UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Global leaders pointed to democratic uprisings across the Arab world as a sign of hope in a world wracked by conflict, climate change and other crises as they gathered Wednesday for the annual opening of the new U.N. General Assembly.
The Arab Spring that saw peaceful protesters rise up against repressive regimes was a major focus of this year's ministerial meeting, along with the Palestinians' bid for U.N. membership.
"From Tunis to Cairo, from Tripoli to Damascus, from Benghazi to Sanaa, populations too long crushed by oppression, rose up and claimed the right to be free at last," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.
Now, Sarkozy said, the world must find a solution to the Israel-Palestinian peace process. He proposed a timetable, with talks to resume in a month and a final deal to be reached in one year as part of a stepped-up effort to push Palestinian leaders to abandon an application for full U.N. membership that the U.S. and Israel oppose.
The Palestinians have pledged to submit their request for full statehood this week, a move the U.S. has said it will veto if it comes before the U.N. Security Council where it holds a permanent seat.
"Let us choose the path of compromise, which is neither a renunciation nor a repudiation, but which allows us to move forward, step by step, stage by stage," the French leader said.
Earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama urged a resumption of negotiations, saying there was no shortcut to the goal of two states — Israel and Palestine — living side by side in peace.
"Peace depends upon compromise among peoples who must live together long after our speeches are over, and our votes have been counted," Obama said. "That is the path to a Palestinian state."
King Abdullah II of Jordan called the Palestinian-Israeli conflict "the single greatest driver of division and instability" in the region, and warned that the two sides had reached "a dangerous impasse."
"A two-state solution, that ends the conflict by meeting the needs of both sides, is and can be the only secure and lasting peace," he said.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the Palestinians deserve a state, Israel needs security and the stalemate over reviving negotiations must be broken. He pledged the U.N.'s "unrelenting efforts to help achieve that peace through a negotiated settlement."
Ban singled out Syria for "special concern" in his annual address to presidents, prime ministers and monarchs from world body's 193 member states. Ban accused President Bashar Assad's government of reneging on promises of reform, insisting "the violence must stop."
Ban, and many of the other leaders, dealt with other pressing global problems as well.
With hundreds of leaders and diplomats arrayed in the General Assembly chamber, the secretary-general said the global economic crisis "continues to shake businesses, governments and families around the world," increasing joblessness, widening social inequity and leaving "too many people living in fear."
To answer that challenge, the U.N. chief urged world leaders to take action to save the planet, through a binding agreement to address climate change and to speed economic growth to lift people out of poverty.
He also called for the deployment of political mediation missions aimed at preventing costly conflicts.
This year, U.N. peacekeepers were "sorely tested" in Ivory Coast when the world body "stood firm for democracy and human rights," he said. "Working closely with our regional partners, we made a difference in the lives of millions of people."
General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar welcomed South Sudan as the U.N.'s newest member and said that the issue of Palestine was "particularly crucial" during the current session. He said he is committed to proceeding in an impartial manner if the Palestinian issue comes to the assembly.
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, who was elected last October, made her first appearance and became the first woman in the 66-year history of the United Nations to be the first speaker in the General Debate, the official name of the annual ministerial session.
To loud applause as she stepped to the podium, Rousseff said she shared "this emotion" with more than half the people on the planet who are women. "This will be the century of women," she said.
Rousseff was among several speakers calling for Security Council reform, saying the 15-member body should be expanded to better reflect the modern world.
"The world needs a Security Council that reflects contemporary realities; a council that brings in permanent and non-permanent members, especially developing countries," she said. "Brazil is ready to shoulder its responsibilities as a permanent member of the council."
South African President Jacob Zuma insisted that a permanent seat be set aside for an African country. The current five permanent members were decided after World War II: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
Mexico's President Felipe Calderon highlighted another global problem — "the challenge of unscrupulous criminals who do not respect borders and who afflict citizens of many nations."
"Organized crime today is killing more people, and more young people, then are all the dictatorial regimes together at present," he said.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said the nuclear threat from the neighboring North still challenges peace on the Korean peninsula, and called for a stronger international regime for nonproliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan spoke of the growing threat of terrorism, calling the 21st century has emerged as "more precarious, unpredictable, and certainly more dangerous" than at any time in history. The U.N. complex in Abuja was recently targeted in a deadly terrorist attack.