Trump says UN must 'hold China accountable' for COVID-19

Philippe Rater and Shaun Tandon, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 22 2020 10:32 PM | Updated as of Sep 23 2020 03:41 AM

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. Kevin Lamarque, Reuters/File​

UNITED NATIONS (UPDATE)- US President Donald Trump angrily cast blame on China over the coronavirus pandemic in an address on Tuesday before the United Nations, whose warned against a new "Cold War" between the two powers.

At a General Assembly held almost entirely virtually due to COVID-19, Trump delivered a speech in full election campaign mode, even using his loaded term "China virus." 

"We must hold accountable the nations which unleashed this plague onto the world -- China," Trump said in a previous recorded address to the General Assembly, where each nation was represented by a single, masked delegate. 

"Those who attack America's exceptional environmental record while ignoring China's rampant pollution are not interested in the environment. They only want to punish America. And I will not stand for it," he said. 

Trump renewed his criticism of China's role in the respiratory disease, news of which was suppressed when cases first emerged late last year in Wuhan. 

"The Chinese government, and the World Health Organization –- which is virtually controlled by China –- falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission," Trump said, referring to initial statements by the UN health body that it later revised.

Trump has given notice that the United States is pulling out of the World Health Organization.

Washington has been the greatest contributor to the health body, which has tackled polio, malaria and other illnesses around the world

Critics say Trump is trying to shift blame for his handling of COVID-19 in the United States -- where nearly 200,000 people have died, more than in any other country. 

His Democratic rival in November 3 elections, Joe Biden, has vowed to keep the United States in the WHO if he wins.

'GREAT FRACTURE'

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, opening the General Assembly, warned of the risks of rising tensions between the United States and China. 

"We must do everything to avoid a new Cold War," Guterres said. 

"We are moving in a very dangerous direction. Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture -- each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities."

The Trump administration has launched a global campaign against the influence of China, pushing back on its claims in the South China Sea and warning nations of the risks of accepting its lavish infrastructure spending.

China has been increasingly assertive, with some experts saying that it sees an opportunity at a time that the world is preoccupied with COVID-19. 

Guterres also criticized the nationalist approach to the coronavirus, without naming Trump or other world leaders.

"Populism and nationalism have failed. Those approaches to contain the virus have often made things manifestly worse."

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has contracted COVID himself, used his address to accuse his nation's media of spreading panic.

EERILY SILENT

The UN General Assembly in normal years draws about 10,000 people from around the world, a prospect that is unthinkable at a time when nations have imposed strict entrance requirements to prevent the spread of Covid-19, which has claimed nearly 950,000 lives. 

With no chance for in-person meetings and the give-and-take of negotiations, some UN-based diplomats wonder how much can be achieved. 

The United Nations is nonetheless moving ahead with meetings -- also virtual -- on the sidelines of the summit to tackle the coronavirus pandemic as well as climate change, biodiversity and political turbulence both in Libya and Lebanon. 

The United States plans its own meeting on its own take on human rights. But it has also blatantly defied the United Nations, on Monday announcing sanctions that it said were enforcing a UN arms embargo on Iran. 

Almost all other nations, including European allies, say that the United States has no such authority.