President of General Assembly opens 75th general debate. Photo:

The United Nations reached its 75th year of existence amidst confusion, strife between nations and a global pandemic that has adversely impacted life on every continent except Antarctica.

“The U.N. is marking its 75th anniversary at a time of great disruption for the world, compounded by an unprecedented global health crisis with severe economic and social impacts,” said the UN official website.

“Will we emerge stronger and better equipped to work together? Or will distrust and isolation grow further?” the global body asked.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the busy sidewalks of the UN’S Dag Hammarskjold Plaza was uncharacteristically sparse and the UN virtually convened its annual General Assembly of heads of states and delegations. The usually crowded General Assembly Hall in the UN New York headquarters was empty except for masked-up, socially distanced, permanent representatives—limited to one or two envoys—introducing prerecorded speeches of their heads of state.


The General Assembly absent of the leaders was different, but the magnitude of the issues was the same, only now with Covid-19 topping the agenda. Since the advent of the pandemic the UN has appealed to its 193-member states to unite in mitigating the crisis.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our annual meeting beyond recognition,” said the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres opening the six-day meeting. “But it has made it more important than ever.”

The secretary-general described the state of world affairs as one of growing inequalities, climate catastrophe, a widening gap of societal divisions and rampant corruption.

“The pandemic has exploited these injustices, preyed on the most vulnerable and wiped away the progress of decades,” Mr. Guterres stated.

The UN was formed in 1945 in San Francisco after two world wars as a global institution to promote dialogue between nations to settle conflict rather than war.

Ambassador Volkan Bozkir of Turkey, the new president of the General Assembly, reiterated the organization’s call to multilateralism, which is a core tenet of the UN Charter mandating nations large and small work together. “Without your continued commitment to multilateralism, we would not be sitting here today,” he said.

Assessing the world body at 75, some analysts and observers say the UN is in a weakened position, but still relevant.

“There’s major drawbacks, and if the UN was really working, we wouldn’t see all these conflicts all over the world,” said Medea Benjamin, founder of the pro-peace group, Code Pink.

Ms. Benjamin told The Final Call she sees the five nation Security Council and their veto powers as a major problem to the UN structure. She said the power should be shifted from the powerful minority to the 193-nation General Assembly.

“It is a flawed institution; but a re-founded United Nations is desperately needed,” added Bill Fletcher Jr., a past president of TransAfrica Forum. “We’re better off having it, then not having it.” Mr. Fletcher told The Final Call the fundamental problem of the UN since its inception was inequality.

The formation of the United Nations grew out of the allied nations of World War II, namely the U.S., the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union who also determined its decision-making structure and functions. “There was immediately a problem,” Mr. Fletcher said, “which is the Security Council.” Mr. Fletcher believes what is needed is a form of “planetary governance” that the UN does not provide, and the major powers don’t desire for the UN.

The Security Council, which now has five nations including China and France was initially set up in a way that guaranteed the hegemony of the major powers. He sees its problematic history as the cause of its current political flaw where a powerful few control the destiny of a large majority.

However, Mr. Fletcher pointed out on the flip side the UN has various humanitarian agencies that play important roles for the people of the world. There have been continued calls for a renewal of the UN and equalizing power.

“Something that is very special, and profound has failed,” said Cuban Pres. Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez. The Cuban president echoed the position expressed by Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro who spoke about the machinations of the U.S. that “openly disregards multilateralism” and any type of pre-existing global rule.

“The United States of America, far from taking a positive or proactive leadership position, conducts itself erratically under a government that is intransigent and hostile to diplomacy and high politics,” said Mr. Maduro.

Some observers said the U.S. has forfeited another opportunity to express vision and leadership on the world stage. The UN has formidable challenges with an adversarial posture of the U.S., said Sara Flounders, co-director of the New York-based International Action Center.

“So here it is, the 75th year and the U.S. did help to establish it … now they’re doing everything they can to sabotage it and bring it down,” said Ms. Flounders.

The U.S. has adopted a more belligerent tone and disconnect from the UN. A day before opening debates, the U.S. slighted the commemoration ceremonies celebrating the 75th milestone by sending its acting deputy UN ambassador in place of President Donald Trump to speak.

Heads of government like Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke. Of 182 speakers, Mr. Trump was listed first, but sent his underling.

“In many ways, the United Nations has proven to be a successful experiment,” said, U.S. acting deputy ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet.
“But for too long,” she added, it disregarded “meaningful reform,” lacked transparency and has been “too vulnerable to the agenda of autocratic regimes and dictatorships,” she added.

Chinese President Xi voiced disapproval of the isolationist position of the U.S. in scathing words. “Unilateralism is a dead end,” he argued. “No country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others or keep advantages in development all to itself. Even less should one be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully, or boss of the world,” Mr. Xi said.

In contrast to the overall spirit of cooperation expressed by leaders addressing the assembly, the U.S. continued its posture of unilateralism and condemnation of the UN. Mr. Trump’s brief remarks revisited positions from previous years such as America First; bragging about advanced American weapons and militarism; and lambasting U.S. foes like China, Iran and Venezuela.

The “America first” dynamic is consistent with America’s retreat from international bodies, explained Ms. Benjamin. “It certainly bullies its way with the threats of cutting the funding,” she said. The U.S. has pulled out of a number of different global agencies including the World Health Organization, UNESCO, the Paris Climate Accords and the UN Human Rights Council.

“There are major aid organizations… being consciously undercut,” said Ms. Flounders. “The more exchange and opportunity there is in the world, the better it is for everyone,” she reasoned. The U.S. does the opposite, she added.

Covid-19 mitigation has been debated since the advent of the virus in early 2020. By the opening day of the annual assembly on September 22, there was 950,000 deaths recorded worldwide and a substantial 201,758 U.S. deaths.

According to a projection issued in September by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the U.S. may reach 410,000 deaths by Jan. 1, 2021 and in the same period, 2.2 million people worldwide are predicted to die.

Of the myriad of issues, the pandemic was central to leaders addressing the 75th General Assembly. Some nations fighting the “invisible enemy” inflicting havoc like Cuba and China are faring better than other nations like the United States and Brazil, that posted the two largest numbers worldwide on the opening day of the international gathering.

Despite the dismal Covid-19 situation in America, in his pre-recorded remarks Mr. Trump used the General Assembly platform to chest thump and blame shift primarily against China.

“We have waged a fierce battle against the invisible enemy—the China virus—which has claimed countless lives in 188 countries,” Mr. Trump said in his fourth UN speech.

Mr. Trump called on the world body to hold Beijing accountable as “the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world.” In addition to China, which the U.S. has ongoing antagonism and a big power competition for global influence, Mr. Trump condemned the World Health Organization for its handling of the pandemic.

Secretary-General Guterres in Sept. 24 remarks called for post-Covid global governance based on solidarity and multilateralism. The pandemic is a full-blown crisis in itself, unfolding in an atmosphere of high geopolitical tensions, and other global threats in unpredictable and dangerous ways, he told a summit-level Security Council debate on “global governance after Covid-19.”

“The pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation, a test we have essentially failed,” Mr. Guterres said.