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Making the UN a Stronger Force for Freedom

Making the UN a Stronger Force for Freedom

Kim R. Holmes, Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs
Remarks at a luncheon hosted by the UN Foundation
Hyatt Regency, Washington, DC
April 19, 2005

Distinguished guests, thank you for that warm welcome. I am grateful to Senator Wirth and the UN Foundation for this opportunity.

In my two and one half years in this job, I have tried to bridge differences of opinion about the United Nations, and to build allies to make it a stronger institution. I have welcomed the UN Foundation's willingness to help us clarify our positions on the UN, and also to show how deeply committed the United States has been to making the United Nations a stronger force for freedom, and a more capable partner for peace, throughout the world.

I appreciate all of you joining us today. More than at any other time in recent history, the realization is widespread that real UN reform is possible. But it is not only possible; it is necessary. The "tipping point" for change may well be upon us.

If it is, then the United States wants change to be done right. What is at stake, as Secretary Rice said last Friday, is whether the United Nations can stand as a "vital force in international politics" if it does not reform its organizations, its Secretariat, and its management practices.

We believe in the ideals on which the United Nations was founded, and we want the UN to be better able to achieve its important purposes. We want peacekeepers to bring lasting peace. We want nuclear proliferation halted; terrorist acts and finances choked off; refugees able to return home; and famine ended. We want every nation to protect human rights. And, we want freedom and democracy to spread. Wholesale.

These are lofty aspirations, but they are not unrealistic. We are witnessing them in countries like Libya and Iraq, which no longer threaten their neighbors with ambitions to have weapons of mass destruction. And freedom's reach is indeed enlarging, in unexpected places.

Freedom is on the march in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Lebanon, and among the Palestinian people. Millions of proud people have waited in long lines to cast their votes in democratic elections. It did not matter how dangerous the conditions were. In each case, the people wanted the freedom to speak their views through the ballot box, and to elect leaders who represent them.

We believe this is an essential human right--the right to self-government, for people to decide for themselves who their leaders will be, and how they should be governed. The desire for freedom arises from the very design of human nature. Regardless of how different cultures may define it, or how philosophers may debate its meaning, there is something irreducibly universal about the desire of human beings to control their lives and their destinies.

Sometimes we find it difficult to talk about freedom and democracy in the United Nations. Some nations--particularly those who do not respect democracy and freedom--try to pretend that talking about freedom and democracy at the UN is somehow a breach of international etiquette; it is not something done in polite company, for it may offend some nations who disagree. Therefore, they try to stop it.

We should not only see such attempts for what they are--as an effort to stifle debate and prevent the spotlight of truth from shining on undemocratic practices. We should also realize that the principle of freedom is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.

The Preamble of the Charter says that "We the peoples of the United Nations are determined . . . to promote social progress and better standards in larger freedom," a concept picked up in the title of the Secretary-General's recent report on UN reform. Moreover, Chapter 1 of the Charter says explicitly that the purpose of the United Nations is to promote and encourage respect for fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction. And it is widely recognized that democratic institutions can help avoid "the scourge of war"--the very first purpose of the UN mentioned in the Charter.

I believe the United Nations works best when its member states and the United States work together. This requires U.S. leadership. Not all countries may agree with everything the U.S. espouses. But most would agree, I would maintain, that the UN can accomplish very important things when the United States and the member states of the United Nations act as partners. Just look at some accomplishments over the past couple of years (accomplishments, I want to emphasize, that enlarge the horizons of freedom when the U.S. works with the United Nations).

With our leadership, the Security Council managed the entire transition process inside Iraq--from encouraging significant political and economic reforms with Resolution 1483; to creating the mandate for a multinational force in Resolution 1511; to charting a transition path after the transfer of governmental authority back to the Iraqi people in Resolution 1546. At each step of the way, the international community spoke; and in unanimous resolutions, the Council created the international and legal frameworks in which democracy is now emerging in Iraq.

Or look at the example of Lebanon. Working closely with France, we were able to get the Council to accept the need for Syria to leave Lebanon and for free elections to be held. Security Council Resolution 1559 became the international basis for the emerging liberation and, we hope, democratization of Lebanon. Just as in Iraq, the UN--through the Security Council--was working with the United States to spread the frontiers of freedom in the Middle East.

Another area where the UN desperately needed U.S. leadership was on Sudan. We spurred the UN to undertake a Commission of Inquiry into violence in Darfur. After arduous negotiations, we sponsored and ultimately were responsible for getting Security Council resolutions passed to establish a peacekeeping force to protect the North-South agreement, and impose sanctions. Other countries on the Council deserve credit for pressing the issue of Sudan, of course; but no one would deny the important leadership role the U.S. has played on this issue.

