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Among World Leaders at UN’s 75th Commemoration, Trump Is a No-Show

In Chinese President Xi Jinping’s video to the UN-75 commemoration, he said the “sudden attack of Covid-19 is a grave test for the entire world.” Since the pandemic began in March, at least 31 million cases have been confirmed globally and nearly one million people have died. JOHN PENNEY

President Trump failed to deliver an expected video speech for the United Nations’ 75th anniversary commemoration. Instead, the acting deputy United States ambassador addressed the ceremony live from UN headquarters. From Washington, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced new sanctions against Iran during the UN anniversary remembrance, flanked by the US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, as well as some Cabinet members.

The Trump administration attempted to roll back all elements of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the Obama administration spent two years negotiating. But most members of the Security Council have ignored Pompeo’s move to “snap back” all sanctions relief agreed at the conclusion of the deal in 2015. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, called it “chutzpah” at a Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting.

Pompeo, at the interagency press conference in Washington, announced sanctions against Iran’s defense and armed forces and its director. Iran, he said, must stop any proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and come to a table to accept a “real deal.” The world, Pompeo added, must not lift an October arms embargo against Iran as contained in the Obama nuclear deal. In addition to the Defense Ministry, the Trump administration has sanctioned several Iranian military organizations and individuals, as well as three entities and five people associated with the Atomic Energy Association of Iran.

France, Germany and Britain have refused to accept the US as a remaining participant to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and Trump’s attempts to extend the arms embargo in the pact. Here, President Emmanuel Macron’s video presentation at the UN-75 commemoration. JOHN PENNEY

In practice, few nations, perhaps Russia and China excepted, have any intention of selling weapons to Iran. The European Union has its own list of sanctions against Iranian weapons and missiles. But the Europeans and most members of the UN Security Council object to Pompeo saying the US was still part of the nuclear deal, even though President Trump dramatically withdrew all participation in 2018.

Pompeo’s remarks were relayed to Zarif during the Council on Foreign Relations meeting. He said in response that millions of dollars in damage was inflicted on Iran because of a dislike of the “previous president” and that the US should compensate Iran for its losses. In response to the US announcement of sanctions, Zarif said, “I don’t think it is anything new and it won’t have any significant impact on Iran.” He also said Iran had enriched low-grade uranium, not anywhere near enough for a nuclear bomb.

Still, most world leaders spoke at the UN commemoration of the 75th anniversary, mostly by video, while delegates of member states sat at a distance from one another in the General Assembly Hall, conscious that Covid-19 has now infected about 31 million people worldwide, with the highest number of deaths, almost 200,000, confirmed in the US.

Secretary-General António Guterres cited the achievements and lapses in the history of the UN, founded 75 years ago to create a new body after the devastation of World War II. “A Third World War — which so many had feared — has been avoided,” he said, speaking live to international delegates in the General Assembly Hall. “Never in modern history have we gone so many years without a military confrontation between the major powers.”

Cherith Norman Chalet, the acting deputy US ambassador, spoke for the Trump administration from the green-marble General Assembly rostrum, surprising some people at the UN and in the audience. “It is hard to grasp the remarkable evolution of the United Nations over the last 75 years, its organizations, agencies and functions, its peacekeeping missions its services to bring food to millions,” she said. But Chalet said the UN was resistant to meaningful reform and too vulnerable to autocratic regimes.

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“For the Trump administration, this anniversary is an important moment to mark the many successes of the United Nations, but to do so with clear eyes and a renewed determination to see this important body serve its intended purpose,” she said.

In the late afternoon, Trump told the media in Washington that he had taped his message for the speeches starting tomorrow morning at the UN by world leaders. He said his remarks contain “a strong message on China.” The US speaks second, after Brazil; Turkey and China follow immediately, in that order. — EVELYN LEOPOLD

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili was one of the few women leaders to speak at the virtual UN-75 event. She noted a global need for inclusive and healthy societies and educated citizens. JOHN PENNEY

Other UN-75 speeches: The commemoration on Sept. 21 at the UN featured a total of 182 world leaders and regional representatives giving virtual speeches against a generally uniform backdrop of flags of their own countries, others symbolizing, say, regions (like the European Union) and occasionally, the UN flag. Global leaders not only addressed the ceremonial apex of 20th-century multilateralism, but also the challenges facing the UN and member states, which include tackling Covid-19, climate change and inequalities, as well as striving for global cooperation, Security Council reform and abiding by the UN Charter.

