UN chief urges tolerance to combat growing social inequalities and political polarization

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned kings, prime ministers and presidents Thursday of growing political polarization and social inequalities and implored U.N. members to show greater tolerance and mutual respect to bring the world together.

In his keynote speech to the opening of the General Assembly's annual ministerial meeting, the U.N. chief told leaders from the 192-member nations that "today, we are being tested."

Ban said people everywhere are living in fear of losing their jobs, too many are caught in conflict, "and we see a new politics at work — a politics of polarization."

"We hear the language of hate, false divisions between 'them' and 'us,' those who insist on 'their way' or 'no way,'" he said.

In times of such polarization and uncertainty, Ban said, "let us remember, the world still looks to the United Nations for moral and political leadership."

The meeting follows a three-day summit to promote the achievement of U.N. anti-poverty goals by 2015 that wrapped up late Wednesday night. Many leaders who attended that summit remained in New York for the ministerial session, and will shift gears to other world issues from the continuing impact of the global financial crisis to terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Thursday's session heard from President Barack Obama in the morning. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks in the afternoon as key nations try to bring Iran to the negotiating table over it's nuclear program.

In his speech, Obama echoed the secretary-general, warning that underneath challenges to security and prosperity "lie deeper fears: that ancient hatreds and religious divides are once again ascendant; that a world which has grown more interconnected has somehow slipped beyond our control."

The U.S. president's 32-minute speech — more than twice the allotted 15 minutes — covered global hotspots from Afghanistan and the Mideast to Iran and North Korea.

Obama said Iran is the only party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty "that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program" and as a result the U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of increasingly tough sanctions.

"The United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it," he said. "But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment, and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program."

The General Assembly hall was packed for Obama's speech, with diplomats and officials listening carefully, some snapping photos with cell phone cameras. Obama was interrupted twice by applause and received a prolonged and warm response at the end of his remarks.

Obama also spoke at length about his efforts to forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The conflict between Israelis and Arabs is as old as this institution," Obama said. "And we can come back here, next year, as we have for the last 60, and make long speeches about it. We can read familiar lists of grievances. We can table the same resolutions. ... We can waste more time by carrying forward an argument that will not help a single Israeli or Palestinian child achieve a better life.

"Or, we can say that this time will be different that this time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way."

He called on Israel to extend its moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, sayng it was necessary to build trust. And he called on Palestinians to remain committed to negotiations.

"Now is the time for this opportunity to be seized, so that it doesn't slip away," Obama said.

Ban urged Iran "to engage constructively with the international community and comply fully with Security Council resolutions" calling for Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment and return to talks.

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul told the assembly that "permanent peace in the Middle East holds the key to a peaceful and stable future in the world." He reiterated that Turkey expects "a formal apology" from Israel for the commando raid on a Turkish aid ship trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza and compensation for families of the nine activists killed and those injured.

The secretary-general also touched on many other global issues — urging North Korea to return to six-party talks on its nuclear program, calling on Israel and the Palestinians not to take any action that would hold back progress on peace talks, urging progress on nuclear disarmament where "we see new momentum," and declaring again the climate change remains the world's "defining challenge."

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Associated Press Writers Slobodan Lekic, Eileen Powell and Anita Snow contributed to this report from the United Nations.