For the first time in its 75-year history, leaders of the United Nations’ 193 member states are delivering their annual speeches on the opening day of the world body’s General Assembly on videotape instead of in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tuesday’s session commenced with a pre-taped message from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, in keeping with a decades-long tradition first established in the 1940s, followed by U.S. President Donald Trump, as leader of the U.N. host country. Other prominent world leaders whose pre-recorded messages were shown Tuesday include Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, China’s Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin of Russia and France’s Emmanuel Macron.
The only attendees in the cavernous General Assembly Hall to watch the videotaped speeches are a single masked envoy representing each member nation, plus the European Union, the Holy See and the non-member Observer State of Palestine, in order to maintain social distancing.
Hand sanitizer stations have been placed in the side aisles of the Hall and delegates will be obliged to wear face coverings, but not to undergo temperature checks.
The U.N. marked its 75th anniversary Monday amid the grip of the global coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 960,000 people and sickened more than 31.2 million globally, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the world’s fragilities. We can only address them together,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, referencing the disease caused by the coronavirus. “Today, we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions.”
WATCH: UN 75th Anniversary
The United Nations was born in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II to prevent another large-scale conflict.
“A Third World War — which so many had feared — has been avoided,” Guterres said. “Never in modern history have we gone so many years without a military confrontation between the major powers. This is a great achievement of which member states can be proud — and which we must all strive to preserve.”
He noted other U.N. accomplishments, including reducing hunger and poverty, assisting millions of victims of conflict and disaster, and the eradication of diseases. But the list of work ahead is daunting.
“Twenty-five years since the Beijing Platform for Action, gender inequality remains the greatest single challenge to human rights around the world,” Guterres said. “Climate calamity looms. Biodiversity is collapsing. Poverty is again rising. Hatred is spreading. Geopolitical tensions are escalating. Nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert. Transformative technologies have opened up new opportunities but also exposed new threats.”
“It is hard to grasp the remarkable evolution of the United Nations over the last 75 years,” said U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet. “From cautious, early steps among a few global leaders to today’s vast networks of organizations, agencies, and functions, the U.N. has grown well beyond the vision of its founders.”
The United States is both the host country of the United Nations, whose iconic headquarters is in New York City, and also its largest single financial benefactor.
But the Trump administration has been critical of the world body, withdrawing funding and cooperation from several of its agencies, including the World Health Organization and the Human Rights Council.
Chalet said the organization has for too long been resistant to real reform and lacks transparency.
“The 75th anniversary of the U.N. is the right time to ask questions about the institution’s strengths and weaknesses, review and learn from its failures, and celebrate its accomplishments,” she said.
The United Nations is using its anniversary year as a moment for reflection. More than one million people in 80 countries have provided feedback to a global survey about the organization and its work.
Nearly 90% said global cooperation is crucial to deal with today’s challenges, and that the pandemic has made international cooperation more urgent. Nearly three-quarters said the U.N. is “essential” for tackling global challenges, but they also want the organization to change and innovate.
The General Assembly adopted a declaration for the anniversary, which in part, says, “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.”