Tasks daunting as UN Assembly opens

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In person and on screen, world leaders have returned to the United Nations' foremost gathering for the first time in the pandemic era with a formidable, diplomacy-packed agenda and a sharply worded warning from the international organisation's leader: "We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetime."

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres rang the alarm on Tuesday in his annual state-of-the-world speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly's high-level meeting for leaders of its 193 member nations.

More than 100 heads of state and government kept away by COVID-19 are returning to the UN in person for the first time in two years. But with the pandemic still raging, about 60 will deliver pre-recorded statements over coming days.

"We are on the edge of an abyss - and moving in the wrong direction," Guterres said. "I'm here to sound the alarm. The world must wake up."

Guterres said the world has never been more threatened and divided. People may lose faith not only in their governments and institutions, he said, but in basic values when they see their human rights curtailed, corruption, the reality of their harsh lives, no future for their children - and "when they see billionaires joyriding to space while millions go hungry on Earth".

Nevertheless, the UN chief said he has hope.

Guterres urged world leaders to bridge six "great divides": promote peace and end conflicts, restore trust between the richer north and developing south on tackling global warming, reduce the gap between rich and poor, promote gender equality, ensure that the half of humanity that has no access to the Internet is connected by 2030, and tackle the generational divide by giving young people "a seat at the table."

Other pressing issues on the agenda of world leaders include rising US-China tensions, Afghanistan's unsettled future under its new Taliban rulers and ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia's embattled Tigray region.

The three most closely watched speakers on Tuesday morning are US President Joe Biden, appearing at the UN for the first time since his defeat of Donald Trump in the US election last November; Chinese President Xi Jinping, who in a surprise move will deliver a video address; and Iran's recently elected hardline President Ebrahim Raisi.

The General Assembly's president, Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, opened debate by challenging delegates to rise to the occasion. "There are moments in time that are turning points," he said. "This is one such moment."

In his speech, Biden, too, called this moment "an inflection point in history" and said that for the United States to prosper, it "must also engage deeply with the rest of the world."

He urged "relentless diplomacy" and global cooperation on COVID-19, climate change and human rights abuses, pledged to work with allies, and said the United States is "not seeking a new Cold War".

The UN chief said in an interview this weekend with The Associated Press that Washington and Beijing should be cooperating on the climate crisis and negotiating on trade and technology, but "unfortunately, today we only have confrontation" including over human rights and geostrategic problems mainly in the South China Sea.

By tradition, the first country to speak was Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro rebuffed criticism of his administration's handling of the pandemic and touted recent data indicating less Amazon deforestation. He said he was seeking to counter the image of Brazil portrayed in the media, touting it as a great place for investment and praising his pandemic welfare program, which helped avoid a worse recession last year.

He said that his government has successfully distributed first doses to the majority of adults, but doesn't support vaccine passports or forcing anyone to have a shot. Bolsonaro has said several times in the past week that he remains unvaccinated.

"By November, everyone who chooses to be vaccinated in Brazil will be attended to," Bolsonaro told the General Assembly.

He also doubled-down on "early treatment" methods such as hydroxychloroquine, without naming the drug. Brazil's government continued promoting the antimalarial long after scientists roundly dismissed it as ineffective against COVID-19.

Guterres, in his opening speech, pointed to "supersized glaring inequalities" sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate alarm bells "ringing at fever pitch," upheavals from Afghanistan to Ethiopia and Yemen thwarting global peace, a surge of mistrust and misinformation "polarising people and paralysing societies" and human rights "under fire".

The solidarity of nations to tackle these and other crises "is missing in action just when we need it most," he said.

"Instead of humility in the face of these epic challenges, we see hubris."

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