A pre-recorded statement from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s President Sefik Dzaferovic kicked off Day 2 of the 75th General Assembly, and like many other world leaders, he called for heightened multilateralism amid today’s pandemic and global conflicts.
Simultaneously, for the first hour of the day, a Unicef-sponsored virtual event about protecting future generations from the Covid-19 crisis that featured K-pop’s most-popular group, BTS, dominated Twitter and YouTube chatter. In contrast to the overarching global issues world leaders have been speaking to, Unicef and BTS focused on a softer angle of the coronavirus epidemic: the mental health effects of the pandemic and how it is affecting youth.
Back in the mostly empty General Assembly Hall on Sept. 23, nearly all leaders began their virtually broadcasted statements highlighting the impacts of the pandemic in their own countries and the world. Generally, the Middle East and southeast European regions focused heavily on antiterrorism efforts, combating extremism or how they are dealing with refugee and migration problems.
African nations, Scandinavian and central and northern European countries spoke strongly about the need for UN member states to work together to face current challenges.
Here are highlights from a selection of speeches from the countries of Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia and Kenya — concentrating on when (or if) they mentioned Covid-19, climate change, multilateralism in the UN and gender equality. (And as PassBlue reported on Sept. 10, the first woman scheduled to speak at the General Assembly session was President Zuzana Caputova of Slovakia.)
Hungary: Is this the climate change summit?
President Janos Ader began his six-minute statement telling us what we already know: how the virus has affected our work, social lives and upended economies and is putting our global health at grave risk. But this was not the main focus of his remarks.
Ader connected the pandemic to climate change, alluding to human impact on earth, which was the sole focus of the remainder of his speech, as he said: “By the beginning of the twenty-first century we humans have become the biggest factor that exercises the biggest impact on changes to the planet. We have to brace ourselves and if we do not radically change our lifestyles, this crisis will be followed by other ones which may be even more serious than covid.”
He spoke specifically about medical and food production issues related to water contamination. He briefly mentioned the use of coal-powered plants taking up “water that would be enough to supply 1 billion people.” Ader zoomed out again to focus on how we are living unsustainably, using resources that are limited and suggesting that a circular economy is the solution, saying:
“Where waste, glass, plastic, metal, etc. are not garbage, but recyclable raw materials. How many times have we discussed this yet we have achieved little progress?”
Context: What Hungary failed to mention is its poor human-rights record, especially the rights of an independent press, academic freedoms and the inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers who cross its borders. Hungary has been a member of the European Union since 2004. While Ader is the head of state, he holds a mostly ceremonial position. The head of government is Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been using the coronavirus outbreak to take more power in Hungary.
Multilateralism & UN
Saudi Arabia: Heavy shade at Iran and at terrorism itself
King Salman bin Abdulaziz opened his 16-minute pre-recording sitting at a large desk and a stapled copy of his statement in his hands, from which he read without looking up much at the camera.
After winding pronouncements of being “in the forefront among the nations working to achieve international peace and security” since the beginning of the UN’s creation, King Salman spent most of the time denouncing Iran’s targeting of Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities.
Next, King Salman accused Iran of interfering in Yemen through a surrogate — the Houthi militia — and causing a humanitarian crisis, including a near famine. He pledged Saudi Arabia’s continued support of providing food and other essential aid to Yemenis without acknowledging that the Saudi-led military coalition has also inflicted tremendous death and destruction in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia expressed its support of the Palestinians to regain their “legitimate rights at the forefront of which is establishing their independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.” He also noted the efforts of the US administration to bring peace to the Middle East. The King condemned foreign intervention in Libya and supported a peaceful resolution of Syria. He also expressed support of Lebanon, referencing the Beirut port explosion on Aug. 4, which he claimed was due to the “hegemony of Hezbollah.”
Mostly a pat on the back, the King said the effect of the pandemic and its repercussions compel “all of us to stand together to face common challenges,” coming close to the main multilateralism theme of this year’s General Assembly. He praised his country’s work in leading a global effort against the pandemic at the G-20 summit held in March, where the Saudis pledged $500 million to help combat the effects of the pandemic, and he reiterated that his country is one of the largest donors of aid in the world. “During the past three decades, the Kingdom provided more than $86 billion in humanitarian aid benefiting 81 countries,” he said.
