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The 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly: Ban and Obama's Swan Songs

Updated: Jul 31, 2019

On the heels of the most recent terrorist attacks in the New York/New Jersey region, President Barack Obama stepped to the podium of the grand General Assembly Hall on Tuesday, September 20th for the last time as president to highlight eight years of what he viewed were accomplishments of his administration.

President Obama discussed the importance of global cooperation and interdependence in helping to achieve some of the world’s most intractable problems like the Iranian nuclear issue, the decades-long conflict in Colombia and establishing a global framework for climate change. In his opinion, these were no small feats.

Yet, for all of the positives, he emphasized that there remain fissures "in the existing international order." The refugee crisis continues to simmer as conflict in Syria shows no sign of abating; the Mideast as a whole suffers from break downs in order which threatens the security of the region. The global quelling of dissent, censorship, and suppression of journalists by tyrannical governments undermines freedom and the ability of citizens to remain informed on many of the key issues that directly affects them.

The president urged world leaders to choose "cooperation and integration" over conflict and division. He made the case for why he strongly believes in maintaining the liberal international order: his firm belief in the bedrock principles of democracy, human rights, and respect for the rule of law. On a global scale, a dramatic increase in the number of democracies has been witnessed over the last 25 years.  With the assistance of the U.N., the world has seen a steep decline in the number of people living in extreme poverty. Progress has been made, but works need to be done, the president added.

From a global economic perspective, the forces of globalization have worked for some, but not so for others; this must change, he said. The presence of inequality in our global economy undermines much of the progress we have achieved over the course of time. A narrowing of the rich-poor divide is imperative. President Obama was insistent that this be done. He reached out to world leaders to invest in their people by creating opportunities through education and enhancement of job skills. Moreover, he reiterated his call for workers to have the right to organize unions, and their right to do so should be respected by governing and corporate elites.

Cooperation was the overarching theme of his speech. The world must cooperate on a host of issues like reducing nuclear weapons, combatting international terrorism, sharing information on particular diseases that do not respect borders, providing safety for the world’s displaced persons who have had to flee their homeland as the result of ongoing conflict and continuing to work together to achieve the agenda laid out by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Refugee Crisis Receives Attention It Deserves The images of children stricken by the horrors of war should, and must, prompt a civilized world to act to eliminate their suffering. It is against this backdrop that the U.N. hosted the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose term expires at the end of 2016, remarked at the opening of the summit by stating, "We are facing a crisis of epic proportions…This is one of the biggest tests of our times." There are an estimated 65 million people who have been displaced from their homes around the world today. Most of the world’s refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. Bordering states like Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon have borne the brunt of the refugee influx. In addition, Europe has seen an increasing problem with its own border security.

The member states of the U.N. met prior to the Leaders’ Summit and endorsed an agreement called the New York Declaration which stipulates that nations will provide for the needs and protection of refugees. The New York Declaration was negotiated over a number of months, and it sets forth a two-year timeline with the hope that states can participate in an international conference and adopt a global compact on migration by 2018.

This is an important step forward; however, it must also be coupled with real solutions on how to remedy the conflict in Syria that is causing the refugee crisis. Despite the criticism it receives from many venues, the U.N. still has a vital role to play in the world today; a role no less important than in seeing an ultimate end to the conflict in Syria. It requires strong leadership to resolve such a crisis. There are many who are depending on a resolution to this issue, sooner rather than later.