U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has told world leaders that the rule of law is under attack in crisis points around the globe. The secretary-general reminded his audience of presidents and prime ministers that international law is almost as old as civilization itself. He lamented that in places from Iraq to Darfur, northern Uganda to the site of the recent terrorist massacres in southern Russia, as well as in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the rule of law is being flouted.

"Today the rule of law is at risk around the world," said Mr. Annan. "Again and again we see fundamental laws shamelessly disregarded; those that ordain respect for innocent life, for civilians, for the vulnerable - especially children."

Speaking in the language of diplomacy, Mr. Annan was careful to avoid direct criticism in his speech. But his meaning was clear as he cautioned powerful countries to restore respect for law.

"We must start from the principle that no one is above the law, and no one should be denied its protection," he added. "Every nation that proclaims the rule of law at home must respect it abroad. And every nation that insists on it abroad must enforce it at home."

Mr. Annan paid special attention to the crisis in Darfur, and pledged to quickly act on the Security Council demand for an international investigation into charges that genocide has been committed there. He commended the African Union for taking the lead in providing a protective force in Darfur, and chided other countries who have been slow to respond to pleas for help.

"Let no one imagine that this affair concerns Africans only," he said. "The victims are human beings, whose human rights must be sacred to us all. We have a duty to do whatever we can to rescue them, and do it now."

The secretary-general's speech opened two weeks of General Assembly debate. Representatives of all 191 U.N. member countries are scheduled to address the Assembly, including nearly 90 heads of state and government.