The speeches from leaders of the 193 member states have been prerecorded because of the pandemic, broadcast to a General Assembly hall that is sparsely populated by socially distanced diplomats, clapping ceremoniously at the conclusion of each 15-minute address.
The speeches — often self-congratulatory — are scrutinised for any policy shifts or even snippets of news, as in the case of President Xi Jinping of China on Tuesday, when he announced an accelerated target for reducing carbon emissions by his country, the leading emitter of heat-trapping gases.
For some leaders who may have been too frail to make the physical trip to the United Nations headquarters in New York, this year’s General Assembly has offered an opportunity, as in the case of King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who spoke Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia’s King: Iran is the Enemy
King Salman, the 85-year-old monarch who ascended the throne of his oil-rich kingdom in 2015 but has left the day-to-day running of affairs to his 35-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, made his General Assembly speech debut. He used it to assail Iran, Saudi Arabia’s longtime regional adversary.
Hunched, bespectacled and grasping the speech text with both hands at an ornate desk, the king extolled Saudi Arabia’s donations to humanitarian causes, which he said had totaled more than $86 billion to 81 countries over the past three decades. He then pivoted to denounce what he called “the forces of extremism and chaos” in the Middle East, singling out Iran.
“The Kingdom’s hands were extended to Iran in peace with a positive and open attitude over the past decades, but to no avail,” the king said. He accused the Iranian government of having exploited international efforts to contain its nuclear activities, supporting the Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen and targeting Saudi oil facilities in missile strikes.
“Our experience with the Iranian regime has taught us that partial solutions and appeasement did not stop its threats to international peace and security,” the king said, echoing the language of the Trump administration, which considers Saudi Arabia a vital ally.
The king’s sentiments were basically the opposite of those expressed a day earlier by President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who portrayed his country as a peace-loving force for good in the region and the world.
The king also expressed support for the Trump administration’s efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he conspicuously said nothing about the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, as done in recent weeks by two close Saudi regional allies, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
He concluded by expressing sympathy for the people of Lebanon, struggling from a dysfunctional government and the aftermath of the devastating port explosion last month that levelled part of Beirut. The king called the blast “the result of the hegemony of Hezbollah,” the militant Lebanese Shiite group aligned with Iran. Hezbollah has denied any role in the port blast, which was caused by an abandoned stockpile of ammonium nitrate.
The king said nothing negative about Saudi Arabia’s own military role in the Yemen conflict, a quagmire that the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, where the threat of famine now looms.
He also made no mention of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, its extensive use of capital punishment and the targeting of dissidents including Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was killed and dismembered by Saudi agents in Turkey two years ago. The king’s son has been linked by American intelligence to Khashoggi’s death, but the Saudi judiciary has prosecuted only low-level operatives in a secretive trial that was concluded a few weeks ago.
After 47 Speeches by Men, It’s a Woman’s Turn
Gender equality is one of the UN’s sustainable development goals — 17 measurements of a better life that the organisation has committed to achieving by 2030. But in a stark reflection of the challenges in reaching that goal, most of the General Assembly speakers are men. It was not until Wednesday that a female president, Zuzana Caputova of Slovakia, took the virtual podium, the 48th leader to speak.
Caputova, who was elected as her country’s first female president last year, said nothing in her speech about gender bias. But she had a pointed message for the world’s strongmen autocrats who have sought to crush their opponents by force.
“Too often we see situations in the world, when people are intimidated, beaten or even threatened with their lives,” she said, mentioning the political crackdown in Belarus and the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. “And only because they stood up for their rights. The spread of authoritarian disease is a threat to all of us.”
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks virtually during the 75th annual UN General Assembly, which is being held mostly virtually due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, from Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela September 23, 2020. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS
Caputova, a 47-year-old lawyer and relative political newcomer, has emerged as something of a potent counterpoint to the authoritarian leaders in Europe. Her election in March 2019 was regarded as a stunning rebuke of Slovakia’s populist governing party.
Maduro of Venezuela Calls US the World’s Most Serious Threat
The United States, along with about 60 other countries, no longer recognises Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela, claiming he rigged the 2018 election and has driven his once-affluent country to economic ruin because of mismanagement and corruption. But Maduro is still regarded as the country’s legitimate leader at the United Nations, and he made full use of that status in his speech.
Fulminating against what he described as a “multiform attack by the US empire” to depose him, Maduro vowed to resist. He spoke of his country in glowing terms and attributed the economic destitution afflicting millions of Venezuelans to American sanctions. He said nothing about an investigation commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council that has implicated . Maduro and top aides in egregious abuses.
“The United States — we must say this — in the course of history has become the most serious threat to peace in this world,” Maduro said.
The Trump administration has made no secret of wanting Maduro to step aside and has expressed frustration at his tenacity. Venezuela’s opposition, which once stood behind Maduro’s political rival, Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly leader who declared himself president in January 2019, has shown recent signs of fracturing. Some other prominent anti-Maduro politicians have decided to defy an opposition boycott of December congressional elections, a move Guaidó has denounced as a treacherous mistake.