Text and Video of President Obama's Speech to
the United Nations General Assembly, Opposing Palestinian UN Membership
September 21, 2011
Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United
Nations General Assembly
New York, New York
September 21, 2011, 10:12
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General, fellow delegates, ladies and
gentlemen: It is a great honor for me to be here today. I would like to
talk to you about a subject that is at the heart of the United Nations
-- the pursuit of peace in an imperfect world.
War and conflict
have been with us since the beginning of civilizations. But in the first
part of the 20th century, the advance of modern weaponry led to death on
a staggering scale. It was this killing that compelled the founders of
this body to build an institution that was focused not just on ending
one war, but on averting others; a union of sovereign states that would
seek to prevent conflict, while also addressing its causes.
American did more to pursue this objective than President Franklin
Roosevelt. He knew that a victory in war was not enough. As he said at
one of the very first meetings on the founding of the United Nations,
“We have got to make, not merely peace, but a peace that will last.”
The men and women who built this institution understood that peace
is more than just the absence of war. A lasting peace -- for nations and
for individuals -- depends on a sense of justice and opportunity, of
dignity and freedom. It depends on struggle and sacrifice, on
compromise, and on a sense of common humanity.
One delegate to
the San Francisco Conference that led to the creation of the United
Nations put it well: “Many people,” she said, “have talked as if all
that has to be done to get peace was to say loudly and frequently that
we loved peace and we hated war. Now we have learned that no matter how
much we love peace and hate war, we cannot avoid having war brought upon
us if there are convulsions in other parts of the world.”
fact is peace is hard. But our people demand it. Over nearly seven
decades, even as the United Nations helped avert a third world war, we
still live in a world scarred by conflict and plagued by poverty. Even
as we proclaim our love for peace and our hatred of war, there are still
convulsions in our world that endanger us all.
I took office at a
time of two wars for the United States. Moreover, the violent extremists
who drew us into war in the first place -- Osama bin Laden, and his al
Qaeda organization -- remained at large. Today, we've set a new
At the end of this year, America’s military operation
in Iraq will be over. We will have a normal relationship with a
sovereign nation that is a member of the community of nations. That
equal partnership will be strengthened by our support for Iraq -- for
its government and for its security forces, for its people and for their
As we end the war in Iraq, the United States and our
coalition partners have begun a transition in Afghanistan. Between now
and 2014, an increasingly capable Afghan government and security forces
will step forward to take responsibility for the future of their
country. As they do, we are drawing down our own forces, while building
an enduring partnership with the Afghan people.
So let there be
no doubt: The tide of war is receding. When I took office, roughly
180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of
this year, that number will be cut in half, and it will continue to
decline. This is critical for the sovereignty of Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s also critical to the strength of the United States as we build our
nation at home.
Moreover, we are poised to end these wars from a
position of strength. Ten years ago, there was an open wound and twisted
steel, a broken heart in the center of this city. Today, as a new tower
is rising at Ground Zero, it symbolizes New York’s renewal, even as al
Qaeda is under more pressure than ever before. Its leadership has been
degraded. And Osama bin Laden, a man who murdered thousands of people
from dozens of countries, will never endanger the peace of the world
So, yes, this has been a difficult decade. But today, we
stand at a crossroads of history with the chance to move decisively in
the direction of peace. To do so, we must return to the wisdom of those
who created this institution. The United Nations’ Founding Charter calls
upon us, “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and
security.” And Article 1 of this General Assembly’s Universal
Declaration of Human Rights reminds us that, “All human beings are born
free and equal in dignity and in rights.” Those bedrock beliefs -- in
the responsibility of states, and the rights of men and women -- must be
And in that effort, we have reason to hope. This year
has been a time of extraordinary transformation. More nations have
stepped forward to maintain international peace and security. And more
individuals are claiming their universal right to live in freedom and
Think about it: One year ago, when we met here in New
York, the prospect of a successful referendum in South Sudan was in
doubt. But the international community overcame old divisions to support
the agreement that had been negotiated to give South Sudan
self-determination. And last summer, as a new flag went up in Juba,
former soldiers laid down their arms, men and women wept with joy, and
children finally knew the promise of looking to a future that they will
One year ago, the people of Côte D’Ivoire approached a
landmark election. And when the incumbent lost, and refused to respect
the results, the world refused to look the other way. U.N. peacekeepers
were harassed, but they did not leave their posts. The Security Council,
led by the United States and Nigeria and France, came together to
support the will of the people. And Côte D’Ivoire is now governed by the
man who was elected to lead.
