How Engagement at the United Nations Benefits the United States
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Thank you, Dr. Tuman, for that introduction. Thanks also to the School of Liberal Arts, for putting together this event, and to all of you for coming out today. As the lead State Department official overseeing U.S. interaction with the UN system – including UN bodies in New York, Geneva, Vienna, Rome, Nairobi, Paris, and Montreal – it is my privilege to hear from Americans about the challenges you see facing the United States, and to share with you the good work your diplomats are doing every day to advance U.S. foreign policy at the United Nations. With global attention soon turning to New York for the annual gathering of world leaders at the UN General Assembly, it is a natural time to discuss these issues.
Even after the presidents and prime ministers have left New York later this month, your diplomats there – and at the UN bodies in the cities I just mentioned – will continue their work on a broad range of issues that benefit Americans. Robust U.S. engagement with the United Nations stems from a simple fact: in a 21st century world where threats do not stop at borders, even the United States cannot tackle many of our most urgent problems alone.
We have known for a long time that what happens beyond our borders affects our security and our economy, and that we ignore turmoil abroad at our own peril. Nuclear proliferation threatens the security of us all, regardless of nationality. If not checked, the impact of climate change will be truly global, albeit felt in different ways. Threats to freedom and universal human rights anywhere stain our collective conscience. Terrorism and transnational crime pay no heed to national borders; pandemic disease requires no passport to move quickly from one country to the next. We know that conflict and instability, even when it is half a world away, can unleash these and other dangers.
Americans benefit immensely from globalization and the interconnections it brings with peoples around the globe. Here, in one of the tourism and commerce capitals of the world, you instinctively understand that more than most. Our security and prosperity are inextricably hardwired to the rest of the world but it does not mean that the United States should take on the world’s problems by ourselves. American troops should not police every conflict, and American generosity alone cannot solve every humanitarian crisis or bring relief after every natural disaster. Because these common global challenges call for shared global solutions, we find ourselves more than ever working through the UN to achieve many of our most important foreign policy goals.
On matters of international peace and security, the UN’s role has been central to several top U.S. foreign policy priorities. UN peacekeepers help prevent conflict and protect civilians around the globe, at a fraction of the cost of sending U.S. troops. Security Council sanctions on Iran have had a significant effect on that regime, including by hampering its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. UN counterterrorism sanctions have isolated terrorists and frozen their assets and those of their supporters. UN missions in Afghanistan and Iraq work to strengthen democracy and mediate local conflicts, meaning that we can draw down our military forces there on schedule.
The UN’s humanitarian agencies also deliver lifesaving aid in many of the world’s worst crises. From Haiti to Somalia, Pakistan to the Congo, the World Food Program and UNICEF are preempting starvation, the World Health Organization is preventing outbreaks of disease through vaccination programs, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is providing comfort to those displaced from their homes. These agencies are only a few of the important UN organizations that are saving lives, providing critical humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations, and contributing to the overall human security on which lasting peace must be built.
The United States also works through the UN system to promote global respect for human rights and universal values. I will discuss in a moment our work at the Human Rights Council, and the advances that body has made as a result of U.S. engagement. We see the UN as an increasingly important forum for bringing the countries of the world together to promote human rights and call out abuses and violations of liberty, equality, and basic human dignity, no matter where they occur.
And UN technical and specialized agencies support the architecture of globalization we have all come to take for granted. From international civil aviation to worldwide postal service, from cross-border telecommunications to global shipping, it is through the long list of UN agencies, many of which you may never have heard of, that the world builds and maintains the links that bring us all together.
Working through the United Nations means we do not have to choose between doing it ourselves, or doing nothing. Instead, we can show global leadership, to bring together allies and partners to achieve our goals. This was true recently in the international response to Libya, where both the Security Council and the Human Rights Council served to channel the international community’s collective response. In this case, these two UN bodies worked to reinforce each other’s actions and maximize international pressure on the Qadhafi regime.
So as the members of the Security Council met to determine that body’s initial response, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was called into special session, where it launched an international commission of inquiry to investigate the reality on the ground, and recommended suspending Libya’s membership. This helped catalyze a unanimous Security Council resolution the next day that imposed tough sanctions against the Qadhafi regime, referred his depredations to the International Criminal Court, and warned him that the world would not stand by as his forces attacked Libyan civilians whose only wrongdoing was their desire for freedom.
When the Qadhafi regime failed to heed this warning, we went back to the Security Council and worked to shape a mandate to protect civilians in Libya. An unprecedented coalition, included the United States, our NATO allies, and Arab nations, launched a military operation to save civilian lives and stop Qadhafi’s forces. And in the course of the past few months, the Transitional National Council has established itself as a credible representative of the Libyan people, such that the United States has recognized the TNC as the legitimate governing authority in Libya. We support the TNC’s work with the international community to prepare for a post-Qadhafi Libya.
