Russian airstrikes launched in Syria during the UN’s 70th anniversary gathering of more than 150 world leaders stole the spotlight and highlighted deep divisions on how to end that conflict and manage the many thousands of people fleeing to Europe in search of safety.
There were also some bright spots during the UN General Assembly’s nine-day gathering that ended Saturday.
The 193 member states adopted a sweeping new agenda for the next 15 years to eradicate extreme poverty and preserve the planet. President Barack Obama met Cuban President Raul Castro, another sign of warming relations after decades of hostilities, and Obama shook hands with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a first following the recent nuclear deal.
Pope Francis tried to set a compassionate tone in the first major address, challenging world leaders to remember the people behind the crises “who live, struggle and suffer.”
Then, Syria’s crisis became even more complicated.
Russian airstrikes began. Civilian deaths were reported. Reports emerged that mainstream opposition forces had been targeted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that not cooperating with Syrian President Bashar Assad was “a huge mistake.” Obama warned of a “darker, more disordered world.” Each displayed strikingly different views on how to defeat extremist groups like the Islamic State, which Russia says are its airstrikes’ intended target.
And an icy glare from Obama to Putin, even as they clinked glasses of wine at a high-level lunch, was captured in a photograph that quickly went viral.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon painted a grim picture of the wider world, one that is grappling with the worst refugee crisis since World War II as millions of Syrians have fled.
“Suffering today is at heights not seen in a generation,” Ban said. One hundred million people need immediate humanitarian help. At least 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes. The UN has asked for nearly $20 billion to meet this year’s needs, six times the amount of a decade ago.
The world’s humanitarian system isn’t broken, Ban said. “It’s broke.”
And he asked, “Why is it easier to find the money to destroy people and the planet than it is to protect them?”
Pope warns against global warning
The pope led a major push against global warming, announcing a “right of the environment.” Speaker after speaker expressed hope that the world’s nations will reach a new agreement in Paris in December to tackle climate change.
Small island states, threatened by rising sea levels, raised the greatest cry. “When we feel the cool breeze of the ocean caressing us, we cannot imagine that those same waters will become our watery grave,” the foreign minister of the Maldives, Dunya Maumoon, said Saturday.
More than 70 countries submitted their climate pledges during the summit, making a total of 146 states so far, General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft announced Saturday. That included long-awaited pledges from India and Brazil.
In addition to speeches from almost all 193 member states, hundreds of side events tried to address crises that showed little improvement (Libya, Yemen, South Sudan) and those erupting again (Central African Republic).
Obama chaired a side event on strengthening UN peacekeeping, and the United States announced that more than 50 countries had pledged to contribute more than 40,000 new troops and police to serve in some of the world’s most volatile areas.
Chinese President Xi Jinping received a long handshake from Obama after making major peacekeeping commitments, and he opened China’s checkbook during his first UN visit, pledging billions of dollars including $1.1 billion for peace efforts and $2 billion for meeting the global development goals.
But Xi was criticized for hosting a meeting on women’s rights while cracking down on female activists at home, with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeting that it was “shameless.”
Meanwhile, Israeli-Palestinian tensions flared once more. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas raised the Palestinian flag at the United Nations for the first time, with a promise that it will be raised soon in Jerusalem, “the capital of our Palestinian state.” He declared that he is no longer bound by agreements signed with Israel — the most serious warning yet that he might walk away from engagement.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu startled everyone by denouncing countries for their “deafening silence” in response to Iran’s threats against his country and then glowering at hushed delegates for 47 silent seconds before resuming his speech.
Divide on Security Council persists
It was a crush of events. Norway’s UN mission tweeted Friday that it got 500 invitations to different events and attended more than 250.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called this year’s summit “the most intense G.A. I’ve seen in the last 15 years.”
What was achieved? Lykketoft said that will be judged by the world’s progress in implementing the new development agenda “and stopping all the catastrophes we are dealing with today.”
But after nine days of discussions, the deep divide on the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body, seems to be as wide as ever.
On Friday, Britain’s UN Ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, told reporters that a draft resolution by Russia that seeks to unite the world in fighting groups like the Islamic State has no future. The draft urges countries to cooperate with the governments where counter-terror efforts occur— a clear reference to Assad.
In response, Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said that if proposals are rejected simply because they come from his country, the work of the Security Council “will come to a standstill.”
It was a long way from the encouraging address of Francis, who closed his speech with a little advice.
“If you fight among yourselves,” he said, “you’ll be devoured by those outside.”