What to Watch at the 2013 UN General Assembly

BY Larisa Epatko  September 30, 2013 at 9:00 AM EDT

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 68th U.N. General Assembly. Photo by Andrew Gombert-Pool/Getty Images.

Oct. 1 | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday focused his speech — the final one at the U.N. General Assembly — on the Iranian regime under newly elected President Hassan Rouhani. The previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had called for Israel’s destruction. “Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Netanyahu said.

Iran’s record on nuclear development contradicts Rouhani’s “soothing rhetoric,” said Netanyahu. Iran has said its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only and is closely monitored by international inspectors, while Israel says Tehran is illegally in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The Israeli prime minister referenced the speech he gave last year in front of the world body in which he held up a drawing of a bomb with a red line showing how close he believed Iran was coming to building a nuclear weapon. “Iran has been very careful not to cross that red line” he said, but is positioning itself to “race across that red line” at a time of its choosing when the international community can’t detect it.

Netanyahu encouraged the continuation of sanctions so that Iran could not “have its yellowcake and eat it, too.” (Watch his full speech.)

Also Tuesday, North Korea’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Pak Kil-yon criticized the United States for “imposing sanctions, pressures and military threats” against his country. “The only way to bring about peace in the Korean Peninsula is to abolish the United States’ hostile policy,” he said through a translator.


Photo of Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid al-Moualem by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Sept. 30 | Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Monday that his country was suffering from terrorism, and that regional and Western countries “well-known to all of us” are supplying the opposition with “poisonous gasses.”

“We were the ones who were targeted by chemical weapons,” he said, adding that the United States and its allies prevented an investigation into who used chemical weapons, as Syria wanted, and limited the U.N. inspection to only whether chemical weapons were used or not.

“The war on terror is not only Syria’s war,” al-Moualem said via a translator. “One day those terrorists will return to their respective countries and then no country in the world will be immune to terrorism that recognizes no borders or geography.”

Terrorists from 83 countries are fighting the Syrian government and army, he said.

Al-Moualem said that Syria embraces a political solution to its crisis. But other countries must stop supporting the opposition, he added, and instead back the planned Geneva peace convention. Syria should choose its own government and reject foreign interference in domestic affairs and terrorism, the foreign minister said. (Read his full statement as prepared for delivery.)

Monday’s other speakers included Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa.


Photo of Sergey Lavrov at U.N. General Assembly on Friday by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Sept. 27 | Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that it is not up to one country, “no matter how big or powerful,” to use military force in the Middle East, including Syria. Rather, a “collective leadership” should make decisions based on international law.

On Thursday, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — came to an agreement on a draft resolution demanding that Syria give up its chemical arsenals and allow access to chemical-weapons experts. If Syria fails to comply, the draft says the Security Council must adopt a second resolution to allow military or other actions under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter. (Update: The Security Council approved the measure late Friday.)

Lavrov said Russia is still working “energetically” toward convening a peace conference in Geneva to find a political solution to Syria’s civil war.

Such diplomatic solutions — rather than force — are needed for other conflicts as well, he said, including the Israeli-Palestinian problem and the nuclear programs of Iran and the Korean Peninsula. “As President Vladimir Putin noted in the recent article published in the New York Times, we must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement. This would help improve the international environment and contribute to increasing collective efforts to counter the global challenges, including terrorism and drug trafficking,” Lavrov said.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif touched on two major regional issues in his U.N. address: reengaging with India and supporting a post-war Afghanistan.

“Our two countries have wasted massive resources in an arms race,” he said of Pakistan and India. “We could have used those resources for the economic well-being of our people.” Sharif said he plans to meet with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New York to continue those efforts.

Sharif said he met earlier with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Islamabad, where the two leaders reaffirmed their “goal of a peaceful, stable and united Afghanistan.” Sharif said he reassured Karzai that Pakistan wouldn’t take sides in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

On Syria, Sharif condemned the use of chemical weapons and welcomed the U.S.-Russian-brokered agreement on Syria getting rid of its chemical weapons. “More war will lead to more killings that need to be stopped.”

Iraqi Vice President Khudheir al-Khuzaie talked about the “serious” security threat that Syria, its western neighbor, poses and how Iraq stands behind a peaceful solution.

“We in Iraq, whose people suffered tremendously from the horrors of war caused by the recklessness and follies of the defunct Saddam regime, are deeply concerned by the worsening events and tense situation on our borders with Syria, a country with which we have over 600 km long borders,” he said.

Al-Khuzaie also called for a nuclear-free Middle East and the establishment of a “viable Palestinian state” in his speech.

Others scheduled to speak at the United Nations on Friday include UK Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. The general debate continues through the weekend and into early next week.


Photo of Mahmoud Abbas at U.N. General Assembly on Thursday by John Moore/Getty Images

Sept. 26 | Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Thursday that the international community must seize on “this last chance” to work out a solution with the Israelis on an independent Palestine, and continue to support Palestinians’ efforts in the current direct negotiations. “Is there anyone more deserving than the Palestinian people to obtain justice, like the rest of the people of the world,” he asked.

