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Obama Calls For Tolerance At U.N. General Assembly


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. President Obama made an impassioned plea for understanding today, on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.

BLOCK: He was speaking about a wave of anti-American violence that swept the Muslim world, after the release of a anti-Islam video made here in the U.S. President Obama also spoke about the U.S. ambassador who was killed in Libya, and said all countries in the U.N. have an interest in fighting extremism. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more on the president's message.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Obama spent a good part of his speech talking about Ambassador Chris Stevens; how he was known for walking the streets in Libya, and in other Arab countries where he worked, taking in the local culture and building bridges.

OBAMA: Today, we must reaffirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers.

KELEMEN: President Obama called the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an assault not just on America, but on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded.

OBAMA: If we are serious about upholding these ideals, it will not be enough to put more guards in front of an embassy, or to put out statements of regret and wait for the outrage to pass. If we are serious about these ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of the crisis.

KELEMEN: As he has done before, President Obama distanced himself from what he called the crude and disgusting video that sparked the protest. But he defended free speech, saying there are no words that justify the killing of innocents.

OBAMA: I know that not all countries in this body share this particular understanding of the protection of free speech. We recognize that. But in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cellphone can spread offensive views around the world with a click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.

KELEMEN: And if people are allowed to respond with violent protest, he warned, they're simply empowering the worst among us to create chaos.

Iran is also looming large at the U.N. General Assembly. President Obama told the world body that a nuclear-armed Iran is a challenge that can't be contained.

OBAMA: And that's why the United States will do what we must, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

KELEMEN: Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives here later this week, to make his case for clear redlines on Iran. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is already in town, making what the White House calls outrageous statements - describing Israel as a fake country with no roots in the region. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is sounding nervous about all of this.

SECRETARY GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: I also reject forth the language of delegitimization, and threats of potential military action by one state against another. Any such attacks would be devastating. The shrill war talk of recent weeks, has been alarming.

KELEMEN: Ban is sounding the alarms on Syria as well, describing the conflict there as a regional calamity with global ramifications. On the eve of the General Assembly high-level debate, the new U.N. and Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the situation is getting worse by the day.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: There is a stalemate. There is no prospect for today, or tomorrow, to move forward.

KELEMEN: But while many speakers at the U.N. are expressing outrage about Syria, diplomats are still struggling to agree on what to do - other than offer more humanitarian aid. The emir of Qatar says the Security Council has failed, and he called on Arab states to intervene.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.