UNITED NATIONS — The Syrian crisis crowded the agenda at the U.N. General Assembly's opening Tuesday, as the U.N. chief briefed delegates from more than 190 nations on how rockets filled with nerve gas killed Syrian civilians in a Damascus suburb last month.
Just hours after the General Assembly's president, John Ashe of the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, told reporters this year's sessions would stress broad themes of social development concerning women, youth, human rights and development, the delegates were briefed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Syrian chemical weapons report that he unveiled at the Security Council a day earlier.
It is the Security Council that deals with issues of war and peace. But this year's General Assembly speeches will also often focus on the Syrian war.
"Syria is the biggest peace, security and humanitarian challenge we face," Ban told reporters before the General Assembly opened.
"Let us be clear: the use of chemical weapons in Syria is only the tip of the iceberg. The suffering in Syria must end. Next week, as world leaders gather here, I will make a strong appeal to member states for action now," Ban said.
"Only in the Syrian situation, we also must look at broader issues, not only chemical weapons. There is ongoing fighting, refugee issues, humanitarian issues, human rights issues - we have to address all these issues," Ban said.
Ban then added, "Many other issues on our agenda also merit urgent attention - not only other conflicts but also important questions of sustainable development, health, hunger and climate change.
Ashe, who was unanimously elected General Assembly president in June, previewed a General Assembly session featuring a high-level meeting next Monday on bringing the 15 percent of the population with disabilities into the development process.
Next Tuesday, the annual two-week round of speeches will begin, as is traditional, with Brazil. President Barack Obama will also speak Tuesday morning, and a highlight of the afternoon will be a speech by Iran's new President Hasan Rouhani.
Ashe called attention to a General Assembly high-level meeting Sept. 26 on nuclear disarmament, and an Oct. 3-4 session on international migration.
He said that his focus will be helping to set the U.N.'s development agenda after 2015. That's when the Millennium Development Goals, which world leaders agreed to at a summit in 2000 to combat poverty, promote education and tackle AIDS, are expected to be met. The General Assembly will have a full day of debate on the subject Monday.
Ban also stressed the assembly's traditional areas of responsibility, saying that "In my speech to the General Assembly, I will call on world leaders to uphold their political and moral responsibilities to serve, to listen, to invest, to respond to the rising and justifiable demands of people across the world for lives of freedom and prosperity."