, the council president for March.

Nebenzia said the U.N. was “one of the safest venues” in New York City and “the risk of getting the virus there is much lower than when we go to a shop for basic needs.”

Since Monday the United Nations has slashed its staff presence at its New York headquarters for four weeks to essential services only.

The virus has infected more than 245,000 people across the world and the death toll exceeds 10,000. Nearly 13,900 people in the United States have been diagnosed and 200 have died of the coronavirus, with the largest numbers so far in New York state.

Russia has so far recorded 199 coronavirus cases and one person diagnosed with the virus has died.

Nebenzia said Russia was ready to look at options for some members to join a meeting via video conference “but only upon the understanding that Russia and others who are prepared to be heading to UNSC chamber, will be given such an opportunity.”

The draft procedural note appeared to reflect this. However, on Tuesday Russia said it could not agree to the draft and gave no explanation, diplomats said. Russia’s U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The note says the contingency arrangements spelled out could be “introduced for an initial period of two weeks and may be further extended for additional two-week periods, preferably by consensus” but a procedural vote could be called if necessary.

A council vote on a procedural issue needs nine votes in favour and the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia cannot wield their vetoes.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Tom Brown