One year ago, the hopes of the people of
Tunisia were suppressed. But they chose the dignity of peaceful protest
over the rule of an iron fist. A vendor lit a spark that took his own
life, but he ignited a movement. In a face of a crackdown, students
spelled out the word, "freedom." The balance of fear shifted from the
ruler to those that he ruled. And now the people of Tunisia are
preparing for elections that will move them one step closer to the
democracy that they deserve.
One year ago, Egypt had known one
President for nearly 30 years. But for 18 days, the eyes of the world
were glued to Tahrir Square, where Egyptians from all walks of life --
men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian -- demanded their
universal rights. We saw in those protesters the moral force of
non-violence that has lit the world from Delhi to Warsaw, from Selma to
South Africa -- and we knew that change had come to Egypt and to the
One year ago, the people of Libya were ruled by the
world’s longest-serving dictator. But faced with bullets and bombs and a
dictator who threatened to hunt them down like rats, they showed
relentless bravery. We will never forget the words of the Libyan who
stood up in those early days of the revolution and said, “Our words are
free now.” It’s a feeling you can’t explain. Day after day, in the face
of bullets and bombs, the Libyan people refused to give back that
freedom. And when they were threatened by the kind of mass atrocity that
often went unchallenged in the last century, the United Nations lived up
to its charter. The Security Council authorized all necessary measures
to prevent a massacre. The Arab League called for this effort; Arab
nations joined a NATO-led coalition that halted Qaddafi’s forces in
In the months that followed, the will of the coalition
proved unbreakable, and the will of the Libyan people could not be
denied. Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli
to Misurata to Benghazi -- today, Libya is free. Yesterday, the leaders
of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the
United States is reopening our embassy in Tripoli.
This is how the
international community is supposed to work -- nations standing together
for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their
rights. Now, all of us have a responsibility to support the new Libya --
the new Libyan government as they confront the challenge of turning this
moment of promise into a just and lasting peace for all Libyans.
So this has been a remarkable year. The Qaddafi regime is over. Gbagbo,
Ben Ali, Mubarak are no longer in power. Osama bin Laden is gone, and
the idea that change could only come through violence has been buried
with him. Something is happening in our world. The way things have been
is not the way that they will be. The humiliating grip of corruption and
tyranny is being pried open. Dictators are on notice. Technology is
putting power into the hands of the people. The youth are delivering a
powerful rebuke to dictatorship, and rejecting the lie that some races,
some peoples, some religions, some ethnicities do not desire democracy.
The promise written down on paper -- “all human beings are born free and
equal in dignity and rights” -- is closer at hand.
But let us
remember: Peace is hard. Peace is hard. Progress can be reversed.
Prosperity comes slowly. Societies can split apart. The measure of our
success must be whether people can live in sustained freedom, dignity,
and security. And the United Nations and its member states must do their
part to support those basic aspirations. And we have more work to do.
In Iran, we've seen a government that refuses to recognize the
rights of its own people. As we meet here today, men and women and
children are being tortured, detained and murdered by the Syrian regime.
Thousands have been killed, many during the holy time of Ramadan.
Thousands more have poured across Syria’s borders. The Syrian people
have shown dignity and courage in their pursuit of justice -- protesting
peacefully, standing silently in the streets, dying for the same values
that this institution is supposed to stand for. And the question for us
is clear: Will we stand with the Syrian people, or with their
Already, the United States has imposed strong
sanctions on Syria’s leaders. We supported a transfer of power that is
responsive to the Syrian people. And many of our allies have joined in
this effort. But for the sake of Syria -- and the peace and security of
the world -- we must speak with one voice. There's no excuse for
inaction. Now is the time for the United Nations Security Council to
sanction the Syrian regime, and to stand with the Syrian people.
Throughout the region, we will have to respond to the calls for change.
In Yemen, men, women and children gather by the thousands in towns and
city squares every day with the hope that their determination and
spilled blood will prevail over a corrupt system. America supports those
aspirations. We must work with Yemen’s neighbors and our partners around
the world to seek a path that allows for a peaceful transition of power
from President Saleh, and a movement to free and fair elections as soon
In Bahrain, steps have been taken toward reform and
accountability. We’re pleased with that, but more is required. America
is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the
government and the main opposition bloc -- the Wifaq -- to pursue a
meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to
the people. We believe the patriotism that binds Bahrainis together must
be more powerful than the sectarian forces that would tear them apart.
It will be hard, but it is possible.
