Donald Trump, speaking on the opening day of the United Nations’ 75th General Assembly session — the same day that the United States officially tallied a coronavirus death toll of 200,000 people — reiterated all his familiar grievances against China and added a few. He blamed the Chinese not only for spreading Covid-19 across the world, but also for environmental destruction on a planetary scale.
Every year, Trump said: “China dumps millions and millions of tons of plastic and trash into the oceans, overfishes other countries’ waters, destroys vast swaths of coral reef and emits more toxic mercury into the atmosphere than any country anywhere in the world. China’s carbon emissions are nearly twice what the U.S. has, and it’s rising fast.”
“The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions,” he added.
The American president was bereft of his preferred audiences of high-ranking foreigners or noisy American crowds because the pandemic had reduced all speeches by world leaders at the UN to virtual appearances in pre-recorded videos. In his message, Trump spoke without drama from a lectern in the White House to an almost empty General Assembly Hall, except for one diplomat permitted from each UN member delegation.
He surprisingly did not announce that the US was withdrawing from or blocking funding to a UN entity, as some observers worried might happen. Instead, he lapsed into a Dickens-like mode, saying at the end of his speech: “Thank you, God bless you all. God bless America. And God bless the United Nations.”
Trump also evoked the founding of the UN in 1945 after World War II only to equate it bizarrely to the challenge of responding to Covid-19.
“We have waged a fierce battle against the invisible enemy — the China Virus — which has claimed countless lives in 188 countries,” he said. “In the United States, we launched the most aggressive mobilization since the Second World War.”
In China’s defense, President Xi Jinping said in his speech, “Since the start of this year, we, the 1.4 billion Chinese, undaunted by the strike of COVID-19, and with the government and the people united as one, have made all-out efforts to control the virus and speedily restore life and economy to normalcy.” Western media reports tend to attest to that assertion, given the crippling lockdowns imposed by the government. (China issued a rebuttal after Trump’s speech.)
Xi also spoke pointedly about adhering to science and not rejecting international cooperation in the name of sovereignty, a theme that also appeared in the Assembly speech by Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, who bitterly blamed outsiders for spreading disinformation about his country’s handling of environmental threats to the Amazon region.
Early in his recorded remarks, Trump launched into a repetition of claims he has made in the US — contrary to evidence — about all he has done to curb the pandemic, for which he still has no national plan to combat. Among his claims of success were: “We rapidly produced a record supply of ventilators — creating a surplus that allowed us to share them with friends and partners all around the globe. We pioneered life-saving treatments, reducing our fatality rate 85 percent since April.
“Thanks to our efforts, 3 vaccines are in the final stage of clinical trials. We are mass producing them in advance so they can be delivered immediately upon arrival,” he said. Trump has refused to cooperate in international efforts to develop and distribute vaccines equitably around the world. Secretary-General António Guterres calls it “vaccinationalism.”
Trump’s remarks drew a quick response from the president and chief executive of Oxfam America, Abby Maxman, who said in a statement: “President Trump took the UN stage to settle scores and shift blame as he sought to spin an alternate version of his administration’s response to the pandemic.”
Maxman added: “President Trump pitched his vision of a global order driven by narrow, competing national interests — one at odds with the UN Charter. . . . The UN was founded to remind us that no matter our differences, we’re all on the same side when it comes to global problems like COVID-19 and the climate crisis. When humanity is faced with challenges that ignore national borders, there are no one-sided deals.”
Secretary-General António Guterres, describing the pandemic as “a crisis unlike any we have ever seen,” said, “[W]e must be guided by science and tethered to reality.” Among the realities he stressed in his speech opening the 75th session of the General Assembly was the high price being paid by women and girls in the pandemic’s human damage.
“Women are disproportionately represented in the sectors hit hardest by job losses,” he said. “Women do most of the unpaid care work generated by the pandemic. And women have fewer economic resources to fall back on, because their wages are lower, and they have less access to benefits.
“At the same time, millions of young girls are losing their chance of an education and a future, as schools close and child marriage is on the rise. Unless we act now, gender equality could be set back by decades.
“We must also stamp out the horrifying increase in violence against women and girls during the pandemic, from domestic violence to sexual abuse, online harassment and femicide,” he said.
“This is a hidden war on women.” — BARBARA CROSSETTE
In other speeches on Sept. 22, the Covid-19 topic predominated, but each country took a different approach to discussing it. While Trump tried to breeze by it, Xi of China portrayed himself as the benevolent leader who will produce and distribute a vaccine globally. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa led a pan-African agenda, showcasing the African Union’s management of the virus as “swift and effective.” — STÉPHANIE FILLION
Here are highlights from the speeches of Brazil, Cuba, France, Mexico and Turkey — all men.
Bolsonaro’s outright lies about Brazil’s worst wildfires in history
Climate change: In his speech to the General Assembly, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said that since the Amazon is a tropical rainforest, it “does not allow fire to be spread out.” He accepted that although there may be some wildfires, the “outbreaks tend to occur virtually at the same places, in the eastern surroundings of the forest.” He blamed Indigenous communities of burning their farmlands in search of livelihoods in already cleared areas.
