UNITED NATIONS – The global response to COVID-19 and the accompanying economic crisis, the growing rivalry between the United States and China, climate change and efforts to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are expected to feature in the debates next week when the United Nations General Assembly opens.
The pandemic has forced the UN to adopt a largely virtual format for the 2020 edition.
Likewise, much of the content of world leaders’ speeches to the assembly will be taken up with concerns about the coronavirus, which has claimed 953,000 lives around the globe, a death toll sure to rise as the number of confirmed cases approaches 31 million.
On top of the loss of life, COVID-19 has slammed the international economy. Worldwide, gross domestic product will end 2020 down 4.5 percent, according to projections by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The response to the pandemic has been fragmented, with national governments calling the shots and international bodies pushed to the margins.
The UN’s World Health Organization, which would ordinarily be expected to coordinate efforts to battle the virus, has struggled to lead in the face of harsh criticism – especially from the US – for its initial handling of COVID-19.
Details about the distribution of an eventual vaccine and steps to ease the economic pain of the pandemic for the poorest nations will be at the center of discussions in the General Assembly, according to diplomatic sources.
A year ago, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used his address to the General Assembly to warn of the risk of a “great fracture” that could divide the world into two camps: one led by the US and the other by China.
“We must do everything possible to avert the great fracture and maintain a universal system, a universal economy with universal respect for international law, a multipolar world with strong multilateral institutions,” Guterres said in September 2019.
Since then, however, the rift between Washington and Beijing has grown wider amid continuing a trade war, tit-for-tat sanctions and verbal battles over Hong Kong and COVID-19, which US President Donald Trump has dubbed the “China virus.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping has skipped the General Assembly opening on the last few occasions and this year will mark the first time that he and Trump both address the body during the same session.
Another topic that could command attention at next week’s gathering is the Iran nuclear pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the escalating US attempts to undermine it.
On July 14, 2015, the US joined Iran, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union in signing an accord that saw Tehran agree to severe limits on its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of US, EU and UN sanctions.
Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA in 2018, inaugurating a campaign of “maximum pressure” that aims openly at effecting regime change in Iran.
After failing last month to persuade the UN Security Council to renew an arms embargo against Iran, the Trump administration invoked the “snapback” clause in the JCPOA, which gives Washington the right to re-impose sanctions unilaterally.
None of the other signatories accepts the US assertion of a right to make decisions about an agreement Washington has abandoned.
Even so, the Trump administration announced plans to begin enforcing its unilateral sanctions on Saturday.
In light of a recent UN report showing that climate change continues to accelerate despite a decline in greenhouse gas emissions due to the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, Guterres hopes to use the General Assembly session to rally support for orienting recovery efforts toward the creation of a green economy.