A UN declaration to mark the commemoration was also adopted, by consensus, saying, among other messages: “There is no other global organization with the legitimacy, convening power and normative impact of the United Nations. No other global organization gives hope to so many people.”

Here’s a summary of some speeches through midafternoon, looking at what leaders said on Covid-19, multilateralism, climate change and gender equality. Notably, three hours and two minutes into the ceremony, the first woman leader to speak was Georgia’s president, Salome Zourabichvili. The photos of the leaders were taken of their video presentations. — LAURA E. KIRKPATRICK

The UN can neither prevent conflicts nor end those that have begun, said President Erdogan of Turkey. JOHN PENNEY

CHINA: President Xi Jinping

Covid-19: “Major changes unseen in a century are taking place in our world,” he said. “The sudden attack of COVID-19 is a grave test for the entire world. Mankind has entered a new era of interconnectedness, with countries sharing intertwined interests and their future closely linked together. Global threats and global challenges require strong, global responses. In the face of new realities and challenges, we must do some serious thinking: What kind of UN is needed for the world? How should the Organization play its role in the post-COVID era? Let me share some of my thoughts with you.” (China has 90,376 confirmed cases.)

Multilateralism: The president expressed China’s commitment to multilateralism, describing that “after the storm comes the rainbow.” The UN, he noted, “has stood one test after another and emerged with renewed vigor and vitality. The UN embodies the aspiration of the over seven billion people for a better life, and the UN Charter remains an important guarantee for world peace and development.” China, Xi pledged, would promote cooperation and the common interest of all as it protected its own interests. “What we need to do is to replace conflict with dialogue, coercion with consultation and zero-sum with win-win,” he said. “We need to pursue the common interests of all as we each work to safeguard our own interests. We need to expand the converging interests of all and build a big global family of harmony and cooperation.” He also said the UN “must stand firm for justice,” adding: “Mutual respect and equality among all countries, big or small, represents the progress of our times and is the foremost principle of the UN Charter. No country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others, or keep advantages in development all to itself.”

Climate Change: No mention of the climate crisis, perhaps because of China’s extensive air pollution and coal consumption.

Gender Equality: No mention.

President Taneti Maamau of Kiribati, a small island nation in the Pacific. He greeted the world in his speech by saying, “Kam na bane ni mauri.” JOHN PENNEY 

TURKEY: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Covid-19: As part of building a post-Covid19 UN, Erdogan called for reform of the Security Council and its architecture, as it does not have “equitable representation, which is a necessity rather than choice for humanity,” he said. He said that the virus presented an opportunity to “confront the many important challenges which affect our health, economy, societies and our future.” Turkey has 304,610 confirmed cases of the virus.

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Multilateralism: Erdogan asserted that Turkey is “the most generous country in terms of aid,” citing a ratio of assistance to GDP, as Turkey provides aid not only to millions of refugees but also to 141 countries. He lamented: “We are at a time where excessive greed and a desire to continue colonialism has led to so many failures around the world,” including Yemen, Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan.

Climate change: No mention.

Gender equality: No mention.

President Maduro of Venezuela, speaking in front of a portrait of one of Latin America’s most celebrated liberators, Simón Bolívar. Maduro endorsed a “multipolar world” and rejected imperialism. JOHN PENNEY

VENEZUELA: President Nicolás Maduro

Covid-19: Maduro mentioned “the global pandemic” and reaffirmed full support of the World Health Organization but never said “Covid-19.” Venezuela has 66,656 confirmed cases of the virus.

Multilateralism: In a short, intense speech in a palatial room with a portrait of the Spanish liberator Simón Bolívar behind him, Maduro called for the UN to be part of a multipolar world, where everyone is respected, or the world risks being based on hegemony and imperialism. The multipolar world will lead to a renewal of the UN system and international order and law, he said, then taking a sharp turn to the victimization of Venezuela through global sanctions and multiple forms of aggression, avowing that the country is ascending and wishing the UN-75 more years.

Climate change: No mention.

Gender equality: No mention.

SEYCHELLES: President Danny Faure

Covid-19: Mentioned briefly in the second sentence of his speech; the country has only 143 confirmed cases.