Despite the spread of wildfires at an unprecedented rate, Bolsonaro said that this was a perception created by a “disinformation campaign” supported by international institutions and “exploitative and unpatriotic Brazilian associations.” Their goal was to undermine the Brazilian government. This campaign was launched because the “Brazilian Amazon is known to be immensely rich” and “shady interests” may want to get a hold of it. This “campaign” also aims, he suggested, at derailing Brazil as one of the top food producers in the world.
Fact check: Fires and deforestation in the Amazon increased dramatically during 2019, Bolsonaro’s first year in office, and 2020 is proving to be worse, according to a report< by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, the Institute for Health Policy Studies and Human Rights Watch.
Amnesty International also highlighted on Sept. 3that deforestation increased 34.5 percent between August 2019 and July 2020, compared with the same period in 2018 and 2019, destroying a total area of 9,205 km². Unlike what Bolsonaro said, fires are not started by Indigenous communities but by “private individuals who clear forested areas and seize land to create pasture. This illegal activity supports Brazil’s multi-billion dollar beef industry,” Amnesty International said.
Bolsonaro downplayed the severity of the pandemic in Brazil. He mentioned instead that “as was the case in much of the world, segments of the Brazilian media have also politicized the virus by spreading panic among the population.” He added that “under the mottoes ‘stay at home’ and ‘we will deal with the economy later on,’ these segments almost brought social chaos to the country.” He suggested hydroxychloroquine was a remedy for Covid-19.
Fact check: Brazil has the second-highest death toll globally from Covid-19, behind the US and India, with almost 137,000 people killed. The scientific community has widely disproven hydroxychloroquine as a remedy for Covid-19. — MAURIZIO GUERRERO
Cuba’s Díaz-Canel contrasts the country’s global solidarity with US isolationism
President Miguel Díaz-Canel contrasted Cuba’s response to the pandemic to that of the US, which has withdrawn from the World Health Organization. Echoing the Cold War, Díaz-Canel compared Cuba’s death rate from Covid-19, well below the world average, to “the dehumanized policies fully imposed by the market dictatorship.”
“While the US government is ignoring the call to combine efforts to fight the pandemic and it withdraws from the WHO, Cuba . . . is expanding its cooperation by sending over 3,700 workers distributed in 46 medical brigades to 39 countries and territories hit by Covid-19,” Díaz-Canel said. Cuba’s solidarity, he added, has been displayed even when facing “qualitatively higher level” of aggression from the US blockade.
Díaz-Canel recalled the words of Fidel Castro, who declared “doctors and not bombs” as the national motto. Conversely, he said, the US is leading a $1.9 trillion global arms race while it deals with “practically uncontrolled expressions of hatred, racism, police brutality and irregularities in the election system and the voting rights of citizens.”
The evident shortcoming of Díaz-Canel’s speech was that it ignored Cuba’s domestic problems. There was no plan announced to help Cubans face the severity of the pandemic, worsened by the blockade and the dramatic loss of tourism revenue due to the lockdowns.
Díaz-Canel reiterated Cuba’s commitment to solidarity and multilateralism, especially in crises. Apart from paying lip service to the UN’s institutions, he proposed a concrete idea for the UN to become more relevant in the global recession: negotiate for debt forgiveness. “Only the UN, with its world membership, has the required authority and reach to resume the just struggle to write off the uncollectible foreign debt which, aggravated by the social and economic effects of the pandemic, is threatening the survival of the peoples of the South.”
The only mention of climate change was his blast at the US for withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. — MAURIZIO GUERRERO
From Magellan to Novichok to Covid-19: Macron’s World Tour
It was far from the eight-hour long speech of Krishna Menon, an Indian diplomat, in 1957 on Kashmir in the Security Council, but France’s Emmanuel Macron spoke for 48 minutes in French, covering, of course, lots of ground. Considering world leaders were asked to keep their remarks to 15 minutes, Macron’s stood out on the morning of the first day of the big speeches.
Unsurprisingly, he embraced multilateralism and Western values, unlike the autocratic leaders from China, Russia, Turkey and Iran, who spoke before him. “There will surely be a cure for the pandemic one day,” Macron said. “But there will be no miracle cure for the destruction of the world order. There will be no miracle cure for this kind of paradox in which we are immersed. Our societies have never been so interdependent. Yet, just as all of this is happening, never have we been so out of tune, so out of alignment, so unable to build quick fixes.”
Macron, who has been an outspoken defender of multilateralism and also highly involved in crises in Lebanon, Libya, the Sahel region and the Eastern Mediteranean, said that France believes in multilateral cooperation, but notably through the European Union. Now that Britain is no longer part of the EU, it leaves France as the sole permanent member in the Security Council representing the continent. So Macron’s speech heavily reinforced Europe’s relevance and work.
