Racism, the climate crisis and the world’s worsening divisions took center stage at the United Nations on Wednesday, a day after the UN chief issued a grim warning that we are on the edge of an abyss.
For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more than two dozen world leaders appeared in person at the UN General Assembly on the opening day of their annual high-level meeting. The atmosphere was somber, angry and dire.
China’s President Xi Jinping warned that the world has entered a period of new turbulence and transformation. Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto said: “We are indeed at a critical juncture.”
Costa Rica’s President Carlos Alvarado Quesada declared, “The future is raising its voice at us: Less military weaponry, more investment in peace!”
Speaker after speaker at Tuesday’s opening of the nearly week-long meeting decried the inequalities and deep divisions that have prevented united global action to end the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed nearly 4.6 million lives and is still raging, and the failure to sufficiently tackle the climate crisis threatening the planet.
COVID-19 and climate are certain to remain top issues for heads of state and government. But Wednesday’s UN agenda turned the spotlight on the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the controversial UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which was dominated by clashes over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery.
The US and Israel walked out during the meeting over a draft resolution that singled out Israel for criticism and likened Zionism to racism, a provision that was eventually dropped. Twenty countries boycotted Wednesday’s commemoration, according to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which urged more countries to join them in continuing to fight racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism.
Following the commemoration, heads of state delivered their annual addresses again in the vast General Assembly hall. Speakers include King Abdullah II of Jordan, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Perhaps the harshest assessment of the current global crisis came from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who opened his state of the world address sounding an alarm that the world must wake up.
“Our world has never been more threatened or more divided,” he said. “We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes. We are on the edge of an abyss and moving in the wrong direction,” the secretary-general warned.
Guterres pointed to supersized glaring inequalities in addressing COVID-19, climate alarm bells … ringing at fever pitch, upheavals from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen and beyond thwarting peace, and a surge of mistrust and misinformation (that) is polarizing people and paralyzing societies.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the pandemic was a reminder that the entire world are part of a big family. “But the solidarity test that we were put to failed us miserably,” he said. “It is a disgrace for humanity that vaccine nationalism is still being carried on through different methods, and underdeveloped countries and poor segments of societies have been literally left to their fate in the face of the pandemic.”
As for the climate crisis, Erdogan said whoever did the most damage to nature, the atmosphere and water, and whoever has wildly exploited natural resources should make the greatest contribution to fighting global warming.
“Unlike the past, this time no one can afford the luxury to say, ‘I’m powerful so I will not pay the bill’ because climate change will treat mankind quite equally,” the Turkish leader said. “The duty for all of us is to take measures against this enormous threat, with a fair burden-sharing.”
Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis did find something positive from the COVID-19 crisis. “While the pandemic affected almost all aspects of our lives,” he said, “it also provided us with opportunities to learn, adapt and do things better.”
Two of the most closely-watched speeches on Tuesday were delivered by U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping.
In an Associated Press interview on Saturday, Guterres warned that the world could plunge into a new and probably more dangerous Cold War if China and the United States don’t repair their completely dysfunctional relationship. “Unfortunately, today we only have confrontation,” he said.
The secretary-general kept that theme in his speech on Tuesday, saying, “I fear our world is creeping towards two different sets of economic, trade, financial and technology rules, two divergent approaches in the development of artificial intelligence and ultimately two different military and geopolitical strategies. This is a recipe for trouble.”
In his UN address, Biden said that the United States was not attempting to be divisive or confrontational. “We are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” he said. “The United States is ready to work with any nation that steps up and pursues peaceful resolution to shared challenges even if we have intense disagreements in other areas.”
Speaking later, Xi said disputes among countries need to be handled through dialogue and cooperation. “One country’s success does not have to mean another country’s failure,” Xi said. “The world is big enough to accommodate common development and progress of all countries.”
By tradition, the first country to speak was Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro rebuffed criticism of his handling of the pandemic and touted recent data indicating less Amazon deforestation. He said he was seeking to counter the image of Brazil portrayed in the media, touting it as a great place for investment and praising his pandemic welfare program, which helped avoid a worse recession last year.
Bolsonaro said that his government has successfully distributed the first vaccine doses to the majority of adults, but doesn’t support vaccine passports or forcing anyone to have a shot. Bolsonaro had COVID-19 last year and has said several times over the last week that he remains unvaccinated. He said getting a shot is a personal, medical decision.
“By November, everyone who chooses to be vaccinated in Brazil will be attended to,” Bolsonaro told the General Assembly.
Brazil’s health minister, Marcelo Quiroga, who was with Bolsonaro, later tested positive for the coronavirus and will remain in isolation in the United States, the government said. Quiroga got his first shot of the coronavirus vaccine in January.