Mulitlateralism: The leader of a small African island nation, Faure called for the UN to “adapt, adopt and apply” solutions to global challenges that do not stop at borders. He called for the UN to help create a more collective form of multilateralism that includes representation of youth, the marginalized and civil society organizations. Through renewed purpose, and better preparation, the UN must remain firmly at the heart of global response to challenges of 21st century, he said. The Seychelles, he added, are limited in resources and capacities but “the smallest, poorest, weakest of nations can contribute ideas that are as innovative and propose solutions as groundbreaking as the biggest, wealthiest and most powerful countries.” Multilateralism depends on how well “we take advantage of lessons learned from all nations.”

Climate change: Also mentioned in the second sentence of his speech.

Gender equality: Faure mentioned the word “inclusive” and leaving no one behind but never specifically mentioned women.

President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria said the UN “has remained true to the aspirations of its founders” and he reiterated his country’s backing of multilateralism. JOHN PENNEY

TUNISIA: President Kais Saied 

Covid-19: No mention. The country has 10,732 confirmed cases.

Multilateralism: Saied is also the commander in chief of the Tunisian armed forces. In his remarks, he said, “the world has changed, people are closer together thanks to technology.” He called for reform of the UN, noting it was high time to end injustices for every human being across the world, mentioning the Palestinians in particular.

Climate change: No mention.

Gender equality: No mention.


Jeanine Áñez of Bolivia has been interim president since November 2019, but she said last week that she was dropping out of the presidential election because of lack of support. JOHN PENNEY

GEORGIA: President Salome Zourabichvili

Covid-19: Mentioned briefly in the context of how well Georgia had protected the vulnerable. An inclusive and healthy society was a talking point of her speech. (Georgia has 3,695 confirmed cases.)

Multilateralism:  Zourabichvili kept her speech below five minutes and addressed four points to enhance multilateralism: peace and development, the need for a viable climate change, an inclusive and health society, and educated citizens. The UN Charter and SDGs most be treated not as words on paper but as concrete goals. “The UN we need is one that inspire citizens, create trust and bring effective leadership,” she said.

Climate change: Brief mention.

Gender equality: No mention

LEBANON: President Michel Aoun

Covid-19: Brief mention.

Multilateralism: Aoun’s whole speech was an ode to multilateralism. Lebanon is host to the largest number of refugees per capita in the world and has seen a disproporationate share of crises and calamities recently. A charter member of the UN, Aoun stressed that the relationship between his country and the UN goes beyond Unifil, the UN peacekeeping operation in Lebanon. “Today, despite all suffering, Lebanon stresses that hardships will not keep it from pursuing its positive role at the international scene, and its constructive interaction with the UN and within the international community.”

Climate Change: No mention.

Gender Equality: No mention, but he has a lot on his plate.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka is in the first year of a five-year term. JOHN PENNEY

Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel

Covid-19: The pandemic, Merkel said, “is just one example which shows that global problems call for understanding and cooperation beyond national borders and at all levels.” (Germany currently has 275,557 cases.)

Multilateralism: The UN was founded 75 years ago, “preceded by the Shoah, the betrayal by Germany of all civilized values, and the Second World War, which was likewise unleashed by Germany. After these horrors, a new world order was needed – a community for preserving peace in the future. This order was created with the United Nations.” Its remit, she added, “has expanded ever further over the decades as it has helped and continues to help around the world not only with respect to post-conflict peacebuilding – e.g. in Afghanistan and Mali – but also in bringing war crimes to justice. Moreover, it has played a pivotal role in ensuring that only half as many people today live in extreme poverty compared with 20 years ago, and also in helping to eradicate smallpox around the world.” But the UN has too often “been forced to lag behind its ideals as the interests of individual members have, time and again, prevented this order from functioning as it was intended. But those who believe that they can get along better alone are mistaken. Our wellbeing is something that we share – our suffering too. We are one world. This is something that is evidenced not least by countless international city twinning projects. After all, it is, first and foremost, in cities and communities, in daily life on the ground, that we will determine whether and how we can do justice to global challenges.”

Climate change: No mention.

Gender equality: No mention.

President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan has held the post since 1992. JOHN PENNEY

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Evelyn Leopold is a veteran United Nations reporter since 1990. She was a Reuters correspondent for 40 years and now freelances for a variety of publications. She has served in Britain, Germany and Kenya and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Overseas Press Club and the Newswomen’s Club of New York. She is chair of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists, was awarded a gold medal in reporting by the UN Correspondents Association and co-authored a book on women in the former East Germany.

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