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Major Powers Spotlight COVID-19 Response at UNGA

By Margaret Besheer September 22, 2020

As the U.N. General Assembly annual debate got under way Tuesday, combating and eliminating the coronavirus pandemic was the foremost preoccupation of the world's major powers.

Global leaders are meeting virtually this year due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide have surpassed 31 million, with more than 960,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which tracks the data.

From China, the country where the virus is believed to have originated, President Xi Jinping promised it would be defeated. He announced that Beijing would provide an additional $50 million to the U.N.'s COVID-19 global humanitarian response plan and said his country is making progress on a vaccine.

"At the moment, several COVID-19 vaccines developed by China are in active Phase 3 clinical trials," Xi said in his video message to the virtual gathering. "When their development is completed and they are ready for use, these vaccines will be made a global public good and will be provided to other developing countries on a priority basis."

He also denounced efforts to politicize or stigmatize the virus.

Touting progress on vaccine

In his UNGA address, U.S. President Donald Trump slammed China, referring to COVID-19 as the "China virus," and saying Beijing must be held accountable for having "unleashed" it on the world. He said the United States is also making strides on a potential vaccine.

"We will distribute a vaccine. We will defeat the virus. We will end the pandemic, and we will enter a new era of unprecedented prosperity, cooperation and peace," Trump pledged Tuesday in a brief video message.

Russia's president also touted his nation's progress on a vaccine.

"We are ready to share our experience and continue cooperating with all states and international entities, including supplying the Russian vaccine — which has proved reliable, safe and effective — to other countries," Vladimir Putin said in his video address.

In August, Russia became the first country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, called Sputnik V. But international scientists have been skeptical of its safety and effectiveness, as it had not started Phase 3 trials when it was approved.

Putin also said Moscow is ready to provide its vaccine free to the United Nations so it could inoculate its staff.

Humanitarian pause

Since March, the U.N. secretary-general has been calling for a global humanitarian truce to help facilitate an effective coronavirus response. The initiative has received an outpouring of verbal support from nations and even some armed groups, but there has been little real implementation on the ground.

Speaking from the General Assembly podium to a limited audience of mostly U.N. ambassadors, Antonio Guterres urged conflict actors and those with influence to implement the pause by the end of this year.

"The world needs a global cease-fire to stop all 'hot' conflicts," Guterres said Tuesday. Acknowledging escalating tensions between the U.S. and China, he added, "At the same time, we must do everything to avoid a new Cold War."

French President Emmanuel Macron expressed frustration that getting the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution supporting the COVID-19 cease-fire was so difficult.

"Imagine that, to have so much trouble in agreeing on so little," Macron said in his UNGA address. "But our permanent members were not able to — even with the exceptional circumstances — come together as we would have liked to have seen them do, because several have chosen to showcase their rivalry over the importance of collective effectiveness."

The council finally adopted a resolution on July 1 — 100 days after the U.N. chief's appeal — primarily because of the deterioration of relations between Washington and Beijing over the origin and spread of the virus.

"This crisis no doubt, more than any other, demands that we cooperate. Demands that we invent new international solutions first," Macron added.

Iran sanctions

Another issue that has sparked strong reactions in recent weeks from the world's major powers has been Washington's move to reimpose U.N. sanctions on Iran for its lack of compliance under the 2015 nuclear deal.

In May 2018, Trump announced his administration's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known. The other members of the agreement — Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany and Iran — say the U.S. gave up its right to initiate what is known as a "snapback" of international sanctions when it pulled out of the deal. Washington disagreed, saying the U.N. Security Council resolution enshrining the 2015 nuclear agreement in international law still names the U.S. as a participant.

After notifying the U.N. in August that it planned to snap back sanctions, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Sept. 19 that snapback had occurred. The U.N Security Council has said it will take no action on reinstating the sanctions regime.

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Macron said that his government, along with partners Britain and Germany, would work to maintain the deal, and they expect Iran to comply with its obligations.

"It is up to us to fulfill the 2015 agreement, first in time and over time, to make sure that Iran never has access to a nuclear weapon," the French president said. "But also to ensure that we bring a response to Iran's ballistic (missile) activities, and also to destabilization in the region."

Iran's president acknowledged the difficulties his nation faces because of unilateral sanctions Washington reimposed after leaving the JCPOA.

"The United States can impose neither negotiations, nor war on us," a defiant Hassan Rouhani said in his taped message.

U.S. presidential elections are just over one month away, and Rouhani linked Washington's effort to snap back sanctions to its domestic politics.

"We are not a bargaining chip in U.S. elections and domestic policy," he said. "Any U.S. administration after the upcoming elections will have no choice but to surrender to the resilience of the Iranian nation."

In his Tuesday address, Trump noted that his administration withdrew from "the terrible Iran" deal and "imposed crippling sanctions on the world's leading state sponsor of terror."

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