Leaders juggle blame and calls for solidarity in first virtual UNGA

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U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres (left) and Volkan Bozkir (right), president of the 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

BURLINGTON, Vt. — The United Nations General Assembly’s high-level debate kicked off Tuesday in New York, but mostly in cyberspace.

Only one world leader — Secretary-General António Guterres — took to the podium of the United Nations headquarters. The rest delivered their messages about the state of the world and what to do about it via prerecorded videos, in the first U.N. General Assembly to be convened virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here were some of the moments that stood out in a high-level session dominated by COVID-19 — and, as some have pointed out, by men — that lacked some of the spontaneity and in-person drama of previous UNGAs.

‘A fifth horseman’

Guterres added the COVID-19 pandemic to his list of “threats that endanger our common future,” alongside “geostrategic tensions”, an “existential climate crisis,” “deep and growing global mistrust,” and “the dark side of the digital world.”

“Since January, the COVID-19 pandemic has galloped across the globe — joining the four other horsemen and adding to the fury of each,” Guterres told the General Assembly.

Blame game

U.S. President Donald Trump used most of his very short remarks — which some described as a 7-minute campaign ad — to blame China for a litany of problems, from the COVID-19 pandemic and dumping plastic into the ocean to overfishing and carbon emissions.

“If the United Nations is to be an effective organization, it must focus on the real problems of the world,” Trump said, citing terrorism, the oppression of women, forced labor, drug trafficking, human and sex trafficking, religious persecution, and the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities.

The high road

In contrast to Trump’s attack, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for more international cooperation to combat global challenges. Xi also made waves by announcing a more specific and ambitious climate target, which would see his country’s carbon emissions peak before 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2060.

Xi also announced a handful of commitments to demonstrate China’s role as a “contributor to global development and a defender of international order”:
• $50 million to the U.N. COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan.
• $50 million to China and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s South-South Cooperation Trust Fund.
• The creation of a U.N. Global Geospatial Knowledge and Innovation Center and an International Research Center of Big Data for Sustainable Development Goals.

COVID-19 vs. development

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How is COVID-19 affecting progress on the SDGs? Will online meetings mean greater international representation? Our reporters are covering the all-virtual 75th United Nations General Assembly to find out.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa praised the “swift and effective” — and cooperative — response to COVID-19, but he also drew attention to the deep impacts that the pandemic continues to have on African countries’ development goals.

“The resources we have had to redirect to fighting the pandemic has set back our efforts to provide housing, health care, water and sanitation, and education to our people,” he said.

Ramaphosa quoted Guterres’ call for a “new social contract” that makes trade, financing, and debt more equitable, and he suggested wealthy countries begin with “the rollout of a comprehensive stimulus package for African countries.”

The people’s vaccine?

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to put his country on the side of a strengthened World Health Organization and a vaccine that would be made available to all who need it.

"Russia is ready to provide the U.N. 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 U.N. and its offices," Putin said, citing Russia’s efforts to develop a vaccine known as Sputnik V.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking during the United Nations General Assembly. Via YouTube

A new order

French President Emmanuel Macron, in a speech that stretched far beyond the 15-minute benchmark, urged world leaders to steer clear of the geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China and to forge a new multilateral order in cooperation with a willing European Union.

“The world today cannot be reduced to the rivalry between China and the United States, irrespective of the global weight of these great powers," Macron said, citing the EU’s partnership with Africa as an example of a more productive alternative.

For some, Macron’s remarks amounted to a clear pitch from the French president to seize the mantle of global leadership from economic superpowers consumed by competition.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.