World leaders gathered virtually Tuesday for this week’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), with the UN’s historic 75th anniversary overshadowed by strongmen leaders, fraying relations and a sense of intensifying international crisis.
The summit was forced online this year due to the pandemic and the 14-day quarantine regulations in New York City.
COVID-19 loomed heavily over the first day of the event. Instead of meeting in person, UN officials, presidents and prime ministers sent pre-recorded speeches to mark the occasion.
US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, and a suite of strongmen including China’s Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Russia’s Vladimir Putin all spoke early on Tuesday.
UN Secretary General António Guterres called the health crisis “our own 1945 moment” — a reference to World War II — and described COVID-19 as “a toxic virus shaking the democratic underpinnings in many countries.”
Guterres’ remarks touched on rising global poverty and fractured diplomatic relations, and warned of the increasingly bitter standoff between China and the United States, whose diplomatic relationship he said was moving “in a very dangerous direction.”
“Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities,” he said.
Guterres also suggested a New Global Deal to solve the crisis, built on a multilateral approach.
But Tuesday’s session often highlighted a lack of unity between UN members, with tensions particularly apparent between the US and China.
Trump praised his own handling of the pandemic in the US, and touted his role in facilitating peace agreements between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel, saying that more peace agreements would be coming shortly.
He used part of his time to attack China, calling the coronavirus the “China virus” and urging the UN to hold Beijing accountable for the pandemic. He accused Beijing of “allowing flights to leave China and infect the world” and of “virtually controlling” the World Health Organization.
WHO Communications director Gabby Stern responded on Twitter, writing, “@WHO has 194 Member States; no one gov’t controls us.”
In a direct challenge to multilateralism, the US President also said global leaders should each put their own countries first. “For decades the same tired voices proposed the same failed solutions pursuing global ambitions at the expense of their own people, but only when you take care of your own citizens will you find a true basis for cooperation,” Trump said.
He added, “As president, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past, and I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first. That’s okay. That’s what you should be doing.”
Speaking right after President Xi’s pre-recorded message, China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jan rejected Trump’s “baseless accusations.” Later at the Chinese Mission in New York, he described the US handing of the pandemic as “a complete failure” and said that China would formally reply to Trump’s accusations later in the week.
Xi, for his part, pointedly expressed his country’s commitment to pursuing “open and inclusive development,” to building an open world economy, and upholding the multilateral trading regime “with the WTO as the cornerstone.”
“We should say no to unilateralism and protectionism,” Xi said.
Also in contrast to Trump, Russia’s Putin praised the UN, saying that over the decades it had “been ably fulfilling its mission of protecting peace, promoting sustainable development of the peoples and continents and providing assistance in mitigating local crises.”
“This enormous potential and expertise of the UN is relevant and serves as a solid basis for moving ahead,” he said.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro used his message to accuse foreign agents of overhyping fires in the Amazon. Flames are currently raging in the Amazon for a second consecutive year, and deforestation has increased since Bolsonaro took office.
“We are victims of the most brutal misinformation campaign about the Amazon and the Brazilian wetlands,” Bolsonaro said.
Another clash, this time in Europe, took center stage when Turkey’s Erdogan spoke. The Turkish leader called for a regional conference to address tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece, and accused Greece of causing problems in the region.
Avoid ‘vaccinationalism,’ UN pleads
Vaccines were also on several leaders’ minds, after Guterres’ opening address urged UN member states to avoid nationalism when it comes to curbing the pandemic.
Several leaders touted their country’s vaccine candidates as a potential solution.
Putin said the Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine was “reliable, safe and effective.” Moscow drew criticism when it approved Sputnik V earlier this summer before conducting Phase 3 clinical trials.
Ha added that he would be willing to provide the vaccine to UN staffers. “Russia is ready to provide the UN with all the necessary qualified assistance; in particular, we are offering to provide our vaccine, free of charge, for the voluntary vaccination of the staff of the UN and its offices,” he said.
China’s Xi said Beijing’s vaccines would be a “global public good” once developed and noted that there were several in Phase 3 clinical trials.
He added that if a vaccine was developed, it would be “provided to other developing countries on a priority basis.”
Though national leaders stayed home, the UN’s iconic Assembly Hall was not entirely empty this week — one diplomat per country is allowed to introduce their leader’s speech.
On the sidelines, largely virtual meetings will also take place on topics including climate change, biodiversity, and Lebanon.