United Nations General Assembly commences with world crisis at hand

Richard Drew
The 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. Headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 70) opened at the United Nations (U.N.) Headquarters in New York City on Sept. 15, followed by the Summit for the Adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda from Sept. 25-27, which was addressed by Pope Francis. The general session opened Sept. 28 and convened Oct. 3, featuring world leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Cuban President Raúl Castro, President Obama and more.

Given the wide range of leaders and opinions, the world should expect a wide range of contentions, such as strained relations between the U.S. and Russia over the annexation of Ukraine and movement in Syria, to the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and the impact of global climate change.

“I’m not sure we can expect much to change, as far as policy is concerned,” said BYU political science professor Richard Davis. “Primarily because the U.N. does not have any enforcement power. However, these assemblies are a great way to avoid conflict.”

Each day is expected to be packed with speakers, but the following is a rundown —in order of appearance — of the main ones and highlights of their remarks:

His Holiness Pope Francis – He addressed the assembly Sept. 25 on the importance of protecting the environment, overcoming inequality and conflict. “The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species,” he said, according to a translated version of the speech released by the Holy See.

The Pope then tied environmental concerns to inequality and the pursuit of power and wealth. “Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses,” His Holiness said. In conclusion, the Pope spoke out against war and conflict, specifically citing the Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and parts of Africa.

United States President Barack Obama – Obama was the first of the featured speakers to address the general session on opening day (Sept. 28). He said the United States would work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to solve the four-year-old Syrian civil war, but Syrian President Bashar Assad cannot stay in office. In reference to Ukraine, he said the world cannot stand by while Russia violates Ukraine’s integrity and sovereignty. If there are no consequences for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it could happen to any other country in the United Nations, he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin – Putin called for a global fight against Islamic extremism akin to a third World War, but Putin said such an effort in Syria should be fought alongside Assad’s government forces. “We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to work with the Syrian government and its armed forces,” Putin said. “No one but the Syrian forces and Kurdish militia are seriously fighting against the Islamic state.” The alternative is to arm terrorists who threaten Europe, Russia and other countries, he said.

Cuban President Raúl Castro – In his first U.N. speech since reestablishing diplomatic relations with the United States, he said the “long and complicated” process will not be complete until the U.S. ends its economic embargo and relinquishes its Naval base in Guantanamo Bay. Castro expressed “eternal gratitude” to the 188 member nations who voted last year to condemn the American “blockade” against his island nation. The U.S. Congress is unwilling to end the embargo until Cuba ends political repression.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko – His address was the most notable to come out of the Sept. 29 debate. Poroshenko told world leaders that Ukraine is suffering from a brutal violation of the fundamental norms and principles of the United Nations Charter. “The aggressor is Russia – a neighboring country, former strategic partner that legally pledged to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of the borders of Ukraine,” President Poroshenko said. Poroshenko’s accusation came with a plea for help in pressuring Russia to stop such aggression, while thanking world leaders that have helped the country so far.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – President Abbas shocked the Sept. 30 assembly by claiming that Palestinians are no longer bound by the Oslo accords. The Oslo accords are agreements signed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the ’90s designed to set the foundation for a “two-state solution.” Palestinians say Israel has violated the agreements by doing things like building too many settlements and has called them ‘occupiers’ of the West Bank. Israel has responded by saying the allegations are ‘not true’ and that it has upheld its end of the agreements. While some see Abbas’ announcement as an empty gesture, designed to drum up political support, others see it as the biggest threat to the status quo in the region in 20 years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – He harshly condemned the Iranian nuclear deal, describing the widespread international praise for it as a grave misjudgment. “I wish I could take comfort in the claim that this deal blocks Iran’s path to nuclear weapons,” he said on Oct. 1. “But I can’t, because it doesn’t.” After his denunciations of the Iran deal and criticism of Iran, Mr. Netanyahu said he still saw the United States as Israel’s best friend and ally. Then, turning to the Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu reiterated his readiness to return “immediately, immediately” to peace talks. Mr. Netanyahu did not directly address Mr. Abbas’s declaration, in his own United Nations speech on Wednesday, that the Palestinians would no longer consider themselves bound by signed agreements with Israel, including the Oslo Peace Accords, if Israel continued to violate them.

Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft – He closed the United Nations 70th General Assembly on Oct. 3 by calling it a “historic” event crowned by the “truly seminal commitment” to achieving ambitious new development goals by 2030. “As we commemorate the 70th anniversary [of the founding of the UN], it was fitting and reassuring that leaders recalled and reaffirmed the spirit and the principles of the Charter and confirmed their faith in the central role of UN in international cooperation,” declared Lykketoft. In summary, he noted the consistent plight from diverse leaders for refugee aid, attaining peace in areas of conflict and the need to reform the Security Council.

This session of the General Assembly was attended by the highest number of Heads of State and Governments to date and covered multifaceted issues raised at the six-day General Debate and the three-day summit on the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that preceded it.

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