Tue | Oct 27, 2020

World powers clash, virus stirs anger at virtual UN meeting

Published:Tuesday | September 22, 2020 | 7:50 PM
Image made from UNTV video of U.N. headquarters in New York. The U.N.'s first virtual meeting of world leaders started Tuesday with pre-recorded speeches from some of the planet's biggest powers, kept at home by the coronavirus pandemic that will likely be a dominant theme at their video gathering this year. (UNTV via AP)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — 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.

“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.”

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.”

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 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.

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.”

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