The summit was forced online this year due to the pandemic and the 14-day quarantine regulations in New York City.
Covid-19 threatened heavily during the first day of the event. Instead of meeting in person, UN officials, presidents and prime ministers sent pre-recorded speeches to celebrate the occasion.
US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and a series of strong men 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 moment in 1945” – a reference to World War II ̵
Guterre’s statement touched on growing global poverty and broken diplomatic relations, and warned of the increasingly bitter resilience between China and the United States, whose diplomatic relations he said were moving “in a very dangerous direction.”
“Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies divide the world into one big fracture – each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capabilities,” he said.
Guterres also proposed a new global deal to resolve the crisis, based on a multilateral strategy.
But Tuesday’s session often highlighted the lack of unity between UN members, with tensions that are particularly clear between the United States and China.
Trump praised his own handling of the pandemic in the United States and proclaimed his role in facilitating peace agreements between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel, and said more peace agreements would be forthcoming.
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 “practically controlling” the World Health Organization.
WHO Communications Director Gabby Stern responded on Twitter, writing: “@WHO has 194 member states; no one controls us.”
In a direct challenge to multilateralism, the President of the United States also said that global leaders should put their own countries first. “For decades, the same tired voices suggested the same failed solutions that pursue global ambitions at the expense of their own people, but only when you take care of your own citizens will you find a real basis for cooperation,” Trump said.
He added: “As president, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past, and I proudly put America first, just as you should put your countries first. That’s okay. That’s what you should do.”
Speaking immediately after President Xi’s pre-recorded announcement, China’s UN Ambassador Zhang rejected Jan Trump’s “baseless accusations.” Later at the Chinese mission in New York, he described the US surrender of the pandemic as “a complete failure” and said that China would formally respond to Trump’s accusations later this week.
Xi, for his part, clearly expressed his country’s commitment to strive for “open and inclusive development”, to building an open world economy and to maintaining the multilateral trading system “with the WTO as the cornerstone.”
“We should say no to unilateralism and protectionism,” Xi said.
Xi also announced that China aims to see carbon emissions “peak” before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
Unlike Trump, Russia’s Putin praised the United Nations, saying that for decades it “fulfilled its mission to protect peace, promote the sustainable development of peoples and continents, and provide assistance in mitigating local crises.”
“This enormous potential and expertise within the UN is relevant and serves as a solid foundation for moving forward,” he said.
“We are the victims of the most brutal misinformation campaign about the Amazon and the Brazilian wetlands,” Bolsonaro said.
Another clash, this time in Europe, came to the fore 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’, the UN appeals
Vaccines also thought of several leaders, after Guterre’s opening speech urged UN member states to avoid nationalism when it comes to curbing the pandemic.
Several leaders appreciated 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 like to give the vaccine to UN staff. “Russia is ready to provide the UN with all the necessary qualified assistance. In particular, we offer to provide our vaccine free of charge for voluntary vaccination by UN staff and its offices,” he said.
China’s Xi said Beijing’s vaccines would be a “global public good” once developed, noting that there were several in Phase 3 clinical trials.
He added that if a vaccine was developed, it would be “given to other developing countries on a priority basis.”
Even though national leaders stayed at home, the UN’s iconic assembly hall was not completely empty this week – one diplomat per country may introduce its leader’s speech.
On the site, largely virtual meetings will also take place on topics such as climate change, biodiversity and Lebanon.
CNN’s Richard Roth and Laura Dolan contributed to this report.