Describing COVID-19 pandemic as wake-up call, dress rehearsal for future challenges, Secretary-General opens annual General Assembly debate with vision for solidarity

Published date23 September 2020
Publication titleASEAN Tribune

23 September 2020 (UN General Assembly) Calls for Openness, Inclusion Contrast with Protectionist Approaches, as World Leaders Outline Strategies to Contain Virus, Provide Medical Treatment

World leaders gathered in pre-recorded videos for an unprecedented opening of the General Assembly's annual general debate today, as the United Nations Secretary-General described the epic upheaval wreaked by COVID-19 across the globe, wiping out decades of development gains and laying down an ultimatum for nations to stand united in weathering the human and economic onslaught.

'We are at a foundational moment,' said Secretary-General António Guterres, as he addressed an Assembly Hall sparsely populated due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic. 'Our world is struggling.' For the first time in 30 years, poverty is rising, nuclear non-proliferation efforts are slipping away and countries are failing to act in emerging areas of danger.

Describing COVID-19 as both a wake-up call and a dress rehearsal for future challenges, he said 'we must move forward with humility.' Populist approaches to contain the virus have often made things worse. He described a disconnect between leadership and power, with remarkable examples of the former often not associated with the latter. In an interconnected world, 'solidarity is self-interest', he said. 'If we fail to grasp that fact, everyone loses.'

Against that backdrop, he offered a vision for solidarity, led by the United Nations, that avoids a great fracture between the two largest economies. Rather, he pressed Governments to establish a new social contract with their citizens, one that offers a 'new generation' of social protections. He likewise called for a 'New Global Deal' to ensure that political and economic systems deliver on global public goods, with efforts rooted in fair globalization and on righting historical injustices in global power structures. 'We cannot respond to this crisis by going back to what was or withdrawing into national shells,' he asserted.

Newly elected Assembly President Volkan Bozkir (Turkey) similarly called for leaving disagreements aside. It is in the interest of the world - and its economies and peoples - that tensions are managed and do not spiral out of control. Highlighting the critical role of the United Nations in reinforcing cooperation and consensus, he underscored the need to advance its humanitarian agenda and Sustainable Development Goals. Just as its founders chose to trust one another in a time of crisis, 'let us draw strength from those who have persevered in the past,' he said.

Throughout the day, leaders of 32 nations outlined their visions, challenges and achievements, contrasting calls for openness and inclusion with other tendencies towards protectionism and control.

Xi Jinping, President of China, said full play should be given to the World Health Organization (WHO) and all resources mobilized to launch a science-based response to COVID-19. China will share its diagnostics and therapeutics, ensure stable supply chains and participate in global research on tracing the virus' roots. Once ready, drugs will be provided as a global public good to countries on a priority needs basis. He added that 'beggar thy neighbour' policies and 'burying one's head in the sand' will do no good and pushed major countries to 'act like major countries' by assuming their responsibilities.

In contrast, United States President Donald J. Trump promoted a 'peace through strength' approach, lauding his country's rapid production of medical technologies and three vaccines that have reached advanced clinical trials. He demanded China be held accountable for 'unleashing the plague on the world', also taking issue with Beijing for overfishing in other countries' waters and emitting twice as much carbon as the United States. To be effective, the United Nations must focus on the real problems of the world: terrorism and the oppression of women, among them. He rejected failed approaches of the past and recommitted himself to placing 'America' first.

'Today's world cannot be left to the rivalry between China and the United States,' stressed France's President Emmanuel Macron. 'We're not collectively condemned to a two-step dance that reduces others to impotent spectators.' It is up to countries to forge new alliances. He lamented the Security Council's paralysis on huge issues of consequence, asking nations to ponder how it can have 'such trouble agreeing on so little' and rejecting the 'hegemonic collision of Powers' that has dominated over collective action.

