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The Future of U.S.-UN Relations - Kim R. Holmes

The Future of U.S.-UN Relations

Kim R. Holmes, Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Remarks at the XXI German American Conference Berlin, Germany June 13, 2003

(As prepared)

Thank you, Dr. Oetker, for that generous welcome and introduction. Let me also thank the American Council on Germany and Atlantik-Brucke for inviting me to Berlin to address an issue of great concern for transatlantic relations the future of U.S.-UN relations.

It is a pleasure to be in Germany again. I had lived here for two years as a student and have many fond memories.

First, let me add my condolences to those of President Bush and Secretary Powell for the tragic deaths of four German peacekeepers in Afghanistan last weekend. This attack was an assault on peace; but it will not deter the peacekeepers, the United Nations, nor the world community working together to end the scourge of global terrorism.

I arrived in Berlin last evening from Paris, where I met with Director-General Matsuura of UNESCO [UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization]. As you probably may know, the United States has decided to rejoin UNESCO. President Bush and Secretary Powell are committed to working with other nations to make UNESCO s programs as effective as they can be. We are looking forward to expanding international cooperation in a number of new areas of culture, science, and education.

Before my trip to Paris, I visited our mission to the UN in Rome and spent some time at the World Food Program (WFP), which is doing excellent work feeding people in Iraq and other parts of the world. The WFP is precisely the kind of United Nations organization that makes a real difference in people s lives. That s why nations do and should contribute voluntary funds to this program. It represents the UN at its best focused, dedicated to real outcomes, and humanitarian in the true sense of the word.

The Role of the UN in Global Affairs

It is this question of the United Nations at its best or more specifically, how to make the UN work at its best that I would like to discuss with you this afternoon. We believe the UN has an important role to play in global affairs. Defining that role, particularly in light of the recent debate in the Security Council on Iraq, is of keen interest to many countries around the world. So, too, is the question of how to make the UN more effective.

For over six decades, the United States, the UN, and a good number of its members have shared a vision of the world in which peace and prosperity are the property of all people. We shared core principles of freedom, democracy, good governance, and human rights. Our founding documents embody the belief that nations that respect the rule of law at home will respect the rule of law elsewhere. We also share a belief in the utility of placing multilateralism at the service of freedom, democracy, and good governance.

Regardless of difficulties that we encounter at times, we will continue to engage the UN because it is in our interest to do so. Through multilateral diplomacy, we promote international peace and security. We work with other nations to protect the innocent; eradicate pandemic disease; advance freedom, human rights, and democratic institutions. We fight poverty and build solid foundations for development; and we improve health and education.

If the United Nations did not exist today, we would have to create it. It would not look the same in all respects, but the world needs an international forum where leaders can settle their differences at the table of diplomacy.

Where the UN Works Well

There are many areas where the UN indeed works well. The terrorists who breached America s shores in 2001 unleashed a huge coalition of the willing to fight terrorism around the globe. Members of the UN General Assembly and the Security Council were quick to lend support the day after the attacks. The world saw the UN system work as it was intended when the threat was grave and the cause clear.

The UN created the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) to enhance the capacity of nations to fight terrorism. In less than two years, the CTC has encouraged more states to take fundamental action to suppress terrorism and more have become party to the 12 UN conventions related to terrorism. All 191 members of the UN have reported their counterterrorism activities and capacities to the CTC. And 65 international and regional organizations have pledged to work with it to exchange information and establish worldwide standards and best practices for suppressing terrorism.

We also believe the Security Council s 1267 Sanctions Committee is doing a good job identifying and listing international terrorists associated with al-Qaida and the Taliban. Resolution 1455 has strengthened its sanctions against those listed, and the Committee has established guidelines to assist states in preparing their implementation reports.

Turning to peacekeeping, there have been some notable successes here as well. UN peacekeeping efforts in the recent past have generally been good at maintaining ceasefires and supporting the implementation of peace agreements. In East Timor, the UN mission helped the people create an interim government, draft and adopt a constitution, hold elections, and become an independent state. UNMISET [UN Mission of Support in East Timor] then took over to help the armed forces, police, and key ministries of Timor-Leste develop their capacities to function without extraordinary external assistance.

The United Nations plays many important roles in world affairs beyond counterterrorism and peacekeeping. It is instrumental in providing humanitarian aid and refugee relief. As I mentioned earlier, the World Food Program has been particularly effective. It is working closely with the Coalition Provisional Authority to get food to the Iraqi people and to purchase grain from Iraq s spring harvest.

