UN chief Ban to attend Sochi opening ceremony
SOCHI, Russia/UNITED NATIONS - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will attend the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Friday and meet with other world leaders attending the event, his press office said on Monday.
However, several key world leaders - U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron - will not be at the Sochi Games, which has been dogged by controversy over Russia's stance on gay rights.
Russia triggered criticism and boycott calls for the games in June, when it banned spreading "gay propaganda" to children. Critics denounced the law as discriminatory and said it is a curb on rights to free speech and assembly.
On Friday, Ban called on the participants of the Olympics to advocate equality and non-discrimination during the games.
"The participants in the Sochi Games may carry the flags of many nations, but they come together under the shared banner of equality, fair play, mutual respect and non-discrimination," Ban said in a statement.
In November, the 193-member U.N. General Assembly called for an international truce in armed conflicts during the Winter Olympics and urged Moscow "to promote social inclusion without discrimination."
Obama has made clear that his inclusion of three openly gay athletes in the official U.S. delegation to the Sochi Games was intended to send a message to Russia. Britain is sending a government minister responsible for the country's recently passed same-sex marriage laws.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said everything was being done "so that participants and guests feel comfortable in Sochi, regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation."
He said there is no gay discrimination in Russia, which decriminalized homosexuality in 1993. But the mayor of Sochi said on Monday that homosexuality was not accepted in his Caucasus region, though gay visitors would be welcome at the games if they respected Russian laws.
During his visit to Russia, Ban will also become the first U.N. secretary-general to deliver a keynote speech at the International Olympic Committee session, which meets this week, IOC President Thomas Bach said on Monday. The IOC has observer status at the United Nations like the Vatican.
"The secretary general has accepted the invitation to attend the IOC session and deliver a keynote address," Bach told reporters in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. (Reporting by Karolos Grohmann and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Marguerita Choy)