UNITED NATIONS — The UN’s first virtual meeting of world leaders was set to start Tuesday with pre-recorded speeches from some of the planet’s biggest powers, kept at home by the coronavirus pandemic that will likely be a dominant theme at their video gathering this year.
With COVID-19 still limiting global movement, just one representative from each of the 193 UN members will be allowed to attend, and only someone already in the United States. Everyone else will have to appear by videoconference, including some 160-170 heads of state and government planning addresses.
“Diplomacy, to be effective, requires personal contacts, and I am very sorry that we are not going to have the opportunity to bring together leaders of countries,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Even so, he said, there would be “many virtual meetings” on the sidelines of the assembly, convening by teleconference on subjects such as climate change, biodiversity and the conflicts in Libya and Lebanon.
Among those expected to speak Tuesday are US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose countries have reported the highest and second-highest coronavirus death tolls, respectively. Also on deck are President Xi Jinping of China, where the virus originated, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which has raised international eyebrows with its rapid vaccine development.
After Monday’s introductory session marking the UN’s 75th anniversary, the meeting’s central event — speeches from each of its 193 member nations — start Tuesday. They traditionally serve as a platform for countries to tout accomplishments, seek support, stoke rivalries and express views on global priorities.
This year, the platform is online, and there is a pressing new priority in the pandemic that has killed over 960,000 people worldwide.
“When we met in New York a year ago, no one could have imagined that 2020 would arrange such a powerful crash test for our world,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy remarked in his video speech for Monday’s anniversary commemoration.
By custom, Brazil speaks first and the US second as the host country in the annual meeting’s “general debate,” which is generally less a dialogue than a series of declarations.
The coronavirus has inflicted heavy tolls on both countries, close to 200,000 people in the US and over 136,000 in Brazil, according to statistics collected by Johns Hopkins University.
Both Bolsonaro and Trump have been at odds, at least at times, with governors and health experts over the pandemic and have emphasized the economic consequences of shutdowns.
Both also are contending with plenty of other issues that command world attention, including Bolsonaro’s plans to develop the Amazon and Trump’s 2018 decision to pull the US out of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Washington took a further step this weekend with a unilateral, and disputed, declaration that all UN penalties eased under the 2015 nuclear deal had been restored, setting up a likely showdown at the assembly — where Iran’s speech is also scheduled Tuesday.
So is Turkey’s, a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the UN has “flunked during the pandemic.”
Trump told reporters Monday that he’d have a “strong message” for China, where the first cases of COVID-19 were reported, but he didn’t elaborate ahead of the Tuesday address. Earlier in his administration, Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Florida club, but now the two leaders are exchanging angry words over trade.
The administration has been slamming the Chinese Communist Party for its handling of COVID-19, election meddling, espionage in the United States and influence peddling across the world.
The virus was first detected in Wuhan, China, late last year. After building field hospitals and imposing a draconian 76-day lockdown to battle the virus there, China has said of late that it is seeing relatively few cases, mostly among people arriving from other countries. China, the world’s most populous nation, has reported over 4,700 deaths.
The White House has not previewed his UN speech, but Trump was expected to highlight agreements the US brokered between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The historic agreements come as relations between the Jewish state and Arab nations are thawing as a pushback against Iran — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to speak on September 29.
Trump likely will also take credit for brokering economic cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo and for pressuring NATO nations to meet their pledge to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on their own defenses to lessen the burden on the alliance.
He might also have words for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. In 2017, Trump told the UN he was bringing a “message of peace,” but then said that if the US was forced to defend itself against Kim, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” He called Kim “rocket man,” but has since met with him three times, although North Korea has not made a move to give up its nuclear weapons.
Trump has tussled with multilateral organizations throughout his presidency, although his aides say he is not against all multilateral groups, only the ones that aren’t effective. After COVID-19 took hold, Trump yanked support from the U.N.’s World Health Organization, saying it was too beholden to China.
A record number of heads of states and governments are due to speak at the virtual meeting, rather than sending ministers or diplomats. That’s a good thing, “but the idea that prime ministers and presidents are going to be sitting at home with a bucket of popcorn watching each other’s televised speeches is a bit silly,” said Richard Gowan, who oversees UN issues for Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
Still, German UN Ambassador Christoph Heusgen sees the assembly as a chance for a global meeting of minds when it’s needed more than ever.
“Even in a digital format, UNGA-75 is an opportunity — especially in the face of international conflicts and dramatic challenges such as climate change or COVID-19,” he said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.