UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations General Assembly opened its 75th session on Tuesday in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and in an increasingly fractured world where multilateral institutions were questioned.
With protective masks and socially distanced seating, diplomats from the 193 member states gathered in the General Assembly’s hemicycle to inaugurate the new session, a week before the start of the annual debate between leaders, which for the first time will be held virtually.
“Our masks remind us of the very serious threat we face. They remind us of the lives we have lost and the challenges we need to overcome. They remind us we are in this together,” said the new General Assembly president Volkan Bozkir.
Caution surrounding the virus was present throughout the ceremony, including with a quick disinfection of the so-called “Thor’s hammer,” the gavel used by the presidents of the Assembly to direct the sessions, as the Turkish politician received it from his predecessor, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande.
Bozkir acknowledged that the UN has reached its three-quarters-of-a-century at a particularly complex time, as critics of multilateralism have been more vocal and “the pandemic has been used to justify unilateral steps and weaken the rules-based international system.”
He said these criticisms are not baseless, but their conclusions are wrong: “Make no mistake. No state can combat this pandemic alone. Social distancing will not help at the international level. Unilateralism will only strengthen the pandemic.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the pandemic “cut a swathe through our lives and our communities. We are all dealing with high levels of uncertainty; right now, we are still in the middle of the fog.”
Guterres stressed that the social and economic impact of the coronavirus and how it will combine with other global problems are still unknown, but he added that “our only hope is to respond with unity and solidarity, while supporting the most vulnerable.”
The pandemic, however, has exposed the seams of the multilateralism, with a fragmented response and in which national movements are taking precedence.
“This year will be a critical one in the life of our organization. We must continue to respond to the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by strengthening health systems and supporting the development and equitable distribution of treatments and vaccines,” Guterres said.
The Portuguese diplomat also gave priority to promote a solid recovery, based on the sustainable development agenda and the Paris Agreement to curb climate change.
During the pandemic, the role of the UN and its World Health Organization has been questioned or directly attacked by different fronts, especially by the United States government, which announced in May the rupture of its relationship with the Geneva-based entity.
In the background, the clash between the US and China, the world’s two largest economies, remains a great threat to the work of the UN and its hopes of boosting cooperation between nations.
A year earlier, in his speech before the Assembly, Guterres warned of the looming risk of the world splitting into two systems, one headed by Washington and the other by Beijing, but since then the tension between the two powers has grown.
Next week, US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be two of the key speakers at the high-level meetings of the Assembly, which will start on Sept. 22 after a summit on Sept. 21 to commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary.
All the meetings will be in “hybrid” format, with the presence of diplomats in the General Assembly hall, but with the leaders giving their traditional speeches through pre-recorded videos.
Trump may be the exception, as he has assured that he would like to go in person to New York and be the only president present.
Bozkir trusted that the new format will not detract the importance of the meeting, in which a record number of speeches from heads of state is expected.
According to UN sources, 119 heads of state are expected to speak before the Assembly, instead of the usual 70-80 speakers.