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A United Nations For The Twenty-first Century

Kristen Silverberg
Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs
Harvard Security and Defense Initiative
Boston, Massachusetts

A UN for the Twenty-First Century

I'm glad to have the opportunity to speak to you tonight about the United States' relationship with the United Nations. The United States helped found the UN sixty-two years ago, and we remain deeply committed to its success. We depend on a robust multilateral system as our efforts to engage the UN on Iran, Darfur, Burma, and Lebanon make clear.

But we will not succeed at the UN without clearly understanding that organization's potential and its limitations. We need clarity about what the UN is, and how it works.

My remarks tonight are designed to address the ways the State Department views the UN. In particular, I want to address three errors we frequently observe in discussions about the United Nations. I also hope to offer some ideas about how we can identify opportunities, avoid pitfalls, and navigate the UN towards our values and interests.

Error #1

Let me start by dispelling the notion of the UN as a monolith. Both supporters and detractors talk about "the UN"-as in, praising "the UN" for great humanitarian work or criticizing "the UN" as a crooked band of thieves. They talk as if the UN were one body, when, in fact, the United Nations organization chart is dizzying. It consists of the five main UN organs, their numerous subsidiary bodies, and dozens of funds, programs, and other entities located in seven "UN capitals" on three continents. Those bodies together employ over 160,000 people, including nearly 100,000 peacekeepers from 114 countries. The UN's different bodies have different missions, resources, and sources of funding. They have different governing structures, staffing structures, degrees of autonomy, and voting rules. To get into particulars would take hours. Suffice it to say, the term "United Nations" describes more a confederation of organizations than a single, unitary one.

A few key differences among the UN entities are worth noting. The first difference is between functional organizations-that is, those with an operational or technical focus-and purely political bodies. In the former category I include bodies like UNICEF, the World Food Program, the UN Development Program, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and many others. And in the latter, bodies that issue non-binding normative statements, like the General Assembly and Human Rights Council. Our travails in those bodies are no secret. For example, we have been extremely disappointed by the Human Rights Council's performance. In its first year, it eliminated the special rapporteurs focused on improving human rights in Cuba and Belarus, passed thirteen anti-Israel resolutions, three weak, non-condemnatory actions on Sudan, and said nothing of note about North Korea, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan or other critical human rights cases.

In contrast, our experience with functional organizations is typically more positive. They work pragmatically to combat disease, hunger, and poverty, and as a result we support them generously. For example, the U.S. provides roughly 50 percent of the World Food Program's resources, which go towards feeding almost 100 million people in 78 countries each year. We are also the largest donor to UNICEF, which prevents the deaths of more than 2 million children each year through immunization programs.

The UN Development Program, UN Electoral Assistance Division, and UN Democracy Fund, which was established at President Bush's request, help to build democratic institutions in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. In the technical field, bodies like the International Civil Aviation Organization and International Telecommunication Union set standards that facilitate global communication, commerce, and travel-even to the world's remotest regions. The recent sinking of a tour boat in Antarctica resulted in nothing more serious than cold, harried tourists, thanks in large part to frameworks established by the UN's International Maritime Organization. As required by IMO conventions, nearby vessels were monitoring the emergency radio frequencies 24/7, and the doomed ship had sufficient life boats.

Pragmatic UN bodies, in short, contribute concrete improvements to the world's citizens. People's lives are better because these bodies perform rather than posture.

Another important distinction is between UN bodies funded entirely by assessed dues and those relying at least partially on voluntary contributions. This difference ultimately affects how accountable a body is to member states. As you'd expect, bodies that rely on voluntary contributions generally are more responsive to their donors' interests. This is particularly important to the U.S. As a major donor to the entire UN system, we want to ensure that our large contributions are spent efficiently and responsibly. We-Congress especially-are often frustrated by the resistance of UN bodies to basic management reforms encouraging openness, transparency, and oversight. Voluntary contributions allow us to tie funding to reform; assessed contributions do not. Also, voluntary contributions allow us to target funds to organizations that work.

And the final difference I'd like to highlight is between bodies dominated by regional blocs and those that are more independent. This is most relevant to our work in the General Assembly and in the Security Council. The GA, like other large representative bodies, is dominated by faction, namely, regional blocs that to a greater and lesser extent, determine the views of their members. Regional blocs are frequently dominated by a few vocal countries, and those countries are in some cases the least accountable, least responsible of the group. Because the blocs have a culture of consensus, they often produce lowest common denominator positions that allow individual member states to justify irresponsible votes in the name of regional consensus.

The Security Council, while not immune from regional politics, is different. Because it has 15 members, not 192, it can respond quickly to crises, and its small size encourages frank discussions. Members are elected to regional seats, but must answer to the international community as a whole. When the Council takes decisions, the views of every member are clear. So it should come as no surprise that the U.S. has had somewhat more success in the Council's chambers. While the Council isn't perfect, by any stretch, we find it to be more pragmatic and less hostile to our interests. That's true, by the way, of other UN bodies governed by small, independent boards.

