Syria gets its moment at UN, small island states sound alarm

MARIA SANMINIATELLI
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UN General Assembly Tuvalu

Tuvalu's Deputy Prime Minister Minute Taupo addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Overshadowed by other concerns, the war in Syria got some attention Saturday and leaders from assorted island nations pleaded for their survival as they urged the U.N. General Assembly to take action that would help stop them from sinking into the ocean.

Syria's plight remains one of the world body's thorniest issues as the country has been devastated by more than eight years of war. But global worries over rising tensions in the Gulf region, the earth's warming temperature and the trade war between the United States and China this year have eclipsed attention given to the Syrian people.

The U.N. is hoping that the recent creation of a committee that would draft a new Syrian constitution will put the country on track for a political solution.

But in a speech before world leaders, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem took what appeared to be a hardline stance. He insisted that the committee not be subjected to deadlines and be run entirely by Syria with no preconditions set by other countries — a possible indication of the challenges ahead.

"The committee must be independent. Its recommendations must be made independently, without interference from any country or party," al-Moallem said.

The committee will meet for the first time on Oct. 30 in Geneva, the U.N. announced Saturday.

While most of Syria has returned to government control, the opposition-held bastion of Idlib in the northwest, and the U.S.-backed Kurdish groups in the oil-rich northeast, still elude the grasp of President Bashar Assad.

In one of the earliest speeches of the day, the Holy See's envoy, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, highlighted the Syrian conflict — along with the one in Yemen — as one of the world's most urgent challenges and advised the international community to work together to "put an end to the suffering of so many people."

The civil war in Yemen has killed tens of thousands of people and sparked the world's worst humanitarian crisis in the Arab world's most impoverished country. In his own statement before the General Assembly late Saturday, the country's new foreign minister vowed his government would "end any attempt to tear apart our homeland."

Mohammed Abdullah al-Hadrami angrily criticized Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who control much of the Yemen's north, and the United Arab Emirates, which supports forces seeking their own nation in the south. He called Iran the world's main sponsor of terrorism.

A Saudi-led coalition that included the UAE has been fighting the Houthis since 2015 on behalf of the internationally recognized government.

America's foreign policy was a popular target in Saturday's speeches. Al-Moallem blasted the United States, and Turkey, for maintaining a military presence in Syria, and Cuba's foreign minister denounced the Trump administration for its decision to impose a travel ban to the U.S. on former Cuban President Raúl Castro.

"This is an action that is devoid of any practical effect and is aimed at offending Cuba's dignity and the sentiments of our people," Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla thundered. "It is a vote-catching crumb being tossed to the Cuban American extreme right."

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a travel ban on Castro and his immediate family on grounds of human rights abuse, saying they would not be allowed into the United States. Castro is no longer president of Cuba but remains at the top of the Cuban Communist Party.

Cuba's Parrilla railed against America's economic blockade on Cuba and blamed capitalism for contributing to the world's ecological balance with "its irrational and unsustainable production and consumption patterns."

But those sounding the most urgent climate alarm were leaders from tiny island nations, who begged for the world to take note of their plight and help them have a future.

A U.N climate summit earlier in the week got attention but ended disappointingly as the 77 nations who committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 did not include the biggest polluters — China, the United States, India, Russia and Japan.

The deputy prime minister of Tuvalu, which sits in the Pacific Ocean at about 10 feet above sea level, made it all real: Rising waters and temperatures, he said, have contaminated the country's ground water resources and damaged its reefs and fisheries.

"My country is in the frontline of climate change," Minute Alapati Taupo said. "Our food and water security are severely compromised. A life of fear and uncertainty is becoming our way of life."

The impact on daily life on the islands was clear.

"When I was a young boy in the Marshall Islands, the unavoidable sound of ocean waves crashing upon our coral reefs was, to me, a natural symphony," said the country's foreign minister, John Silk.

"But to my grandchildren," he said, "this same sound is rapidly becoming, to them, a threat of inundation. Do they not share my same right to live in ancestral homes?"

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Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Aya Batrawy contributed to this story.