Abbas said Palestinians are waiting for a day when their cause ceases to be a fixed item on the United Nations’ agenda. “Our people want to enjoy the grace of living an ordinary life.”

On the troubled Middle Eastern region, Abbas said Palestinians do not interfere with the internal affairs of Arab countries but stand behind the demands of the people and their peaceful popular movements. While Palestinians decry the use of chemical weapons, Abbas said they also reject military intervention in Syria and stressed “the need to finding a peaceful political solution to address the needs of the Syrian people.”

On Syria, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he felt “shock and anger” over Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and expressed Japan’s support of international efforts to rid Syria of chemical weapons. He pledged another $60 million in humanitarian aid for Syrians and refugees in surrounding countries.

Abe also spoke about his country getting chosen to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, a coup for the tsunami-ravaged nation. “My obligation first of all is to rebuild the Japanese economy to be vibrant, and then to make Japan a dependable ‘force’ that works for good in the world,” he said.

Other leaders who spoke Thursday included Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud and Vice President of South Sudan James Wani Igga.


Photo of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

Updated Sept. 25 at 9:58 p.m. EDT | Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who was scheduled to speak at the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, reportedly canceled his trip to New York. The possibility of his visit had caused waves because of his arrest warrants for war crimes in the International Criminal Court.

Sept. 25 | In a strongly worded statement, European Union President Herman Van Rompuy called on the world body Wednesday to pass a resolution enforcing the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.

“After the U.N. Secretary General’s report and the inventory of its arsenal provided by the Syrian regime, it is urgent for the Security Council, together with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to take the necessary decisions to ensure the swift and secure destruction of Syria’s poison gas and nerve agents stocks. A clear resolution by the Security Council would mark a turn, and I plea for its adoption.” — Herman Van Rompuy

Meanwhile, Prime Minister of Libya Ali Zeidan spent his afternoon address outlining the steps the country has made toward rebuilding its government as he sought to “reassure the international community that Libya is moving steadily and confidently with a solid will and a genuine desire towards the establishment of the rule of law in which the respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the peaceful transfer of power prevail.”

Sept. 24 | President Barack Obama urged fellow members of the United Nations on Tuesday to take the next step in the Syrian crisis and hold President Bashar al-Assad to the agreement to turn over his chemical weapons stockpiles.

“The Syrian government took a first step by giving an accounting of its stockpiles. Now there must be a strong Security Council resolution to verify that the Assad regime is keeping its commitments, and there must be consequences if they fail to do so. If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws. On the other hand, if we succeed, it will send a powerful message that the use of chemical weapons has no place in the 21st century, and that this body means what it says.” — President Obama

Watch President Obama’s full speech or read the transcript posted by the White House.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran is prepared to engage in nuclear negotiations under certain conditions.

King of Jordan Abdullah II said his region must be one of peace, but “no house can be built when a house is burning.”

French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday that while he will meet with the Iranian president, he is still firm on nuclear nonproliferation. “I am in favor of dialogue, but just as strongly, I am firm on the issue of nuclear proliferation.”

President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff lashed out at the National Security Agency’s reported spying on Brazil.


Original story posted on Sept. 23:

Photo of U.N. headquarters in New York courtesy of United Nations

NEW YORK CITY — President Barack Obama kicks off the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly here with a speech Tuesday morning that emphasizes the continuing challenges in the Middle East and North Africa, and the need for the international community to stand up to the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the White House said.

The Syrian civil war, which has raged for two-and-a-half years, has left more than 100,000 people dead. A chemical attack near Damascus on Aug. 21 prompted the United States to threaten limited military action, and then work out an agreement with Russia on a plan to contain and destroy Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles. (Read more about the agreement.)

The United States is seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution that says the Assad regime must undertake a process to get rid of its chemical weapons that’s verifiable and transparent, said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes in a conference call with reporters on Friday. The resolution would be pursued under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter. Since Russia opposes the use of military action in Syria, the resolution would say if Syria doesn’t comply, there will be consequences, and it allows allies to pursue the option of sanctions against the Assad regime, Rhodes said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who also speaks Tuesday, is making his debut trip to the United Nations. President Obama has exchanged letters with Rouhani but has no plans to meet with him either formally or informally at the assembly, said Rhodes. Rouhani has made overtures about engaging on the nuclear issue, but Rhodes said the Obama administration has always made judgments about the Iranian regime based on actions, not words.

A nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and all options are on the table to prevent it, Rhodes reiterated. But he said the president feels there is still room to negotiate a solution, and that the P5+1 — a group of nations composed of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany — is the best forum to do it.

President Obama plans to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which would be their first meeting since Palestinians and Israelis returned to direct negotiations. Mr. Obama will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Sept. 30.

President Obama’s other one-on-one meetings at the U.N. General Assembly are with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to discuss refugee challenges brought by the fighting in Syria, and with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan about regional security, the Boko Haram insurgency and the potential for investment in Nigeria, said Rhodes.

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