UN humanitarian agencies have improved significantly since the 1991 Gulf War. At that time, they did not have a unified approach to dealing with massive humanitarian relief problems in Iraq. Agencies fought, refusing to cooperate and share responsibility, and leaving overlap and gaps in support.

The UN recognized the problem and established the Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA). It worked. Contingency planning for humanitarian relief in Iraq was exemplary. OCHA laid out what each agency would do and held frequent, regular meetings in New York and in the field. It held pre-crisis appeals, bought and pre-positioned food and other humanitarian goods, and established a logistics, airlift, and communications coordination center. When conflict broke out, the result was that there was no humanitarian crisis, food was distributed, water treatment and distribution facilities were repaired, and health needs met.

Many of the UN s technical agencies are also accomplishing important work without getting politicized. The World Health Organization s response to the outbreak of SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] helped contain that virulent and deadly disease. New measures from the International Maritime Organization will make it more difficult to use ships as tools of terrorism and also decrease oil spills and pollution. The International Civil Aviation Organization is helping countries implement rigorous safety and security standards. The Crime Commission has adopted a convention that will enhance international cooperation in fighting organized crime.

We steadfastly support the International Atomic Energy Agency s (IAEA) efforts to stem nuclear proliferation and to bring the facts about Iran s nuclear program to light. The IAEA will present its report to the Board of Governors on Monday. Iran s nuclear activities are deeply troubling, and its nuclear ambitions present a serious challenge to the international community.

The UN Can t Do it All

As much as the United Nations does, it clearly cannot be expected to do everything. Not all of the areas of the world get the attention they need. Ethiopia, for example, is on the verge of a devastating famine, and yet it is not getting the attention it needs from the international community. Were it not for the huge infusions of food aid provided by the United States, Ethiopia would be in even worse shape than it already is.

The same is true for HIV/AIDS. Dealing with this pandemic is a massive project that far exceeds the UN s capabilities. President Bush announced a $15 billion initiative to combat HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases in Africa, the Caribbean and other areas. He has committed $1 billion of this to fight pandemic diseases through the Global Fund. And he has challenged the international community to match our contribution.

The United Nations does an awful lot to improve the lives of people around the world, but we cannot leave humanitarian crises to the UN alone. All of us have to pitch in to do our share as well.

We also need to help change the way the UN dispenses advice about economic policies and aid. We have made considerable progress in this area. The Monterrey consensus was the seminal breakthrough that changed the way the UN fosters development, good governance, and a good business climate. Public and private sector leaders agreed that while all have a role to play, developing countries themselves hold the primary responsibility for their development, and good governance is key. We have to get the process right to liberate the energies of people and mobilize all of the resources available if development is to take root and thrive.

We should not conclude, however, that the UN s performance has been stellar on all levels. The General Assembly is not at all effective. Neither are many of the UN s commissions and committees. There is far too much duplication, inefficiency, and even waste in the UN system. This is not just a U.S. view, but is shared by many countries in the United Nations.

The UN is not very effective at peace enforcement when real offensive military action is needed. This was true in Bosnia, where command and control issues were a critical problem, and in Rwanda, where the Security Council did not have the political and military will to take effective action.

If a Chapter VII intervention in a crisis is warranted, a substantial commitment of resources and personnel by interested parties (such as the U.K. [United Kingdom] in Sierra Leone and Australia in East Timor) is crucial. The Security Council could authorize coalitions of the willing to carry out effective military action, such as it did for Desert Storm in Iraq, for Interfet in East Timor, the French/EU [European Union] multinational force in the Congo, and the French multinational force in Cote d Ivoire. Once the conflict has ended, the multinational forces can be transitioned into effective UN peacekeeping operations, as in East Timor.

The UN peacekeeping operations must have achievable objectives if they are to be successful. We must be careful not to fall into the trap of sending poorly armed UN peacekeepers into armed conflicts in which they can make little difference, and in which they can become, unwittingly, part of the problem. It is understandable to want to do something when people are dying in large numbers. But we must actually do something that works. As a general rule, a UN or UN-authorized stabilization force should always have a strong leader, unified command and control, as well as a strong mandate from the Security Council.

Just as UN peacekeeping works best under certain conditions, the UN s specialized agencies and commissions only can meet their objectives when they are not overly politicized or focused on divisive ideological issues. The rule for them should be that they remain tightly focused on their technical and specialized missions, and not veer off into politicized debates.

