The summit was forced online this year due to the pandemic and 14-day quarantine regulations in New York City.
Covid-19 weighed heavily on the first day of the event. Instead of meeting in person, UN officials, presidents and prime ministers sent out pre-recorded speeches to mark the occasion.
US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and a suite of strongmen including Chinese Xi Jinping, Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro and Russian Vladimir Putin all spoke on Tuesday morning.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the health crisis “our own moment in 1945” – a reference to World War II – and described Covid-19 as “a toxic virus shaking democratic foundations in many countries. Many countries”.
Guterres also suggested a New Global Deal to resolve the crisis, based on a multilateral approach.
But Tuesday’s session often highlighted a lack of unity among UN members, with tensions particularly apparent between the United States and China.
Trump praised his own handling of the pandemic in the United States and touted his role in facilitating peace agreements between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel, saying more peace agreements would follow shortly.
He used part of his time to attack China, calling the coronavirus a “Chinese virus” and urging the UN to hold Beijing responsible for the pandemic. He accused Beijing of “allowing flights to leave China and infect the world” and “virtually control” the World Health Organization.
WHO Director of Communications Gabby Stern responded on Twitter, writing: “@WHO has 194 Member States; no government controls us. ”
In a direct challenge to multilateralism, the US president also said world leaders should each put their own country first. “For decades the same weary voices have come up with the same failed solutions pursuing global ambitions to the detriment of their own people, but it is only when you take care of your own citizens that you will find a real basis for cooperation,” Trump said.
He added: “As president, I rejected the failed approaches of the past, and I proudly put America first, just as you should put your countries first. It does not matter. This is what you should be doing. ”
Speaking immediately after President Xi’s pre-recorded message, Chinese Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jan rejected Trump’s “baseless accusations”. Later, at the Chinese mission in New York, he described the US transfer of the pandemic as “a complete failure” and said China would officially respond to Trump’s accusations later in the week.
Xi, for his part, ostensibly expressed his country’s commitment to pursue “open and inclusive development”, to build an open world economy and to maintain the multilateral trade regime “with the WTO as a cornerstone.”
“We should say no to unilateralism and protectionism,” Xi said.
Xi also announced that China intends to see its CO2 emissions peak by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
Unlike Trump, the Russian Putin praised the UN, saying that over the decades it had “competently fulfilled its mission of protecting peace, promoting the sustainable development of peoples and continents and assistance to mitigate local crises ”.
“This enormous potential and expertise of the UN is relevant and provides a solid basis for moving forward,” he said.
Meanwhile, Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro used his post to accuse foreign agents of overriding the fires in the Amazon. Flames are currently raging in the Amazon for a second year in a row and deforestation has increased since Bolsonaro took office.
“We are the victims of the most brutal disinformation campaign on the Amazon and Brazilian wetlands,” Bolsonaro said.
Another clash, this time in Europe, took center stage when 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”, pleads the UN
Vaccines were also on the minds of several leaders, after Guterres’ opening speech urged UN member states to avoid nationalism when it comes to curbing the pandemic.
Several leaders presented vaccine candidates from their countries as a potential solution.
Putin said the Sputnik V vaccine developed by Russia was “reliable, safe and effective.” Moscow has drawn criticism by approving Sputnik V earlier this summer before it conducts Phase 3 clinical trials.
Ha added that he would be prepared to provide the vaccine to UN staff members. “Russia stands ready to provide all necessary qualified assistance to the UN; in particular, we are offering to provide our vaccine, free of charge, for voluntary vaccination of UN staff and its offices, ”he said.
China’s Xi said Beijing’s vaccines will be a “global public good” once developed and noted that there are several in Phase 3 clinical trials.
He added that if a vaccine was developed, it would be “given priority to other developing countries”.
Although national leaders remained at home, the iconic UN Assembly Hall was not entirely empty this week – one diplomat per country is allowed to deliver its leader’s speech.
On the sidelines, 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.