- (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
President Barack Obama is prepared to give a keynote speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, which observers expect will focus on the recent violent unrest in the Middle East, as leaders address calls for blasphemy laws to be imposed upon the world.
"It is a real moment for the U.S. to assert its values and leadership in this period of transition," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. He noted that the United Nations conference will seek to preserve ties between the U.S. and emerging democracies in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, on Monday, U.S. representatives spoke before a U.N. human rights body in Geneva and said that freedom of religion is inseparable from free expression, arguing against calls from Muslim-majority nations for a new global treaty outlawing blasphemy, to prevent offenses against Muslims and keep tempers from flaring, Reuters reported.
"The inseparable freedoms of expression and religion are important not for abstract reasons," said Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe. She added that when these two freedoms are allowed to flourish, "we see religious harmony, economic prosperity, societal innovation and progress, and citizens who feel their dignity is respected."
On the other hand, she added that "when these freedoms are restricted, we see violence, poverty, stagnation and feelings of frustration and even humiliation."
The U.N. meeting in Geneva was in response to the 56-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation's call last week for international authorities to place a ban on blasphemy, which is largely a reaction to the U.S.-made private film posted on YouTube that depicts the prophet Muhammad in an unfavorable light. The film sparked massive protests in several Middle Eastern countries this month, where angry Islamic mobs attacked Western embassies. The most serious of the attacks led to the deaths of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi.
European and Latin American countries, as well as the U.S., argued against such a resolution, however, explaining that while individuals have human rights, religions themselves do not, and it would be impossible to create one global definition of blasphemy.
Another aspect of Obama's participation at the U N. meeting on Tuesday in New York will be the president's foreign policy agenda. With the election only six weeks away, Obama will likely attempt to provide a clear picture of his stance on Middle East issues, according to observers.
The White House failed to offer a concrete explanation on Monday, however, for why Obama has scheduled no bilateral meetings with world leaders who are in New York City this week for the U.N. General Assembly, which stands in contrast to last year's assembly, where the president had more than a dozen bilateral meetings.
"The president just in recent weeks has had intensive consultations with leaders in the region, with the leaders of Turkey, of Egypt, of Israel, of Yemen, of Libya, of Afghanistan, and that process will continue," commented Carney, as reported by CBS News. "It is a simple fact that when you're president of the United States, your responsibility as commander-in-chief never ends and you are constantly engaged in matters of foreign affairs and national security. And that's what this president is doing."
New Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood is also scheduled to be a prime speaker at the United Nations this week, in his first visit to the U.S. since winning Egypt's presidential election.
Morsi is expected to meet with five senior U.S. officials and attend a meeting with religious leaders where improving inter-religious dialogue will be discussed. His U.N. address on Wednesday reportedly will be the first time in over a decade that an Egyptian head of state has spoken at the General Assembly.