We left UNESCO 18 years ago for two reasons: severe mismanagement and an increasingly hostile ideological agenda, exemplified by its support for a New World Information Order that favored state-controlled media. The President s decision to rejoin UNESCO in October recognizes that significant reforms have occurred. UNESCO is more efficient and its policies less politicized. We will remain committed to reforming UNESCO. Many countries frankly expect us to play a leading role in this area.

The same is true for reforming the various UN entities dedicated to human rights. The Human Rights Commission has strayed dramatically from its founding principles to defend, protect, and promote human rights. More than a third of its members today are human rights violators. And this year, its members elected Libya a country under UN sanctions as its chair. Largely because of its makeup, the CHR s [UN Commission on Human Rights] 2002 session ended without resolutions on Zimbabwe and Sudan, among others. Yet it passed multiple excessive resolutions on Israel.

We need to bring our concerns about structural and organizational issues to the UN. It is true there are structural limitations built into the UN system itself. For example, the UN has never worked out the contradiction between respect for national sovereignty and belief in universal membership on the one hand, and the Charter principles of democracy and human rights on the other. But we must do what we can to overcome these contradictions. At the very least, we need to dedicate ourselves to promoting new membership on the Commission on Human Rights members that respect the basic tenets of the Commission itself.

Efficiency and Effectiveness

And we need to dedicate ourselves to finding more efficient mechanisms for achieving financial accountability in the UN system. Unforeseen world events always will generate pressure on the UN to take on new work; but new mandates do not mean automatic increases in the UN budget or personnel. An ever-increasing UN budget is not sustainable.

The best way to sustain support for the UN budget is for the UN to prioritize its large array of programs. The rules permit such prioritization, as well as the elimination of marginal or obsolete activities. Sunset provisions that set a date in advance for terminating funding are needed for every new mandate. This step would help the UN foster a culture of accountability using performance measures, and ensure a more sustainable budget.

Many countries are considering how the UN can be reformed to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. We welcome this interest in reform. We have had a long and abiding interest in this issue. The Helms-Biden reform legislation tied the problem of paying our arrears aggravated by our budget cycle to UN reform. The United Nations took steps to reform, and so we have cleared nearly a billion dollars in arrears authorized under the Helms-Biden legislation. I can tell you that the Bush Administration is continuing to actively review proposals for UN reform, and hopefully we will have ideas to share with our colleagues in the near future.

Consensus in the UN

The UN can be reformed indeed it can fulfill its mandate only when its members willingly meet their obligations, accept their responsibilities, and adhere to the principles for which it was founded. For our part, we take this obligation seriously. The United States is deeply committed to an effective United Nations, so we support it when it adheres to its core principles, and we say so when it does not.

President Bush went to the United Nations last September and challenged it to live up to its founding principles. He challenged the Security Council to enforce its binding resolutions on Iraq, which Saddam Hussein had flouted consistently for two decades. And all 15 members rallied behind that call in passing Resolution 1441.

When all the members of the Security Council are united, the Council can become an effective instrument for international peace and security. When we speak with one voice, as we did in November in unanimously adopting UNSCR [UN Security Council Resolution] 1441, and in May in passing the sanctions-lift resolution, we can take effective action to promote international peace and security.

Yet, when Council members are divided or more accurately when the Permanent Five (P-5)are divided the Council fails as an effective tool. This rather obvious point begs the question: Why?

The answer lies less inside the Council than in the realm of international politics, particularly among the larger nations that make up the P-5. The Security Council is, after all, a mirror of international politics. And therein lie both its strength and its weakness.

The Security Council became largely ineffective during the Cold War when divisions between the East and West made it impossible to achieve consensus on major issues. The Western powers decided to create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other alliances in part because they realized they could not rely on the Security Council to protect either their security or their interests.

The gridlock broke after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Security Council members came together to vote for an unprecedented series of resolutions to try to eject Iraq from Kuwait first by diplomatic means, then by sanctions, and when those failed through a multinational force to eject Iraq by force. Resolution 687, the ceasefire resolution, demarcated Iraq s borders, set up a mechanism to resolve Gulf War claims, and set forth Iraq s disarmament obligations. It also adopted comprehensive sanctions to prevent Saddam Hussein from reacquiring WMD [weapons of mass destruction].