Nor would anyone deny the leadership role we played in casting a spotlight on the failings of the UN Commission on Human Rights. We have been pleased at the findings of various UN reform reports regarding the Commission. Both the High Level Panel Report and the Secretary-General's report on reform severely criticize its shortcomings.

And rightly so. Our opposition to Libya's chairmanship of the Commission two years ago, and our constant drumbeat that the Commission must live up to higher standards, helped bring the United Nations to the realization that it must do a better job of protecting human rights. It must also do a better job, in our estimation, of promoting democracy.

That is why President Bush announced his support at the opening of the last session of the General Assembly for the creation of a UN Democracy Fund. We were pleased to see the Secretary-General endorse this proposal in his recent report. We think it is absolutely crucial that the UN become more active in supporting the growth of democratic self-governance. It is an indispensable part of the project of enlarging freedom. I could go on. But I should only mention one more thing--and that is, the important area of cooperation between the United States and the United Nations in countering terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

As the preambular paragraphs of the UN Charter recognize, providing security is absolutely necessary for freedom and development to flourish. That is why we worked through the Security Council to create and strengthen the Counter-Terrorism Committee and the Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate. We also pressed for the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to criminalize the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to states and non-state actors.

The United States has invested deeply in the United Nations to make it an effective instrument for peace and security. We want to take advantage of every tool, of every forum, to help others share in the dignity and opportunities that freedom has given us.

I could find many more examples to illustrate that the United States remains deeply committed to the United Nations. But that does not mean we believe it does everything well, or that it cannot improve upon what it is doing. We have only to look at the UN reports released over the past six months, which emphasize a critical need for UN operations to improve, across the board.

Much does depend on the next steps that we, the member states, take. The Secretary-General has given us his suggestions. Hundreds of civil society activists and experts on the UN have weighed in. Nations have begun reacting.

The United States has always pressed the UN to reform. That is not news. The United Nations was born out of a reform process, if you will, of the failed concept of the League of Nations. And it has wrestled with various reform movements since its inception. Just recall that the Open-Ended Working Group on Security Council Reform has been meeting for over 10 years, to no effect, and that "UN reform" appears on the UN agenda each year. Real reform, so far, has been elusive.

Why? I can suggest at least two reasons (there are of course more). One is that there are many member states that like the status quo. They do not demand as a top priority effectiveness, transparency, accountability, efficiency or fiscal restraint. Much of the pressure for reform amounts simply to countries demanding a greater voice in the UN's security and development affairs--hence the current drive for Security Council expansion and the support for arbitrary targets for development aid.

You can debate the merits of these proposals in their own right. Indeed we have argued that Japan deserves to be a permanent member of the Security Council. But many proposals have more to do with enlarging the voice of certain nations in the UN than in making the institution itself more effective, efficient, or capable of dealing with some the world's largest problems.

We think reform should focus not only on enhancing representation, but also on focusing the activities of the UN more effectively on promoting freedom, democracy and peace. That should be the benchmark of successful reform.

The second reason that reform has been so difficult to achieve at the UN is related precisely to this point: The lack of focus on first principles--especially on the principle of freedom--often has enabled non-democratic countries to block effective reform. This is normally done in the name of consensus. And when consensus is the goal, it is easy for a non-democratic nation to stop effective UN actions and UN reform.

Unless we regain the vision and core values for which the UN was founded, consensus will continue to lean toward the least effective action--a mediocrity of little merit for those whose lives depend on its decisions. We should refuse to settle for that kind of consensus, even if it isolates us.

So, what then should we expect of reform at the United Nations? That whatever is done makes each entity within the UN universe more transparent and accountable to its members, more effective in its program activities, a better steward of its resources, and more true to founding purposes. We will go into the negotiations standing on these principles. We also enter into negotiations knowing that Congress will be very much engaged.

It is impressive to see how engaged Congress is on this issue already. Just since January, there have been a number of UN-related bills and resolutions: to establish a commission on UN reform, to support one country or another for the Security Council, to urge a strong response to the Darfur crisis, and to support a Democracy Caucus and a new UN Emergency Peace Service. In response to grave abuses of UN resources, prestige, and power, there even have been proposals to pull America out of the UN or limit our contributions to it in one fashion or another.

The Administration is very much engaged with Congress on the issue of UN reform, and we appreciate the many ideas Members of Congress have put forward. We look forward to the Gingrich-Mitchell Commission's report due out in June.

The Administration is also deeply engaged in supporting the investigations into the Oil for Food scandal, and in deriving lessons learned from them. And on another issue Congress follows closely, we are working closely with the UN Secretariat to ensure sexual abuse by peacekeepers ends completely. In fact, we have put forth a resolution on this issue at the UN. We hope to conclude it soon, to thereby institutionalize many of the reforms we have called for, particularly in the area of training and justice, so that a zero-tolerance policy will in fact be implemented.

