UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. General Assembly annual debate closed on Monday. The week of speeches and meetings focused largely on problems in the Middle East and Africa, including Islamophobia, the conflict in Syria, Iran’s nuclear program and the effort to send military help to Mali’s government.
U.S. President Barack Obama was one of the debate’s first speakers. He urged other leaders to speak out against violence and extremism in the wake of an amateur video mocking Islam that sparked deadly protests in dozens of countries.
“There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan,” he said.
Obama also sought to reassure Israel as he warned Iran over its controversial nuclear program. “Let me be clear, America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited,” he said.
The idea that time is running out to stop the Iranian government from enriching uranium to the level needed for a nuclear weapon was the central point of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address.
Using a cartoon drawing of a bomb, that subsequently became the butt of many jokes on the Internet, but succeeded in putting Mr. Netanyahu on the front page of many newspapers, the Israeli leader sought to persuade the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat not only to his country, but also to the entire world.
“And by next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it is only a few months, possibly a few weeks, before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb,” he said.
Netanyahu’s presentation pushed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ call the same day for a Palestinian upgrade in status in the General Assembly into the background at the annual meeting.
It also overshadowed a speech from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who mostly held forth on his idea of a new world order in his last General Assembly appearance.
But the conflict in Syria managed to top the international agenda, with scores of leaders calling for the bloodshed to stop and dialogue to begin.
Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Mouallem, was among the last speakers to address the annual meeting. He reasserted his government’s position that foreign fighters and terrorists are responsible for the violence that has killed more than 20,000 people in Syria. Mouallem is heard here through a translator blaming several countries for the crisis.
He said, “We also wonder to what extent the statements made by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, France and others – to what extent do these statements that clearly induce and support terrorism in Syria with money, weapons and foreign fighters – are these in line with the international responsibilities of these countries in combating terrorism?”
Syria’s top diplomat also questioned the refugee crisis that has led nearly 300,000 Syrians to flee, saying it was “fabricated” by armed groups inciting civilians in border areas to escape to neighboring countries.
A Syrian opposition group called the minister’s speech “delusional” and accused President Bashar al-Assad’s government of having no interest in meaningful reform or dialogue.
Several crises in Africa were also discussed during the week, including the political transition in Somalia, the outstanding issues between the two Sudans, and violence in northern Mali. France and the United States urged support for an African-led peacekeeping force to restore order, saying that Tuareg militants and al-Qaida-linked terrorists threaten to undermine stability throughout the Sahel.
A positive moment at the podium was the address by Thein Sein, Burma’s first civilian president in five decades. He urged the international community to view Burma through a new perspective and said his country is on an irreversible path toward democracy.