Kept apart by a devastating pandemic and dispersed across the globe, world leaders convened electronically Tuesday for an unprecedented high-level meeting, where the U.N. chief exhorted them to unite and tackle the era’s towering problems: the coronavirus, the “economic calamity” it unleashed and the risk of a new Cold War between the United States and China.
As Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the first virtual “general debate” of the U.N. General Assembly, the yawning gaps of politics and anger became evident. China and Iran clashed with the United States — via prerecorded videos from home — and leaders expressed frustration and anger at the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the U.N. chief has called “the number one global security threat in our world today.”
As he began his speech, the secretary-general looked out at the vast General Assembly chamber, where only one mask-wearing diplomat from each of the U.N.’s 193 member nations was allowed to sit, socially distanced from one another.
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“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our annual meeting beyond recognition,” Guterres said. “But it has made it more important than ever.”
While the six-day mainly virtual meeting is unique in the U.N.’s 75-year history, the speeches from leaders hit on all the conflicts, crises and divisions facing a world that Guterres said is witnessing “rising inequalities, climate catastrophe, widening societal divisions, rampant corruption.”
In his grim state of the world speech, he said “the pandemic has exploited these injustices, preyed on the most vulnerable and wiped away the progress of decades,” including sparking the first rise in poverty in 30 years.
The secretary-general called for global unity, foremost to fight the pandemic, and sharply criticized populism and nationalism for failing to contain the virus and for often making things worse.
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized how “countries were left on their own” at the onset of the pandemic, stressing that “effective multilateralism requires effective multilateral institutions.” He urged rapid U.N. reforms, starting with the Security Council, the most powerful body with five veto-wielding members — the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France.
By contrast, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose country has reported the second-highest coronavirus death toll after the U.S., trumpeted his focus on the economy in dealing with the pandemic.
Bolsonaro lambasted “segments of the Brazilian media” for “spreading panic” by encouraging stay-at-home orders and prioritizing public health over the economy. He’s downplayed the severity of the coronavirus and repeatedly said shutting down the economy would inflict worse hardship on people.
Guterres told the virtual audience that “too often, there has also been a disconnect between leadership and power.”
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A year ago, he warned about the rising U.S.-China rivalry, saying Tuesday: “We are 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,” Guterres said. “We must avoid this at all costs.”
The rivalry between the two powers was in full display as U.S. President Donald Trump, in a very short virtual speech, urged the United Nations to hold Beijing “accountable” for failing to contain the virus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has killed over 200,000 Americans and nearly 1 million worldwide.
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China’s ambassador rejected all accusations against Beijing as “totally baseless.”
“At this moment, the world needs more solidarity and cooperation, and not a confrontation,” U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said before introducing President Xi Jinping’s prerecorded speech. “We need to increase mutual confidence and trust, and not the spreading of political virus.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said the pandemic should be “an electric shock” to encourage more multilateral action. Otherwise, he warned, the world will be “collectively condemned to a pas de deux” by the U.S. and China in which everyone else is “reduced to being nothing but the sorry spectators of a collective impotence.”
Tensions with the U.S. also dominated a fiery speech by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose country is facing the worst COVID-19 crisis in the Middle East. He lashed out at U.S. sanctions but declared that his country will not submit to U.S. pressure.
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Rouhani said the United States can’t impose negotiations or war on Iran, stressing that his country is “not a bargaining chip in U.S. elections and domestic policy.” He used the May death of Black American George Floyd under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer as a metaphor for Iran’s “own experience” with the United States.
“We instantly recognize the feet kneeling on the neck as the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations,” Rouhani said.
U.S.-Iran tensions have run dangerously high this year, and Trump signed an executive order this week to enforce all U.N. sanctions on Iran because it’s not complying with a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers — a move he touted in his U.N. speech but that most of the world rejects as illegal.
Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the need for multilateral cooperation against the pandemic, urging an end to “illegitimate sanctions” against his country and others that he said could boost the global economy and create jobs.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking on behalf of the African Union, said rich nations haven’t been generous enough in helping developing countries combat COVID-19, which is setting back the continent’s economy and development.
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After the pandemic shut down big parts of the world in March, Guterres called for a global cease-fire to tackle it. On Tuesday, he appealed for a 100-day push by the international community, led by the Security Council, “to make this a reality by the end of the year.”
Amid widespread calls for U.N. reforms, France’s Macron said the global body itself “ran the risk of impotence.”
“Our societies have never been so interdependent,” he said. “And at the very moment when all this is happening, never have we been so out of tune, so out of alignment.”
Jennifer Peltz contributed from New York and Angela Charlton from Paris
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