UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon railed Tuesday against leaders who keep “feeding the war machine” in Syria as he bowed out of the world stage, while President Barack Obama said there was no military solution to the five-year conflict and described a globe in the throes of a contest between authoritarianism and democracy.
Both Ban and Obama were making their final speeches at the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations. They did so against a backdrop of mounting bloodshed and a failing cease-fire in Syria, escalating attacks around the world by Islamic extremists, and millions of people fleeing fighting and poverty.
The U.N. chief, whose 10-year period at the helm of the unwieldy world body ends Dec. 31, vented his pent-up frustration with uncharacteristic candor, telling the opening of the General Assembly’s annual ministerial meeting that “powerful patrons” on both sides in the Syrian conflict — which he did not identify — “have blood on their hands.”
“Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syria conflict against Syrian civilians,” he said.
But Ban blamed the Syrian government for the most deaths. He said it was continuing to drop barrel bombs on neighborhoods and torture thousands of detainees. Syria’s Foreign Ministry condemned Ban’s address and contended that the U.N had failed to resolve any conflicts on his watch.
Ban spoke as the U.S., Russia and more than a dozen other countries attempted to resurrect a week-old truce, and Washington and Moscow argued over who was responsible for an attack Monday on an aid convoy that killed some 20 civilians that the U.N. chief denounced as a “sickening, savage and apparently deliberate attack.” Ban called the bombers “cowards.”
The Syrian conflict has killed as many as half-million people, contributed to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II and allowed the Islamic State group to emerge as a global threat.
Obama, who stands down in January after eight years in office, acknowledged that the extremist and sectarian violence wreaking havoc in the Middle East and elsewhere “will not be quickly reversed.” Still, he stuck faithfully to his insistence that diplomatic efforts and not military solutions are the key to resolving Syria’s civil war and other conflicts.
He lamented that while the world has become a safer and more prosperous place by many measures, people have lost faith in public institutions amid frightening problems like terrorism and a devastating refugee crisis.
“It’s no surprise that some argue the future favors the strongman,” Obama said. “But I believe the road to true democracy remains the better path.”
While there was no mention of the bitterly fought U.S. presidential contest, this year’s General Assembly opens amid uncertainty over who will succeed Obama, and perhaps less crucially, who will succeed former South Korean diplomat Ban at the U.N.
In a less-than-subtle jab at Donald Trump, the Republican running to replace him, Obama said, “The world is too small for us to simply be able to build a wall and prevent (extremism) from affecting our own societies.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah II offered an impassioned defense of Islam while condemning extremists as outlaws who want to “drag us back to the dark ages.” But he added that false perceptions of Islam in the West were breeding further intolerance.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said that a global response was needed against terrorists who are exploiting banking networks, targeting airlines and using social media “to spread an ideology that is recruiting people to their cause all over the world.”
Obama was unabashed in his critique of Russia as he laid out his diagnosis of the world’s ills. Obama’s longstanding differences with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his actions in Ukraine have accompanied intense disagreement over Syria’s future and a series of failed attempts by Russia and the U.S. to resolve the civil war there together.
“In a world that left the age of empire behind, we see Russia attempting to recover lost glory through force,” Obama said.
The tough talk about Russia illustrated how little progress has been made in reconciling the diverging interests among the two powers that has allowed the Syria crisis to continue to fester.
Ban also criticized authoritarian and undemocratic tendencies among world leaders bent on clinging to power. In addition to Syria, he listed a host of “grave security threats” — fighting in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Sahel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where “the prospects for a two-state solution are being lowered by the day.”
But he also noted positive global developments during his decade as the U.N. chief. He cited the rise of “people power” with mobile phones that now blanket the world, reductions in poverty, political transitions in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and the cease-fire agreement in Colombia.
Governments on Tuesday pledged about $4.5 billion more than 2015 levels in contributions to the U.N. and humanitarian organizations to address the global refugee crisis at a summit hosted by Obama at the U.N., a White House statement said. More than 65.3 million people are currently displaced worldwide.