NEW YORK, New York, September 24, 2013 (ENS) – As he opened the annual United Nations forum for world leaders today, General Assembly President John Ashe appealed for renewed commitments to eradicate poverty, address climate change, and foster economic and social prosperity with a new development agenda.

“Effective multilateralism takes dogged determination and a commitment to negotiate and work cooperatively, especially if the quest is to evolve towards a shared consensus that is both broad and lasting,” Ashe told heads of state and government gathered for the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York.

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UN General Assembly President John Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda (Photo by Evan Schneider courtesy UN)

Today through October 1, the general debate will provide an opportunity for high-level political officials to weigh in on what Ashe has called “pivotal” talks on identifying the parameters of the post-2015 sustainability agenda to follow the eight anti-poverty targets known as the Millennium Development Goals. These goals, which include environmental sustainability, are aimed at fulfillment by 2015, but many will not be met.

The theme for this year’s General Assembly session is the Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage, and Ashe urged the UN’s 193 Member States to shape an inclusive development agenda.

“The Post-2015 Development Agenda is envisaged as the most far-reaching and comprehensive development-related endeavor ever undertaken by our organization in its entire history,” he said. “It will completely redefine the concept of development as traditionally understood, rooting it in partnership, cooperation, equity – both social and generational – peace, good governance and economic growth based on environmental sustainability.”

Ashe, who hails from the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, said that while this year’s meeting is happening amid conflict in various regions, with many countries struggling with the adverse effects of climate change and millions of people still living in extreme poverty, Member States should not give in to pessimism but should work even harder to address such issues.

“We are faced with high levels of pessimism and cynicism that we will not be up to the task and that we lack the effort and discipline to effectively address the world’s needs. Let us prove the nay-sayers wrong,” said Ashe.

U.S. President Barack Obama devoted his speech this morning to urging the assembled leaders to help resolve the difficulties wracking the Middle East and North Africa.

“For decades, the UN has in fact made a real difference – from helping to eradicate disease, to educating children, to brokering peace,” said President Obama. “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.”

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U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the General Assembly (Photo by Rick Bajornas courtesy UN)

Obama stressed that the crisis in Syria, and the destabilization of the region, “goes to the heart of broader challenges that the international community must now confront.”

“With respect to Syria, we believe that as a starting point, the international community must enforce the ban on chemical weapons,” Obama declared.

“When I stated my willingness to order a limited strike against the Assad regime in response to the brazen use of chemical weapons, I did not do so lightly. I did so because I believe it is in the security interest of the United States and the world to meaningfully enforce a prohibition whose origins are older than the UN itself. The ban against the use of chemical weapons, even in war, has been agreed to by 98 percent of humanity,” said Obama. “It is strengthened by the searing memories of soldiers suffocated in the trenches; Jews slaughtered in gas chambers; and Iranians poisoned in the many tens of thousands.”

Obama called the evidence that the Assad regime used such weapons on August 21st “overwhelming.”

“UN inspectors gave a clear accounting that advanced rockets fired large quantities of sarin gas at civilians. These rockets were fired from a regime-controlled neighborhood, and landed in opposition neighborhoods. It is an insult to human reason – and to the legitimacy of this institution – to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack,” Obama said.

The UN team of chemical weapons inspectors led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom reported that the nerve agent sarin was used in an August 21 attack near Damascus.

Sellstrom and his team will return to Syria on Wednesday to complete its investigation into “pending credible allegations” of chemical weapons use there. The team will gather evidence on an alleged chemical weapons attack on March 19 on the village of Khan al Assal outside the city of Aleppo, which the Syrian opposition captured in July.

Obama told the General Assembly that in the immediate aftermath of the August 21 attack, “there were those who questioned the legitimacy of even a limited strike in the absence of a clear mandate from the Security Council. But without a credible military threat,” he said, “the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all.”

“However, as I’ve discussed with President Putin for over a year, most recently in St. Petersburg, my preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue, and in the past several weeks, the United States, Russia and our allies have reached an agreement to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, and then to destroy them,” Obama confirmed.

Obama noted the Syrian government has taken a first step by giving an accounting of its chemical weapons stockpiles. “Now,” he said, “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 U.N. 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.”

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French President Francois Hollande addresses the General Assembly (Photo by Eskinder Debebe courtesy UN)

French President François Hollande, too, called for a Security Council resolution that would authorize the potential use of force if Syria fails to comply with its agreement to hand over its chemical weapons.

“France wanted a strong reaction to respond to this appalling crime and to dissuade [President] Bashar al-Assad’s regime from committing new massacres,” he told the General Assembly today.

The divided Security Council has been unable to adopt a resolution on Syria. Hollande called on the five permanent members – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States – to collectively renounce their right to a veto in the case of crimes against humanity.

“In every field – security, proliferation, development, climate – there is no worse danger than inaction,” Hollande concluded. “The worst decision is not to take one. The worst danger is not to see it. It is the responsibility of the UN to act. And each time it reveals its impotence, peace loses.”

Turkish President Abdullah Gül today called it a “disgrace” that the Security Council has not ended the civil war in Syria and ensured a stable transition from the current regime.

“The burden of ending Syria’s plight now rests on the shoulders of the international community,” he told the General Assembly, welcoming the agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons as only a first step.

“The agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal must not allow the regime to avoid responsibility for its other crimes,” he said, referring to the more than 100,000 people who have died and the over six million who have been driven from their homes in the two and a half years since protests erupted against President Al-Assad.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera today called for profound reform of the United Nations Security Council, increasing its membership, abandoning the veto enjoyed by the five current permanent members, and instituting a super-majority rule for the adoption of major decisions.

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Chilean President Sebastian Piñera addresses the General Assembly (Photo by Amanda Voisard courtesy UN)

“We join in the appeals to countries with the right of veto to refrain from exercising that right in situations of crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide or ethnic cleansing, since doing so prevents the Council from effectively defending the most fundamental values and principles of mankind,” he told the General Assembly.

Chile supports the inclusion of Brazil, Germany, Japan and India as permanent members of the Security Council and the African continent’s request for fair representation, Piñera said. Currently the Council consists of 15 nations, five permanent members with the right of veto and 10 non-permanent members elected for two-year terms.

General Assembly President Ashe urged the world leaders, “Let us focus on the business ahead, cognizant of the sacred trust which brings us here, committed to the peoples we serve, looking beyond individual and narrow interests and intending to conclude the work we must do here.”

“Let us not forget that while we sit in this august gathering, there are millions who go to sleep in the dark, hungry and insecure, fearful of what another tomorrow may bring,” said Ashe.

To date, 84 heads of state, 41 heads of government, 11 deputy prime ministers and 65 foreign ministers are scheduled to address the General Assembly on sustainable development, poverty eradication, climate change, human rights, and a host of peace and security issues.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.