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the Security Council experienced a remarkable renaissance. It was not engaged, however, in every major issue that arose concerning international peace and security. During the post-Cold War period, the Council engaged episodically in major issues of international peace and security. It has been heavily engaged at times, most particularly in Iraq, the Balkans, and Africa. Still, the international community does not view it as the exclusive forum for settling all international disputes that involve conflict and security.

Basing the Security Council s voting scheme on consensus was intentional. The Council would not become an effective instrument for one great power to use to constrain or control another great power. The structure of the Council with veto powers for the P-5 mitigates against trying to use it to alter the balance of power or to fundamentally challenge the vital interests of the great powers.

Given its performance on Iraq over the last six months, some have asked, why not reform the Council ? Why not update it to overcome what some see as an anachronistic structure whereby certain countries selected during the immediate World War II era are more equal than others?

I do not have any magic formulas on Security Council reform. However, I do believe that whatever is done to change the Council, it must adequately reflect the real division of labor and responsibility among nations for maintaining international peace and security. Authority must be based not solely on the claim of representation, but on responsibility. And responsibility must be determined not only by respect for the universal principles of democracy and human rights, but also the capability to act to defend those principles when they are threatened.

The Question of International Law

Anytime the question of authority of the Security Council is raised, the issue arises as to its place in establishing international law. This was a particularly central issue of dispute during the recent Iraq war.

As contentious as the disagreement over Iraq was, it should not be over-emphasized. Neither the United States nor the U.K. ever asserted a right to operate outside their obligations under international law. Neither took a position that called into question the existing international legal regime related to the use of force. Each country had lawyers examine relevant resolutions and clarify the legal basis for use of force before the decision to proceed was made.

The decision to go to war with Iraq was based on international law: Existing Security Council resolutions against Iraq provided a sufficient legal basis for military action. Under the UN Charter itself, there was sufficient authority to take action against Iraq without another resolution.

Countries disagree on other international law issues as well. The Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming are notable examples. Germany believes that being a party to the Rome Statute and the Kyoto Protocol will advance its interests. It accepts the obligations of being a party to each one. The United States holds the opposite view and has not become a party to either of them. Consequently, it does not accept any international legal obligations with respect to them.

The United States does not violate any international legal obligation or act against international law by remaining outside the ICC. There is no requirement, under customary international law or elsewhere, that a nation become a party to this treaty. Nothing in existing customary law says that we are bound by the provisions of the Rome Statute when we are not a party to it.

Every nation has the right to decide which treaties it will sign, and we will continue making case-by-case assessments. The fact that another country may make a different assessment of a treaty does not mean that one country is acting in favor of international law and the other against it: Both are acting consistent with international law.

For this reason, while we respect the right of countries to make their own decisions, we nonetheless wish that France, Germany, and Syria had joined the other 12 members of the Security Council in supporting the simple extension of Resolution 1422, which protects UN peacekeepers from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. A clear majority of the Council understood the need to preserve the integrity of UN peacekeeping operations by extending the resolution. We hope that the action of the three who abstained does not signal a desire to reopen in the future the balanced compromise reached last year. It would be a pity indeed, a tragic consequence for international peace and security if non-ICC signatory states like the United States found it legally impossible to participate in UN peacekeeping.


For the past century, America's historical role has been to address threats to international peace, stability, and freedom and to redress the balance of power when threatened by militarism, tyrants, extremist ideologies, or terrorists. This was true in the world wars. It was true in the Cold War. It is true in the war on terrorism. And it is true in Iraq.

In each instance, the United States did not follow the paths of imperialist powers, but instead liberated countries from tyranny. We did not always succeed, but when we did and we did more often than not we left countries better off than before. We left behind not occupation forces, but democratic institutions and, as Secretary Powell reminded us this year, cemeteries filled with our soldiers who laid down their lives so that others could be free.

It is true that America is a singularly powerful nation. It is true that it has strong opinions and enormous influence. Of course this state of affairs makes some countries uncomfortable. But it is one thing to want the United States to listen to you and to act on your point of view. It is another to conclude that America is a threat to world order if it doesn't.

Trying to restrain American power and influence should not be an organizing principle for countries that care about peace, prosperity, and freedom. It will only sow division and waste energy and resources on matters not worthy of great nations. In the end, it will strengthen those who challenge freedom and democracy across the globe. And it will only weaken the solidarity needed among free nations to defend themselves from terror and aggression.

International cooperation in the service of freedom and democracy this principle has guided NATO for over a half century. It has been at the heart of U.S.-German friendship for as many years. And it should be a central organizing principle of the United Nations as well. Thank you. [End]

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