I raise these differences to argue that instead of judging the UN as a whole, one should consider its myriad parts. Some are faithful to the UN's ideals; others betray them. Some advance our values and interests; others oppose them. Some shoulder the responsibilities of global leadership; others shirk them. The UN offers a menu of multilateral options. And those options must compete with one another for relevance. Our challenge-and that of our allies, too-is to guide the UN system towards constructive, responsible activity by using the levers of U.S. financial support and diplomatic engagement to support exemplary UN bodies.

Error #2

Just as some people condemn the entire UN system for the failings of individual bodies, some also incorrectly blame the UN for the failings of individual member states. This is the second error I want to discuss.

The United Nations has 192 member states-every broadly recognized nation on earth. Its universality is its best feature, and its worst. The UN is invaluable as an international forum-a sort of global town square where all nations have a voice and can engage with one another on issues of multilateral concern. Universality is an important source of strength for the UN. For many countries, it gives the UN legitimacy and moral authority.

But universality has drawbacks. It means the UN includes non-democracies as well as democracies; human rights abusers as well as human rights defenders; those who threaten international peace as well as its guardians. It means nations genuinely committed to the ideals of the UN Charter must compromise with nations paying only lip service to them.

We expect abusive regimes like those in Iran, North Korea, Burma, Cuba, and Zimbabwe to oppose us as the UN. We find it perplexing and disappointing, however, when democracies abet them. A recent experience in the General Assembly serves as a case-in-point.

Last month, the U.S. put forward a resolution condemning the use of rape by governments to achieve political or military ends. We have seen reports of rape used by government forces in Sudan and Burma to terrorize ethnic minorities and achieve military goals, but ours was a thematic resolution that did not single out individual governments, and instead simply condemned a horrible practice. No government committed to human rights should have found it even the slightest bit controversial.

But the South African delegation did, spearheading an effort by Africa Group countries to water-down the resolution. They removed all references to organized and state-sanctioned rape, speciously claiming that to focus on rape by government forces would suggest that rape by civilians is acceptable. That is nonsense. It is akin to claiming that condemning state-sponsored murder-as the UN has done on many occasions-would condone other forms of murder.

We find it hard to fathom why state-sponsored rape would not receive a clear and unambiguous condemnation by the United Nations. Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens. When governments become perpetrators rather than protectors, their citizens have no recourse within their country, and they should be able to count on the international community to stand by them. Thanks to South Africa's efforts, the watered-down resolution that finally passed did not address the specific problem of governments sponsoring rape. It mainly repeated past condemnations of rape in general. South Africa's efforts served the interests of no one but the governments that perpetrate such horrifying crimes.

This example illustrates the point that in many cases, the UN is only as good as its member states. Critics' cries of UN fecklessness on human rights often identify the right sin but the wrong sinner. To be sure, there are problems with UN institutions as well, and I don't want to suggest that member states are to blame for all UN shortcomings. Nevertheless, they bear much responsibility for the UN's successes and failures, and critics should take care to focus their judgments on the parties actually to blame.

Error #3

My remarks so far point to the final error I want to discuss tonight: that of exempting the UN from the competition to remain relevant that other foreign policy approaches must face.

I started my remarks by describing the UN as one of several U.S. foreign policy options. When the U.S. approaches any foreign policy problem, we have the option of working through a universal organization like the United Nations, a smaller organization like NATO, through less formal multilateral arrangements like the Proliferation Security Initiative or the Community of Democracies, through ad hoc arrangements like the six-party talks or the Quartet, or unilaterally.

Critics often deride U.S. foreign policy as a la carte-multilateral when convenient, unilateral when not. This is sometimes close to the truth-and I say that without a critic's sneer. Any option has tradeoffs. The U.S. evaluates those tradeoffs on a case-by-case basis to determine the option most appropriate to the challenge at hand. It's not multilateralism when convenient; it's multilateralism when appropriate.

The UN system is not always appropriate. Consider the case of Zimbabwe's current chairmanship of the Commission on Sustainable Development, whose theme now is sustainable agriculture with an emphasis on Africa. What does it say about this commission's seriousness that it elected as chair a country that, once known as the "bread-basket" of Africa, now has the world's highest inflation rates, unemployment rates of 80 percent, hunger rates approaching 33 percent, soaring rates of HIV/AIDS, and the world's lowest life expectancy? This is clearly an extreme example, but it gets at the need for flexibility in our engagement with UN bodies. And as I noted earlier, disengagement from one UN body does not mean disengagement from the entire UN system.

Ultimately, to work effectively through the UN, one has to have realistic expectations of its capabilities. Critics of the UN too often dismiss the value of multilateralism and universality and ignore the tremendous work of UN bodies. But multilateralism is challenging even when conducted among relatively like-minded countries, as in NATO. Throw in universal membership, and the difficulty increases. Add a vast bureaucracy, and it gets only harder.

The UN has grand aims of creating a better, more peaceful world. But it has more limited means. It is a vast organization that, like other large bureaucracies, does some things well and others poorly. And it is a complex organization, in which influence and responsibility divide between member states and the UN bureaucracy. Better understanding what ends the UN's means can serve will keep the UN more relevant and the world freer and more secure.

Released on December 3, 2007


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