U.S. Priorities at the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly
Bathsheba Nell Crocker
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
September 17, 2015
ASSISTANT SECRETARY CROCKER: Thank you very much for that kind introduction, Bill, and thank you all for coming out today. Apologies for starting a little bit late. I got stuck in some pretty horrendous Washington rush hour traffic this morning.
So I know I’m here to talk about the U.S. priorities for the upcoming high-level week of the UN General Assembly, or as we love to call it, UNGA. But I thought since this is the 70th anniversary year of the UN that it would be interesting to take a step back for a minute and talk about the continued salience of the UN system that was established and launched in San Francisco in June of 1945, including a little discussion of where that system is fraying or not meeting today’s needs and challenges.
Today’s most urgent diplomatic needs, I think, clearly remind us of the continued relevance of the United Nations and the larger international system. We see across almost every pressing issue how much we need the unique legitimacy that the UN bestows on global efforts, and we will use this year’s UNGA not only to take part in events and lots and lots of meetings that will advance key U.S. priorities, but also to make a strong case that member states have an obligation – a financial obligation and a political obligation – to continue to underpin the credibility and viability of the UN system.
This year’s UNGA priorities for the United States, which I will outline in a few minutes, underscore the UN’s continued relevance, but the Iran negotiations and resulting Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, I think, are instructive. The effort to apply multilateral diplomatic energy to Iran’s nuclear activities began nearly 10 years ago, with repeated and increasingly robust Security Council sanctions targeting officials, government agencies, military, and businesses linked to Iran’s nuclear program. The resolutions created travel bans and asset freezes on Iranian companies, individuals, and banks. This effort found its high point in 2010 with the passage of the UN Security Council resolution 1929 which imposed tough new additional sanctions in response to Iran’s continuing failure to comply with its obligations and address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program.
Now, clearly, these actions influenced Iran’s calculus at the end of the day. In addition, however, the Security Council’s leading role here helped establish the path and the framework for negotiations – negotiations that were by their very nature multilateral. By pairing tough sanctions with a good-faith effort that relied on the good old P5+1, the international community demonstrated a crucial unity of vision and showcased the continued preeminence of this 70-year-old institution. Now, as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action enters its implementation phase, the International Atomic Energy Agency, another international organization, assumes a central role. And this is not only a role for which it was expressly designed, but it further underscores the fact that these negotiations would not have been possible without the unique capacity and credibility of our existing multilateral tools.
These mechanisms, agencies, and processes are not only relevant for today’s diplomatic needs, they are indispensable. And I think if we take a look for a minute at the many multilateral framework negotiations that are going on this year on key global issues like climate change, internet governance, financing for development, and the Post-2015 development agenda, we will see that.
There have been or will be major framework negotiations across all of these issues this year – and so far the system and its member states are showing that they can deliver with important new agreements. Now, intergovernmental negotiations, as Bill will fondly remember, are never easy, and they are especially never easy in the often toxic political environment up in New York. But this diplomatic landscape too is shifting and evolving in ways that could be important for the United States.
Nonetheless, internal and external stresses are challenging relations among member states, they’re challenging the UN system ability to evolve and reform, and they’re challenging the UN’s ability to address issues ranging from the high politics to humanitarian emergencies. The evolving refugee crisis is a sign of this.
Internal stresses that limit the UN’s ability to perform are well known and include management and reform issues, inefficiencies, lack of transparency, mismanagement, sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, and a stubborn clinging to outdated issues like the anti-Israel bias.
External stresses are equally troubling, and threaten to chip away at the UN’s credibility. An unfortunate trend in recent years suggests that some member states have an inconsistent dedication to the UN’s central purpose, with examples of politicization of UN bodies, and particularly those bodies with historically technical or humanitarian missions.
Evidence of this trend includes the UN humanitarian agencies being denied access to populations in need or to critical logistical facilities, and more broadly, a humanitarian system that is badly stretched at a time of historic highs of major humanitarian emergencies; attacks on UN peacekeepers in missions in Africa and peacekeeping missions being denied resupply by host governments; special envoys of the UN secretary-general being accused of political bias as a means of justifying denial of access, and humanitarian coordinators being expelled; efforts to politicize technical bodies that need to be apolitical in order to work, and indeed bodies that have been so apolitical throughout their decades of existence that they literally have no practice of voting and are now being uncomfortably forced into it. For example, Middle East political realities too often find traction, even in lesser-known entities such as – wait for it – the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, where Israel’s application for membership was recently blocked.
This trend is disturbing. It threatens to undermine the assumed neutrality of the UN and UN agencies, and this in turn undercuts their value, in some cases their ability to function, and their credibility, which is at the end of the day the UN’s most valuable currency. At its worst, it creates the circumstances where the denial of access and support can be used as a weapon against vulnerable populations.
But in the world of today, where needs are outpacing the system’s capabilities, we need to reaffirm a broad commitment to the founding ideals of the UN. These challenges surface, I think, the need for us to make the case in New York later this month for the continued worthwhile pursuit of this shared enterprise. And we are structuring our engagement to focus on four key objectives: locking in renewed commitment to UN peacekeeping, engaging a broader range of actors on countering ISIL and violent extremism, and advancing goals on climate and sustainable development. All of these are instructive examples of our continued reliance as the U.S. on the multilateral system to advance our objectives, of our commitment to strengthening and updating that system, and of our leadership across it.
We approach UNGA this year in the shadow of the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II. In a way, it is a sad example of how not dealing effectively across the four themes I just noted, plus weaknesses in the humanitarian network, have all come together to produce this massive movement of people. We will use UNGA this year for important high-level discussions on that crisis.