Although we have come to expect the UN Security Council to act decisively with regard to threats to international peace and security, the Human Rights Council has not always acted as deftly as it did in Libya. Some critics had asked whether it was much better than the old Commission on Human Rights that it replaced. They argued that too many of the members had dubious human rights records, that the Council spent far too much time unfairly focused on Israel, and that it failed to show it could act quickly and to concretely address pressing human rights situations around the world.
Given these criticisms, it was not without controversy that the Obama Administration announced in 2009 that the United States would run for a seat on the Human Rights Council. Although the previous Administration had kept the Council at arm’s length since its creation, we believed that if the United States wanted the HRC to live up to its mandate to protect and promote the human rights of all mankind, we could not leave it to be dominated by others.
I am pleased to report that the Human Rights Council has fundamentally changed over the past two years as a result of U.S. engagement. Both Iran and Syria backed out of campaigns to get elected after tough diplomacy by the United States and our partners made clear they would lose. Though the Human Rights Council held five special sessions on Israel in the three years before the United States took our seat, there have been none – none – in almost two years. And thanks to leadership by the United States and our partners, the Human Rights Council is showing an increased ability to respond quickly and constructively to serious human rights abuses. That includes launching the international commission of inquiry in Libya, as I mentioned before. It includes working with the interim Tunisian government to ensure respect for human rights during the transition there. And it includes tough resolutions on the human rights situation in Syria, along with an international commission of inquiry to investigate the Assad regime’s continued lethal attacks against peaceful protestors, and provide the foundation for international accountability.
There is far more that we have achieved since joining the Human Rights Council, from promoting freedom of expression and freedom of assembly worldwide, to reinforcing the principle that the rights of LGBT persons are, yes, human rights. I can go into further detail during the question-and-answer period if you would like. And yes, we remain disappointed that the Council continues its bias against Israel, even if it is reduced. But the change that has come over that body since the United States took our seat in 2009 is a testament to the benefits of U.S. engagement at the United Nations.
Our strong diplomatic engagement at the Human Rights Council was not the only path we could have taken. There are critics even today who call for drastic unilateral steps that would undermine the important work we are doing, in a time when our need for shared solutions is growing. These go-it-alone types think the United States pays too much in dues, or allege that the UN is incorrigibly corrupt, or point to instances where the United States disagrees with some symbolic vote or conference held in the UN General Assembly. From that, they argue that the United States would be better off without the United Nations, that we should withdraw from the Human Rights Council and other UN bodies, or that we somehow can force the UN to correct some shortcoming by refusing to pay the dues we owe pursuant to treaty obligations.
They could not be more wrong.
For too long, the United States played games with our UN assessments, paying them when we wanted to and withholding them whenever we felt doing so was somehow justified. So sometimes the UN peacekeepers sent out into harm’s way got paid, and sometimes they did not. Not only did this practice wreak havoc on UN budgeting – imagine trying to run a corporation never knowing if your largest investor will up and pull out its stake – it also undermined U.S. credibility, and hurt our ability to get things done at the UN.
But all this has changed since 2009. President Obama’s decision to pay our UN assessments in full has given us more political capital to galvanize support from allies, partners, and others for achieving our goals at the United Nations. Both in pursuing foreign policy goals and in pressing for UN management reform and budget discipline, our failure to keep current on our UN dues hamstrung our diplomats and hurt our national interest. For too long, our adversaries could change the subject to our arrears when we pressed them on an important policy matter; they no longer can do so.
And what, you ask, is the price for all this? What does this investment in shared security, universal values, and global systems cost the American taxpayer? About one-tenth of one percent of federal spending.
That is because U.S. global leadership at the UN means we pay our fair share of the burden. Not more, not less. Our UN dues amount to roughly twenty-five cents on the dollar. That is right: every dollar we put into the UN system leverages roughly three dollars from the rest of the world toward solutions to our shared challenges. And as careful stewards of taxpayer dollars, this Administration is proud of the management and budget reform initiatives we have worked with the United Nations to create and implement. The United States is second to none in pursuing a more efficient, effective, and transparent UN. These accomplishments may not grab headlines, but they get results. Not only do these efforts save money, they also help ensure that the United Nations is strong enough to bear the burdens we must place upon it in the decades to come.
As I have discussed tonight, U.S. engagement at the United Nations is an essential means of achieving our foreign policy goals and advancing our values. It is an important forum for burden-sharing in tough financial times. And it clearly benefits Americans.
I want to thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you today, and I look forward to any questions you may have.