UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Taking the world stage for the last time as secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon unleashed years of pent-up anger at leaders who keep “feeding the war machine” in Syria, violate human rights and prevent aid deliveries to starving people.
The U.N. chief told presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and ministers at the opening of General Assembly’s annual ministerial meeting on Tuesday that “powerful patrons” on both sides in the more than five-year Syrian conflict “have blood on their hands.”
“Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syria conflict against Syrian civilians,” he said.
“Many groups have killed innocent civilians — none more so than the government of Syria, which continues to barrel bomb neighborhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees,” he added.
Speaking moments later, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his own final speech to the General Assembly, describing a world in the throes of a contest between authoritarianism and liberal democracy, between fundamentalism and tolerance.
He lamented that while the world has become a safer and more prosperous place by many measures, people have lost faith in public institutions amid frightening problems like terrorism and a devastating refugee crisis.
“It’s no surprise that some argue the future favors the strongman,” Obama said. “But I believe the road to true democracy remains the better path.”
In the Middle East, Obama said the world needs to be “united and relentless” in pursuing a military defeat of the Islamic State group, which “shows no respect for human life.” But he added that in Syria’s civil war “there is no military victory to be won” and world leaders “must pursue the hard work of diplomacy” to end the conflict.
Ban, whose term ends December 31, said “in too many places, we see leaders rewriting constitutions, manipulating elections and taking other desperate steps to cling to power.” In particular, he accused South Sudan’s feuding leaders of betraying their people.
Looking back on his nearly 10 years at the helm of the United Nations, Ban cited the rise of “people power” with mobile phones that now blanket the world, reductions in poverty, political transitions in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and the cease-fire agreement in Colombia.
Ban said he was proud that UN Women was established under his watch and drew loud applause when he said: “I am proud to call myself a feminist.”
But the focus of his annual state of the world report was on the myriad problems on the global agenda — and the leaders who fail to tackle them.
He listed a host of “grave security threats” — fighting in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sahel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where “the prospects for a two-state solution are being lowered by the day.”
He also ticked off other issues — extremists who push people “into camps of ‘us’ and ‘them’,” mistrust that divides citizens from their leaders, and the rising seas, record heat and extreme storms resulting from climate change.
The spotlight at the annual meeting will not only be on the global crises but the possibility of solutions, topped by the Syrian conflict, escalating attacks around the world by Islamic extremists, and millions of people fleeing fighting and poverty.
Whether the 135 heads of state and government and more than 50 ministers are able to make any progress before the high-level meeting ends on Sept. 26 remains to be seen. While hopes are high, expectations are low.
The leaders are meeting against a backdrop of rising ethnic and religious tension, fighting elsewhere in the Mideast and Africa, a warming planet, and unfulfilled goals to give every child in the world a primary school education and to achieve equality for women.
The global chaos facing the leaders was made even starker in the past two days with the attacks in New York City and the deadly attack on a U.N. humanitarian convoy in Syria, where a cease-fire is teetering on collapse.
The latest developments placed added importance on a meeting early Tuesday morning of the International Syria Support Group, comprised of about 20 countries supporting opposing sides in the conflict. It will be led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who hammered out the cease-fire agreement.
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