Secretary-General António Guterres issued a wake-up call that the world is on the edge of an abyss and “moving in the wrong direction”, as he called on leaders gathered for the annual General Assembly high-level debate today to urgently restore trust and act in unison to tackle myriad challenges.
“We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes,” Mr Guterres warned, addressing an Assembly Hall slightly more populated than a year ago when the sudden and swift onset of the COVID-19 pandemic had all but halted in-person gatherings at United Nations Headquarters. Coupled with the climate emergency, upheaval in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and beyond, a surge of mistrust and science under assault, solidarity is missing “just when we need it most”, he stressed.
While most wealthier countries are vaccinated against coronavirus, more than 90 per cent of Africans are awaiting their first dose — “a moral indictment of the state of our world”, he exclaimed, warning that people may lose faith not only in their Governments but in the very principles underpinning the United Nations. “Promises, after all, are worthless if people do not see results,” he attested.
In charting a path to a brighter future, he urged Governments to surmount the obstacles to peace, including in Myanmar, the Sahel and Yemen, and beyond to Libya, Syria, Israel and Palestine. He called for creating trust between the global North and South on the issue of climate and for closing the gap between rich and poor by ending the pandemic through a doubling of vaccine production, guaranteeing that doses reach 70 per cent of the world’s peoples in the first half of 2022. “Let us restore trust,” he declared.
Echoing those calls, the newly sworn-in President of the General Assembly Abdulla Shahid (Maldives) praised the global collaboration among scientists and researchers that led to the development of multiple vaccines for COVID-19. The roll-out was the largest in the history of humankind, a monumental undertaking for which the international community should be proud. Yet, political support for tackling the virus was still often found lacking.
During the seventy-sixth session, the Assembly will prioritize the issue of vaccine equity and addressing the obstacles to distribution, he said. It will hold a series of events ahead of the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26), while maintaining focus on human rights, United Nations reform and better engagement with civil society.
In the ensuing general debate, 35 Heads of State from around the world addressed the Assembly in person and through pre-recorded statements, championing the calls for unity and hope and cautioning against rash and arbitrary decision-making.
“We are not seeking a new cold war or a world divided into rigid blocs,” said Joseph R. Biden, President of the United States. Detailing the ways his country intends to work with its partners and allies, he said it is devoting resources to ending the pandemic, tackling the climate crisis, managing shifts in global power dynamics, shaping vital issues around trade, cyber and emerging technologies and facing the threat of terrorism. It is prepared to return to full compliance in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action if Iran does likewise.
Taking a hesitant view of that position, Iran’s President Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi pointed to the 6 January attack on the United States Congress and images of Afghans falling from United States planes in August, stressing that from the Capitol to Kabul, one message is clear: “The United States hegemonic system has no credibility.” He called sanctions against medicine during a pandemic a crime against humanity, enumerating the many ways United States influence in the region has fueled human suffering. Stressing that it has not upheld its nuclear commitments, nor its pledge to lift sanctions, he said Iran seeks large-scale political and economic convergence with the rest of the world.
For its part, “China has never and will never invade or bully others or seek hegemony,” said Xi Jinping, President of China. He underscored the need to strengthen solidarity and to promote mutual respect and win-win cooperation in conducting international relations. “Democracy is not a special right reserved to an individual country, but a right for the people of all countries to enjoy,” he said, calling on States to practice true multilateralism.
Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, said fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the international system like never before. “We can and must do more to speed up vaccine distribution in Africa; doing so benefits the entire world,” he said. He added that the world is seriously off track with the Sustainable Development Goals. Nations were already behind schedule before the pandemic hit, but now there is increased attention on figuring out how to catch up. That sense of urgency must be converted into durable political commitments, with climate change mitigation at the heart of development efforts, he said.
Rodrigo Roa Duterte, President of the Philippines, warned that the world’s future will likely be one of inequality with no hope of ever succeeding in closing the gap between rich and poor. “We have to reverse course,” he said, stressing that only inclusive multilateralism, based on fairness and respect, can address that dilemma. On the pandemic, he said that rich countries are hoarding vaccines, leaving poor nations to wait for trickles. “The pandemic will not end unless the virus is defeated everywhere, and vaccines are key to achieving this.”
Andrzej Duda, President of Poland, said the word “solidarity” did not refer exclusively to the pandemic but also included the right to self-determination and to democratic governance. Indeed, the pandemic has blurred attention paid to multiple misfortunes plaguing such countries as Belarus, Libya, Syria and Ukraine. Noting that the pandemic has blurred the fight against climate change, he asked: “Do we, the rich North, pass the test of solidarity, or do we merely cater to our own statistics by relocating production to the poorer countries of the South where least environment-friendly technologies are applied, and then those countries are blamed for contaminating the planet?”
Jair Messias Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, said that his country is different from the one portrayed in newspapers or seen on television. “Brazil has a President who believes in God, respects the Constitution, values family and is loyal to its people.” He emphasized the importance of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in tandem with unemployment, adding that almost 90 per cent of Brazil’s adult population has received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine. He stressed, however, that his Government opposes the idea of vaccine passports.
Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, President of Egypt, called for a just, lasting and comprehensive Middle East peace solution, with a Palestinian State along the 1967 border and East Jerusalem as its capital. The international community must help improve Palestinian living conditions, he said, adding that there is no alternative to the inclusive nation-State when tackling the region’s many challenges. As multilateralism is the only refuge from escalating conflicts, “let us arm ourselves not with the logic of force, but the force of logic,” he said.
Also speaking today were the Presidents of Maldives, Colombia, Qatar, Slovakia, Portugal, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chile, Republic of Korea, Turkey, Switzerland, Croatia, Peru, Turkmenistan, Finland, Argentina, Romania, Palau, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Latvia, Bulgaria, Zambia, Central African Republic and Somalia.