“These are extraordinary times, with extraordinary opportunities,” President Barack Obama told the United Nations on Tuesday as part of the opening proceedings of the 68th session of the UN General Assembly.
In his 50-minute address, President Obama focused on the Middle East, a region of the world that has been at the center of U.S. foreign policy in recent months. He urged the UN Security Council to pass a resolution addressing Syria’s use of chemical weapons, stating: “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.”
The President acknowledged recent diplomatic overtures by newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, expressing openness to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. “Since I took office,” Obama said, “I’ve made it clear in letters to the Supreme Leader in Iran and more recently to President Rouhani that America prefers to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully, although we are determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” He added, “I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”
Obama also discussed the peace process in the occupied territories of Palestine, which lies at the heart of much of the conflict in the Middle East. “Friends of Israel, including the United States, must recognize that Israel’s security as a Jewish and democratic state depends upon the realization of a Palestinian state, and we should say so clearly,” he said. “Arab states, and those who supported the Palestinians, must recognize that stability will only be served through a two-state solution and a secure Israel.”
The President concluded with a challenge to the United Nations to face the pressing issues that are confronting it: “For decades, the United Nations has in fact made a difference — from helping to eradicate disease, to educating children, to brokering peace. But like every generation of leaders, we face new and profound challenges, and this body continues to be tested. The question is whether we possess the wisdom and the courage, as nation-states and members of an international community, to squarely meet those challenges; whether the United Nations can meet the tests of our time.”
Obama was just one of many foreign leaders to address the General Assembly this week. Iran’s Rouhani spoke to the assembly later that day, striking a moderate tone and stating that “peace is within reach.” Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, took to the podium to criticize the U.S. program of intercepting electronic communications in her country, declaring, “Tampering in the affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and an affront to the principles that must guide relations among them, especially among friendly nations.”
Foremost on the UN’s agenda this session is starting the process setting new millennium development goals, which are set to expire in 2015. First set out in 2000, the development goals have included global targets for reducing poverty and hunger, improving health care and primary education, increasing access to safe drinking water, addressing gender discrimination, ensuring environmental stability, and reducing child and maternal mortality rates.