UNITED NATIONS -- UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the apparent warming of relations between the United States and Cuba, lamented the humanitarian and diplomatic crises that the UN system has tried to address this year and outlined four major priorities for 2015.
"This news is very positive," Ban said at a year-end news conference at UN headquarters in Manhattan, just before he was set to fly to Africa to observe UN efforts to contain the Ebola crisis. He called word that the United States and Cuba would begin moving toward formal diplomatic relations after a six-decade standoff a "very important step toward normalizing relations."
Ban thanked President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro for reaching a preliminary accord.
He added that the United Nations stands ready to help both countries establish better relations. The UN General Assembly has voted on many occasions for the United States to lift its embargo on Cuba, to which travel and commerce has been very limited for U.S. and Cuban citizens.
Ban said 2014 has been a year during which many countries have faced disasters both man-made and natural, from the Ebola outbreaks faced by several African countries -- namely, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Mali -- to the political tensions that have resulted in military action in such places as Ukraine and South Sudan.
Amid rumors at the UN this week that a member of the Security Council may introduce a resolution to request Israel withdraw from Palestinian territories, ending the occupation, Ban said "the leaders of Israel and Palestine have a responsibility to step back from the brink, ease the current tensions and salvage a two-state solution, that is looking ever more remote."
Ban also said the nearly 4-year-old civil war in Syria must end.
"After almost four years of killing each other the violence must stop," he said, "regardless of what kind of argument or difference of opinion there may be."
Syria devolved into an international crisis threatening regional and global security quickly after March 2011 when Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces cracked down on demonstrators demanding change in the wake of the Arab Spring, a wave of protests that swept through the Middle East and led to the ouster of several longtime leaders.
But the conflict galvanized rebel forces and drew foreign fighters bent on overthrowing Assad, including al-Qaida-linked forces and Islamic State, which took its campaign across the Syrian border into Iraq. The conflict has created a massive humanitarian crisis as Syrians and Iraqis were displaced, some spilling over into neighboring countries.
Ban said the UN has four major challenges to face in 2015, including reaching an agreement on climate change, ending the "nightmare" in Syria, containing extremism and far-right political parties, and adapting the UN to serve the world better.