Rather than indications of hostility towards the UN, I believe such actions in general indicate how well Congress would like the United Nations to work. And they reflect Americans' long-running concerns about how our national treasure and time are being utilized. That is as it should be. Oversight of the U.S. participation in the United Nations is Congress's important role, and one this Administration welcomes.

Let me say a few words about the Secretary-General's proposals. I will expand as much as I am able on the statement that Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli--Secretary Rice's Senior Adviser on UN reform--gave at the General Assembly on April 7.

We appreciate very much the effort that the Secretary-General is making to bring new life and integrity to a troubled organization. Ending the parody known as the Commission on Human Rights will go a long way toward doing that.

We are pleased he has emphasized the need to fight head-on the grave threats to the world from terrorism and from weapons of mass destruction. We welcome his forthright recognition of the contributions our Proliferation Security Initiative and historic non-proliferation resolution make in this regard. We also welcome his call for states to abide by their Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty obligations, to become parties to the International Atomic Energy Agency's Additional Protocols, and to cooperate with verification and compliance.

We welcome the Secretary-General's acknowledgment that states need not wait until an attack happens to use force in self-defense. And we support the concept of a peacebuilding commission. Helping societies rebuild quickly after a conflict ends--and before the interest of the world wanes--is the best way to shore up peace, secure freedom, and prevent relapses.

The U.S. Government has already begun restructuring and consolidating its own resources for peacebuilding. The time has come for the Security Council to do so as well, by establishing a commission that brings together those with the most to give and those with the most at stake to inform and coordinate the work of UN agencies and their civil society partners.

We welcome the Secretary-General's emphasis on the importance of freedom, human rights, and democracy, and strengthening the rule of law. His support for the creation of the Democracy Fund is an important breakthrough. We look to Congress for the $10 million we requested to help get it up and running, now that the Secretariat has come out with terms of reference for how the fund will complement existing UN democracy programs. Soon the fund will assist countries making the transition to democracy--helping indeed to enlarge freedom's reach.

We strongly agree with the Secretary-General's proposal to transform the Commission on Human Rights. His recommendation for criteria for membership--that only those who abide by the highest human rights standards are eligible for election--is a welcome proposal. Countries that abuse and oppress their people have no business sitting in judgment of others. We look forward to working with other member states on details like the appropriate size, mandate, relationship to other UN bodies, and its use of Special Rapporteurs and independent experts.

Yes, there is much in the Secretary-General's report we can support, in general terms. Our focus now is on how to achieve the suggestions that we believe are doable, that are programmatically possible, in the near term. There simply is no good reason to wait until September to work on changes that, for the most part, we member states already agree upon.

Some of the most doable steps are ones we believe the Secretary-General himself can initiate. As he correctly points out, the UN Secretariat must change how it manages its budgets and human resources and, of great importance now, how it will improve oversight.

Transparency is key. We certainly ought to shine a light on how the Oil for Food Program was administered. We have reviewed and processed thousands of relevant documents to respond to requests from Congress, the Volcker Committee, the Department of Justice, and Freedom of Information Act requests, and we are making additional materials available on an ongoing basis.

We await the final report of the Independent Inquiry Committee. From what we now know, it appears there would have been much less abuse of the system if there had been more openness in how the program was being administered. We believe Security Council multilateral sanctions can be made more effective by improving independent and effective oversight of UN operations, and by holding member states accountable for enforcing the agreed-upon sanctions.

Oversight has taken a big step forward in the wake of the Oil for Food scandal. The General Assembly adopted a resolution last fall that now mandates the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) release its reports to any requesting member state. This puts UN's program managers on notice that they must take audits and audit recommendations more seriously. But more can be done, and we are now seeking other ways to increase the independence of OIOS.

We advocate for institutional changes as well, such as enabling the heads of UN agencies and the Secretary-General to reassign professional staff to where needs are greatest. And we continue to seek sunset clauses for new programs and activities. We want to ensure resources that could be available to respond to crises are not wasted on programs that have limited, or waning, impact.

One sure way to ensure greater accountability in UN budgets would be for the largest financial contributors to the UN to have a greater voice in budgeting programs. Two ideas are worth exploring: One idea would be weighted voting of UN members in deciding budgets; another idea would be to require that the budgets of organizations be approved by a majority of the member states and by the countries who contribute the majority of the cost.