We believe that each nation
must chart its own course to fulfill the aspirations of its people, and
America does not expect to agree with every party or person who
expresses themselves politically. But we will always stand up for the
universal rights that were embraced by this Assembly. Those rights
depend on elections that are free and fair; on governance that is
transparent and accountable; respect for the rights of women and
minorities; justice that is equal and fair. That is what our people
deserve. Those are the elements of peace that can last.
the United States will continue to support those nations that transition
to democracy -- with greater trade and investment -- so that freedom is
followed by opportunity. We will pursue a deeper engagement with
governments, but also with civil society -- students and entrepreneurs,
political parties and the press. We have banned those who abuse human
rights from traveling to our country. And we’ve sanctioned those who
trample on human rights abroad. And we will always serve as a voice for
those who've been silenced.
Now, I know, particularly this week, that
for many in this hall, there's one issue that stands as a test for these
principles and a test for American foreign policy, and that is the
conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
One year ago, I
stood at this podium and I called for an independent Palestine. I
believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a
state of their own. But what I also said is that a genuine peace can
only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves.
One year later, despite extensive efforts by America and others, the
parties have not bridged their differences. Faced with this stalemate, I
put forward a new basis for negotiations in May of this year. That basis
is clear. It’s well known to all of us here. Israelis must know that any
agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve
to know the territorial basis of their state.
Now, I know that
many are frustrated by the lack of progress. I assure you, so am I. But
the question isn’t the goal that we seek -- the question is how do we
reach that goal. And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the
end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work.
Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United
Nations -- if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.
Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who must live side
by side. Ultimately, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians -- not us
–- who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders
and on security, on refugees and Jerusalem.
depends upon compromise among people who must live together long after
our speeches are over, long after our votes have been tallied. That’s
the lesson of Northern Ireland, where ancient antagonists bridged their
differences. That’s the lesson of Sudan, where a negotiated settlement
led to an independent state. And that is and will be the path to a
Palestinian state -- negotiations between the parties.
We seek a
future where Palestinians live in a sovereign state of their own, with
no limit to what they can achieve. There’s no question that the
Palestinians have seen that vision delayed for too long. It is precisely
because we believe so strongly in the aspirations of the Palestinian
people that America has invested so much time and so much effort in the
building of a Palestinian state, and the negotiations that can deliver a
But understand this as well: America’s
commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Our friendship with
Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace
must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every
Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by
neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens
have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on
their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the
region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country
of less than eight million people, look out at a world where leaders of
much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish
people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh
memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because
of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied.
people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel
deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors.
And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this
truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a
two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent
That is the truth -- each side has legitimate
aspirations -- and that’s part of what makes peace so hard. And the
deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in the
other’s shoes; each side can see the world through the other’s eyes.
That’s what we should be encouraging. That’s what we should be
This body -- founded, as it was, out of the ashes of war
and genocide, dedicated, as it is, to the dignity of every single person
-- must recognize the reality that is lived by both the Palestinians and
the Israelis. The measure of our actions must always be whether they
advance the right of Israeli and Palestinian children to live lives of
peace and security and dignity and opportunity. And we will only succeed
in that effort if we can encourage the parties to sit down, to listen to
each other, and to understand each other’s hopes and each other’s fears.
That is the project to which America is committed. There are no
shortcuts. And that is what the United Nations should be focused on in
the weeks and months to come.
Now, even as we confront these
challenges of conflict and revolution, we must also recognize -- we must
also remind ourselves -- that peace is not just the absence of war. True
peace depends on creating the opportunity that makes life worth living.
And to do that, we must confront the common enemies of humanity: nuclear
weapons and poverty, ignorance and disease. These forces corrode the
possibility of lasting peace and together we're called upon to confront
To lift the specter of mass destruction, we must come together
to pursue the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.
Over the last two years, we've begun to walk down that path. Since our
Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, nearly 50 nations have taken
steps to secure nuclear materials from terrorists and smugglers. Next
March, a summit in Seoul will advance our efforts to lock down all of
them. The New START Treaty between the United States and Russia will cut
our deployed arsenals to the lowest level in half a century, and our
nations are pursuing talks on how to achieve even deeper reductions.
America will continue to work for a ban on the testing of nuclear
weapons and the production of fissile material needed to make them.
And so we have begun to move in the right direction. And the United
States is committed to meeting our obligations. But even as we meet our
obligations, we’ve strengthened the treaties and institutions that help
stop the spread of these weapons. And to do so, we must continue to hold
accountable those nations that flout them.
The Iranian government
cannot demonstrate that its program is peaceful. It has not met its
obligations and it rejects offers that would provide it with peaceful
nuclear power. North Korea has yet to take concrete steps towards
abandoning its weapons and continues belligerent action against the
South. There's a future of greater opportunity for the people of these
nations if their governments meet their international obligations. But
if they continue down a path that is outside international law, they
must be met with greater pressure and isolation. That is what our
commitment to peace and security demands.