On the Iran nuclear deal, he criticized the US’ failed attempt to trigger the snapback mechanism and other US methods to try to manage Iran. He said: “The strategy of maximum pressure engaged for several years has not at this stage made it possible to put an end to the destabilizing activities of Iran, nor to ensure that it will not be able to acquire nuclear weapons.”
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was also a target, as Macron denounced the Kremlin’s alleged poisoning of the dissident Aleksei Navalny with Novichok.
Macron also discussed gender equality, climate change and the “third wave of globalization” and the challenges associated with it. “The first era of globalization was opened by the travels of Christopher Columbus, Magellan, that of discovery, of the first invasions too, of a sort of groping, of a form of fascination or sometimes of reciprocal misunderstandings,” Macron said. “The second was that of the Colonial empires and the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. It was globalization through trade, the first openings, but also the routes of slavery, exploitation, the development of some, the enslavement of others, the first displacements of the population and a reorganization of our world in the light of these dominions.
“The third began in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the opening of borders, the creation of the belief in the possibility that the movement of goods and people and then the generalization of the Internet lead to convergences of interests.”
Turkey’s regional encyclopedia
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan washed his diplomatic laundry in his remarks. Speaking right after Trump, Erdogan’s 25-minute speech starkly contrasted with Trump’s seven-minute speech. Erdogan has shown a more assertive diplomacy over the last few years, and he covered many of the burning conflicts within Turkey’s key geopolitical or cultural areas of influence: Yemen, Palestine, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Syria. He also focused on Covid-19.
Erdogan spent a considerable amount of time addressing the rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, as Turkey is feuding with some European countries over the area’s natural-resources exploration. Erdogan attacked directly and indirectly European countries that are trying to mitigate Turkey’s ambition in the Mediterranean Sea, especially off the coast of Cyprus.
“However, some states, including some European countries, unfortunately violate the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers,” Erdogan said, referring to the vast number of refugees that Turkey has taken in as Europe has been far less welcoming. “It is time for the United Nations to take a firm stand against these violations that corrode the Geneva Conventions and the international human rights system.”
The Cyprus issue, which is intrinsically linked to his Mediterranean ventures, were a large part of his remarks as he invited the parties to the longstanding conflict back to negotiations, while also appealing to his Muslim audience. Erdogan said: “The only obstacle to a solution is the uncompromising, unjust and spoiled approach of the Greek Cypriot side. Ignoring international agreements, the Greek Cypriot side aims to make the Turkish Cypriots a minority in their homeland, or even completely exclude them from the island.” At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, Turkey and Greece announced that they would resume talks over maritime claims in early October.
Fact check: According to the European Union, Turkey regularly violates international law’s Article 121 and in particular the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. (Turkey is not a member of it; and neither is the US.)
Fact check: Erdogan said that “the attacks launched by the coup plotters in Libya last year to overthrow the legitimate Government of National Accord have brought only pain and destruction to this country. . . . Turkey has been the only country to give a concrete response and provide support to the call for help of the legitimate Government of Libya.” According to a 2019 UN report, Turkey, along with Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, systematically violated the UN arms embargo in Libya. — STÉPHANIE FILLION
China: We will offer to vaccinate all
Instead of giving Trump’s attack against China a taste of his own medicine, President Xi Jinping took another strategy: he presented his country as the viable (if not the only) alternative to Washington’s unilateralist approach to the world. Xi promised to make a Chinese vaccine global, saying that “when ready, the vaccine will be made a global public good,” a startling contrast to some other countries’ adoption of “vaccinationalism” — a term coined by Secretary-General Guterres in his own speech earlier in the day. — STÉPHANIE FILLION
López Obrador misses a chance to project Mexico as a global player
In his first address to the General Assembly, the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, missed his chance to project the country as a global player. He did not mention Mexico’s role in the UN nor the global crisis of multilateralism nor the need for more international cooperation and solidarity to tackle the pandemic. (Despite that it was a recorded address, López Obrador appeared with the collar of his shirt crooked.)
Even though Mexico has the fourth-highest global death toll from Covid-19, López Obrador said the country is “coming out, we are moving forward.” He offered platitudes, such as “what matters most to us is saving lives, progress is being made.” As part of the double crisis — the pandemic and the economic recession — Mexico is applying strict government austerity measures and fighting corruption, he said. “Despite the pandemic and the crisis, there is no hunger in our country.”
The president offered details about how he is reducing poverty in Mexico, saying that his government provides financial support to older adults, children with disabilities and 11 million students. He also mentioned remittances, which are now Mexico’s primary source of income, as a pillar for the country’s recovery.
Fact check: Hunger is a reality in Mexico. According to the UN, 18.2 percent, or close to 23 million Mexicans, lived under extreme poverty in 2019. That figure will likely go up in 2020. Corruption has not decreased in Mexico since president López Obrador took office, according to the Capacity to Combat Corruption Index, issued in June by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Mexico “has stagnated and maintains a poor ability to detect, punish and prevent corruption,” the report said.
No mention whatsoever of the UN, except at the opening of López Obrador’s remarks, when he said that he was glad to speak during the organization’s 75th anniversary.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.