Another way to ensure greater accountability, and frankly better respect for human rights and freedom, would be for the United Nations to find a way to ensure member states who are under sanctions, who support terrorists, or who abuse human rights are ineligible for any of the leadership positions. I realize that this is not an easy objective to achieve, given the principles of the equality of nations and universal membership. But that does not make it any less desirable.

All too often the regional groupings in the UN fail to exercise adequate leadership by putting forward as representatives of their groups countries that do not respect human rights and freedom. This is a serious failure that may not be amenable to any straightforward process reform. But the regional blocs in the UN should be put on notice that their failure is seriously damaging the credibility of the United Nations.

Accountability, transparency, stewardship--these really are the keys to effectiveness, and we are very pleased the Secretary-General is focused on them. Effectiveness is one of our benchmarks for institutional and structural reform. Effectiveness also is a benchmark in how we will judge proposals for reforming the UN's role in economic development. We have the groundbreaking Monterrey Consensus as testament that collectively nations already know what is needed to end poverty. When countries get their policies right--when they govern justly with the rule of law and provide incentives for growth, trade, and investment--then private resources and foreign assistance will follow.

The Secretary-General was quite right when he stated in his report that developing countries are responsible for development by creating an environment conducive to growth. It is also true that, at the International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, developed nations committed to support countries that are in a position to use aid effectively by freeing up more foreign assistance. The United States pledged, for example, to increase its foreign aid a hefty 50 percent over what we provided in 2000 by the year 2006.

We met that pledge in 2003, three years early. Last year alone, our development assistance exceeded our 2000 levels by 90%. We give some $19 billion in assistance to the developing world each year--making the United States the world's largest donor of official development assistance. Today, our Millennium Challenge Account is directing additional aid to countries that are creating an environment in which that aid can be effective.

The Secretary-General endorses this kind of integrated approach in principle. Unfortunately, his report only directs specific calls for action on trade, debt, and aid at the developed countries and the international financial system. He has included no indicators to measure developing country efforts to stimulate the private sector, a powerful source of resource flows. And his report promotes a target for official development assistance (ODA) that is guaranteed to cause divisiveness. The focus on aid inputs obscures the real debate, which should be on results and what will achieve them.

The assertion we often hear is that the United States agreed to the target of committing ODA equal to 0.7 percent of gross national income--an arbitrary amount that was first suggested way back in 1970. But the United States objected to this target then, and it objects to it today. We believe any aid target scaled to the size of a donor country's economy is necessarily arbitrary--it is unconnected to developing countries' needs or their capacity to make effective use of the aid, and it ignores the larger pool of other non-aid resources that are needed to fuel development.

Finally, a word about Security Council reform.

Anything that can make the Security Council more responsive and effective at bringing peace and security to the world is certainly in our interest. As Secretary Rice has said, Security Council reform has to be discussed in the broader context of reform of the entire UN system. To emphasize this point, the Secretary is sending Ambassador Tahir-Kheli to visit countries to discuss this important matter.

We are open to considering UN reform proposals. We do not endorse any particular plan or option, other than to say that we support Japan's permanent membership on the Council.

We think it is important to have a full and open debate on Security Council reform. We should try to reach broad consensus. The United States has insisted on the need for broad consensus because we believe that an action as potentially far-reaching as adding additional members to the Security Council requires support from as many of the UN's member states as possible.

Expansion would not necessarily require unanimous consent, although clearly that would be desirable. The United States does not rule out or oppose achieving broad consensus on Security Council reform by September, as the Secretary-General has recommended.

We do not agree that the UN membership should feel compelled to meet that deadline for its own sake. Nor do we think that all UN reform issues need to be resolved by the time of the High-Level Event to take place in September. It will take time to resolve all outstanding reform issues, and we expect the UN General Assembly, which will begin after the High-Level Event, to take up the reform issues intensively.

In the end, I believe the best hope for the United Nations is this wave of freedom traversing the globe. As both President Bush and Secretary-General Kofi Annan have made clear, enlarging freedom is the best hope for peace in our world.

We are witnessing people rising up and grasping their right to be free, even where many said democracy could not take hold. They are claiming their right to be free to enjoy the fruits of opportunity and live in dignity.

As nations become more representative of their people, as oppressive regimes fall and governments come to govern justly and invest in their people, I believe we will see them bring new vision, values, and principles to the UN that are more in line with the Charter. I am absolutely convinced that a UN where more countries are dedicated to promoting freedom will be a more effective UN.

It is a worthy vision for the United Nations. It was the original vision of the UN's founding fathers, who always understood that multilateralism would be most effective when exercised by responsible, free and democratic nations. That, I believe, not only is how the United Nations can regain some of the credibility and legitimacy lost in the past few years. It also is the best way for the United Nations and the United States to become true partners in ensuring peace, development and human rights.

Released on April 20, 2005


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