To bring prosperity to our
people, we must promote the growth that creates opportunity. In this
effort, let us not forget that we’ve made enormous progress over the
last several decades. Closed societies gave way to open markets.
Innovation and entrepreneurship has transformed the way we live and the
things that we do. Emerging economies from Asia to the Americas have
lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty. It’s an
extraordinary achievement. And yet, three years ago, we were confronted
with the worst financial crisis in eight decades. And that crisis proved
a fact that has become clearer with each passing year -- our fates are
interconnected. In a global economy, nations will rise, or fall,
And today, we confront the challenges that have followed on
the heels of that crisis. Around the world recovery is still fragile.
Markets remain volatile. Too many people are out of work. Too many
others are struggling just to get by. We acted together to avert a
depression in 2009. We must take urgent and coordinated action once
more. Here in the United States, I've announced a plan to put Americans
back to work and jumpstart our economy, at the same time as I’m
committed to substantially reducing our deficits over time.
with our European allies as they reshape their institutions and address
their own fiscal challenges. For other countries, leaders face a
different challenge as they shift their economy towards more
self-reliance, boosting domestic demand while slowing inflation. So we
will work with emerging economies that have rebounded strongly, so that
rising standards of living create new markets that promote global
growth. That’s what our commitment to prosperity demands.
the poverty that punishes our children, we must act on the belief that
freedom from want is a basic human right. The United States has made it
a focus of our engagement abroad to help people to feed themselves. And
today, as drought and conflict have brought famine to the Horn of
Africa, our conscience calls on us to act. Together, we must continue to
provide assistance, and support organizations that can reach those in
need. And together, we must insist on unrestricted humanitarian access
so that we can save the lives of thousands of men and women and
children. Our common humanity is at stake. Let us show that the life of
a child in Somalia is as precious as any other. That is what our
commitment to our fellow human beings demand.
To stop disease that
spreads across borders, we must strengthen our system of public health.
We will continue the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
We will focus on the health of mothers and of children. And we must come
together to prevent, and detect, and fight every kind of biological
danger -- whether it’s a pandemic like H1N1, or a terrorist threat, or a
This week, America signed an agreement with the
World Health Organization to affirm our commitment to meet this
challenge. And today, I urge all nations to join us in meeting the HWO’s
[sic] goal of making sure all nations have core capacities to address
public health emergencies in place by 2012. That is what our commitment
to the health of our people demands.
To preserve our planet, we must
not put off action that climate change demands. We have to tap the power
of science to save those resources that are scarce. And together, we
must continue our work to build on the progress made in Copenhagen and
Cancun, so that all the major economies here today follow through on the
commitments that were made. Together, we must work to transform the
energy that powers our economies, and support others as they move down
that path. That is what our commitment to the next generation demands.
And to make sure our societies reach their potential, we must allow our
citizens to reach theirs. No country can afford the corruption that
plagues the world like a cancer. Together, we must harness the power of
open societies and open economies. That’s why we’ve partnered with
countries from across the globe to launch a new partnership on open
government that helps ensure accountability and helps to empower
citizens. No country should deny people their rights to freedom of
speech and freedom of religion, but also no country should deny people
their rights because of who they love, which is why we must stand up for
the rights of gays and lesbians everywhere.
And no country can
realize its potential if half its population cannot reach theirs. This
week, the United States signed a new Declaration on Women’s
Participation. Next year, we should each announce the steps we are
taking to break down the economic and political barriers that stand in
the way of women and girls. This is what our commitment to human
I know there’s no straight line to that
progress, no single path to success. We come from different cultures,
and carry with us different histories. But let us never forget that even
as we gather here as heads of different governments, we represent
citizens who share the same basic aspirations -- to live with dignity
and freedom; to get an education and pursue opportunity; to love our
families, and love and worship our God; to live in the kind of peace
that makes life worth living.
It is the nature of our imperfect world
that we are forced to learn these lessons over and over again. Conflict
and repression will endure so long as some people refuse to do unto
others as we would have them do unto us. Yet that is precisely why we
have built institutions like this -- to bind our fates together, to help
us recognize ourselves in each other -- because those who came before us
believed that peace is preferable to war, and freedom is preferable to
suppression, and prosperity is preferable to poverty. That’s the message
that comes not from capitals, but from citizens, from our people.
when the cornerstone of this very building was put in place, President
Truman came here to New York and said, “The United Nations is
essentially an expression of the moral nature of man’s aspirations.” The
moral nature of man’s aspirations. As we live in a world that is
changing at a breathtaking pace, that’s a lesson that we must never
Peace is hard, but we know that it is possible. So, together,
let us be resolved to see that it is defined by our hopes and not by our
fears. Together, let us make peace, but a peace, most importantly, that
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
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