Several leaders, including Chile's President Sebastián Piñera Echenique, said the pandemic has forced countries to reflect on important values and brought forth several vital lessons. 'We need to learn to be more humble,' he said, noting that the coronavirus has demonstrated how vulnerable human life is. Major powers, instead of squaring off against one another, should be at the frontlines of pandemic response.

Cuba's President Miguel Díaz Canel Bermúdez highlighted the show of unprecedented overbearance by the United States in withdrawing from WHO and other United Nations bodies. Calling for the democratization of the Organization, he stressed that an unequal, unjust and anti democratic international order is unsustainable.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani likewise agreed that 'COVID 19 is calling us to more humility', guiding societies towards civil piety in promoting social and individual ethics. Iran is grappling with the harshest sanctions, imposed in violation of Security Council resolution 2231 (2015). The treatment of an African-American by United States police recalls his own country's experience, he said: 'We instantly recognize the feet kneeling on the neck as the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations.'

Addressing the issue of injustice, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, spoke for the African Union in stressing that 2020 will be remembered for the pushback against racism under the Black Lives Matter Movement. He expressed South Africa's support for demands to end that scourge. The international community also must intensify efforts to empower woman and girls. The African Union is working to finalize a convention on violence against women this year.

Iván Duque Márquez, President of Colombia, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has not only heightened social inequality, but also demonstrated that the international community needs to define better mechanisms for cooperation in times of crisis. He also called on the international community to reject human rights violations in Venezuela and call for free elections and not a prefabricated orchestration to perpetuate dictatorship in that country.

Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, President of Egypt, said that the pandemic mandates the world to support developing countries with economic stimulus packages and reducing debt liabilities, especially in Africa. He reiterated Egypt's support for a two-State solution to the Palestinian question and an end to the 'raging war' in Syria. Like several other leaders, he stressed the importance of expanding the Security Council and to reform the Organization in the conviction that 'the world has room for us all'.

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, commending the exceptional work of the WHO, said the creation of the Access to COVID Tools Accelerator, including the COVAX Global Vaccines Facility, is critically important for Africa to ensure equitable access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics that will speed up the end of the pandemic for everyone. He added that in the coming decades, prosperity will be closely linked to digital literacy and access to high-speed connectivity. He cautioned, however, that the global movement for racial justice and equality must be more than 'a passing phenomenon'.

Egils Levits, President of Latvia, noting how COVID-19 has disrupted life for an entire generation, said that recovery efforts must be grounded on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals with a focus on green, digital and inclusive recovery. He called for greater efforts to tackle biodiversity loss, combat marine plastic pollution and promote sustainable consumption. He voiced concern, however, about the rise of misinformation, disinformation and fake news that have characterized the pandemic.

Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia, said that concerns about conflict and poverty have only deepened amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 'No one is safe until everyone is,' he stressed, warning that a stable, peaceful and prosperous world is becoming more and more difficult to attain. He called for the United Nations to strengthen collective leadership and promote a spirit of cooperation. Countries must also work together to ensure that everyone has equal access to a COVID-19 vaccine at an affordable price.

Also speaking today were Heads of State and Government of Brazil, Turkey, Russian Federation, Jordan, Republic of Korea, Qatar, Philippines, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Mexico, Uruguay, Seychelles, Angola, Argentina, Lithuania, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Peru and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Opening Remarks

ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said COVID 19 has laid bare the world's fragilities. It has preyed on the most vulnerable and wiped away decades of progress. For the first time in 30 years, poverty is rising, nuclear non proliferation efforts are slipping away and countries are failing to act in areas of emerging danger, particularly cyberspace. 'Our world is struggling, stressed and seeking real leadership,' he said, emphasizing: 'We are at a foundational moment.'

Recalling that those who built the United Nations 75 years ago had lived through a pandemic, a global depression, genocide and world war, he said 'they knew the cost of discord and the value of unity' and fashioned a visionary response. 'Today, we face our own 1945 moment,' he noted, describing COVID 19 as a crisis 'unlike any we...

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