The words “climate change” were mentioned once at the end of his statement, but it was not actually something the King spoke about. Instead, it was embedded in the final sentences wrapping up his speech, an issue listed with others, including “organized crime.”
Multilateralism & UN
King Salman called for continued combating of extremist organizations and “the rolling back of ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria.” He said that “to achieve success in our battle against terrorism and extremism, we must intensify our joint efforts by facing this challenge comprehensively.” He mentioned the Saudis’ $100-million-plus support of the UN Counter-Terrorism Center and other antiterrorism entities.
Slovakia: Preaching solidarity to combat Covid-19 and climate change
For the first time during the 75th General Assembly opening session, the pronoun “her” was heard, to introduce Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova. She used her eight-minute statement to focus on how the world can connect its handling of the pandemic with how it can also deal with the climate change crisis. Caputova called for solidarity, compassion and responsible leadership to get the world through such challenges and repeated those principles in her speech.
She also highlighted that leaders needed to be “guardians” of trust by upholding free and independent media and not allowing a crisis to be used to suppress human rights, calling out the recent violence against protesters in the wake of the re-election of Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, who won allegedly from a rigged election. He has been president for 26 years.
“People around the world understood that responsible behaviour can save lives, even if it meant limitation of their own comfort,” she said. Since the world quickly changed and adapted in working together against the global threat of the pandemic, she said that it can do the same for threats like climate change.
She also warned that “we must not allow the development and production of vaccine and medical supplies to become yet another global competition,” and that worldwide partnerships among scientists, manufacturers and governments will be necessary to make sure everyone can access an effective vaccine, regardless of its cost.
Caputova called climate change “the greatest threat to our common future,” but did not deep-dive into a specific aspect.
Multilateralism & UN
In her short statement, about six minutes under the maximum length allowed, Caputova pushed for bringing the lessons learned from dealing with Covid-19 to a renewal of a universal commitment to tackle other global threats through the UN.
Kenya: Three cheers for multilateralism
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 24-minute statement comprehensively covered Covid-19 efforts, his country’s commitment to tackling climate change and counterterrorism and even acknowledged global gender-equality initiatives and issues. The theme of multilateralism was embedded throughout his remarks. He also appealed for the end of the commercial and the financial embargo and sanctions against Cuba, Zimbabwe and Sudan. Kenya joins the Security Council for a two-year term in January.
Kenyatta said the pandemic best defines the challenges of our time, because it’s one “we can only overcome if each one of us succeeds.” He provided specific examples of how Kenya has made targeted efforts to revamp and expand its health care system and intervened to help the most vulnerable people: the elderly, unemployed, youth.
Kenyatta highlighted that climate change disproportionately impacted small island developing states and other nations with fragile ecological environments, stressing the interdependency of biodiversity loss with ecosystem degradation and the need to “find a global balance between human beings and other creatures on our earth.”
Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is headquarters to the UN Environment Program and UN-Habitat, and Kenyatta encouraged the expansion of both organizations.
Multilateralism & UN
The president described the many contemporary global challenges, including Covid-19, biodiversity, social and economic inequalities and digital vulnerabilities, saying they all “redefine the imperative for multilateral action.” Without naming names, he said that “global geopolitics and competition between global powers have complicated and severely undermined the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
During his remarks about Covid-19, Kenyatta said, “We have also recognized that this pandemic has in itself produced the challenges of gender inequality and more gender violence.” He pointed out that violence against women is a pervasive, continuing problem that has been exacerbated as a “shadow pandemic.” Domestic abuse of children is also suspected to have quietly increased, another shadow of the Covid-19 crisis.
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Sonah Lee-Lassiter is a Korean-American freelance writer based in Brooklyn, who grew up across many US states. In her contributions to PassBlue, she has covered a wide range of topics, including Afghanistan’s migrant crisis, digital harassment at the UN and how the airline industry affects climate change. She has a degree in international management fromt the University of Vermont and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and works in the civil service as well.