And our engagement at UNGA this year, like last, aims to use this venue more strategically to seize the advantage of diplomatic opportunities and use multilateral meetings and speeches to push U.S. priorities deliberately. Last year, we advanced our priorities on big issues of the day, including ISIL, Iraq, Ebola, and climate. President Obama, for example, chaired a UN Security Council session on foreign terrorist fighters, which resulted in a UN Security Council resolution that laid out a new policy and legal framework for dealing with that crisis and imposed obligations on member states; senior-level interactions between the P5+1 and Iran propelled the nuclear negotiations; Secretary Kerry hosted an Ocean Conference that resulted in meaningful commitments by member states; the first resolution in the new General Assembly last year focused on the crisis of Ebola, and there was a Security Council resolution on the same issue; the Vice President last year hosted a summit on strengthening UN peacekeeping at which 30 countries came together and made new commitments to that exercise; and there was Security Council action on CVE and events focused on the destruction of cultural heritage and property.
Some of these things will certainly recur this year, with our strong intent again being to employ UNGA thoughtfully and strategically, with definitive action anticipated on several fronts. And in that context, I will briefly discuss the four thematic priorities we will take into this year’s UNGA: peace and security, global development, climate change, and countering violent extremism.
2015 – I’ll start on global development – 2015 marks the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals, or the so-called MDGs, which registered some significant successes, focusing largely on eliminating poverty, hunger, and disease. And the MDGs reveal the benefits of a common approach to development goals. For example, extreme poverty has been cut by more than half since 2000, per capita incomes in the developing world have more than doubled, and malnutrition rates have been cut by 40 percent.
On September 25th of this year – so a week from tomorrow – more than 150 world leaders – and the pope – are expected at the launch of the UN Sustainable Development Summit, at which member states will endorse the so-called 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – an ambitious, inclusive development framework that serves as the successor to the MDGs. The 2030 agenda, it must be said, is much larger than the MDG agenda, which included eight goals. The 2030 agenda includes 17 goals – the so-called Sustainable Development Goals – and 169 targets.
For the United States, this summit serves as a point of departure. U.S. development priorities are included in the 2030 agenda, including ending extreme poverty, the role of women and girls, inclusive economic growth, good governance and accountable institutions, and environment and sustainability. And importantly, the agreement breaks the age-old development mold. It reflects the creative input of all member states and of impacted civil society experts, academics, and implementers who all came together – it wasn’t just donors this time – to influence the shape of this new agenda. It connects crucial issues that have too often been addressed in isolation, bringing environmental issues together with development issues, and it also includes thoughtful treatment of issues not always brought – not always tackled in development circles, like peace and security and governance. Because of its broad inclusivity, the agenda has global legitimacy, and it presents a real opportunity to tackle these challenges more effectively in the coming decade.
Together with the agreement reached this summer in Addis on financing for development, the 2030 agenda enshrines a new model of development that is as much about the right policy-enabling environments and mobilizing domestic and private resources as it is about official development assistance.
There will be dozens, literally, of associated events at UNGA around the 2030 agenda. It will be agreed by member states on Friday the 25th, followed by two days of plenary sessions, high-level speeches, and interactive dialogues, and many, many side events. Two, perhaps to highlight, are that the U.S. will host a side event on so-called Goal 16 of the SDGs, which is on peace and government – governance, and the secretary-general will host a side event on the connections between the refugee and migration movements and the SDGs.
Turning now to peace and security, today’s challenges show the demand for nimble, effective UN peace operations. It has, in fact, never been greater. We have today over 120,000 blue helmets serving in 16 peacekeeping missions from Haiti to the Congo. And they are deploying and operating in ever more difficult circumstances.
In that context, on September 28th President Obama, the secretary-general, and several other heads of state and government will host a high-level summit on peacekeeping, at which a significant number of countries are expected to attend. Over the last year, the United States has used the momentum generated by the Vice President’s summit on peacekeeping at last year’s UNGA to encourage new commitments from member states to expand the pool of resources available to peacekeeping operations. And we anticipate that this year, participating nations will announce significant new commitments during the summit, as well as make political-level commitments both to important doctrinal issues like protection of civilians, and to much needed reforms in UN peacekeeping operations, including those spelled out in a report by the high-level panel on peace operations that was released over the summer.
This summit is an example of our leadership and our commitment to helping the system evolve to meet today’s challenges. It’s as much about filling gaps in current peacekeeping missions as it is about ensuring that we get troops involved in UN peacekeeping either re-involved or involved for the first time who are capable and willing to tackle today’s challenges and threats. As we seek these new commitments, we must be similarly committed to addressing shortcomings in peacekeeping. And nothing in that category is more corrosive than the appalling and horrifying allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers.
To date, efforts to address these issues have fallen short, and we are looking at how to re-energize our own efforts in terms of addressing this issue with the United Nations as well as bilaterally with countries that commit troops and police to UN peacekeeping missions. This crucial issue is among many that require attention in order for peacekeeping to serve its modern purposes.
The Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Peace Operations identified many others. These included the need for missions to be mandated – to have mandates that are tailored to context, the imperative of protecting civilians, improvements in headquarters’ strategic analysis and planning capacity, and the benefits of investing more in prevention and mediation capabilities. We indeed have to remember that peacekeeping is just one tool on a spectrum that includes conflict prevention and post-conflict resolution and peace-building, and the role of civilians in those efforts is essential to our peace and security efforts.
On climate, of course, the big ticket issue this year will be the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Paris in December, at which we and many other nations are determined to reach an ambitious, inclusive, and durable agreement designed to combat this urgent challenge. In advance of that meeting, events this year at UNGA and interactions will serve to galvanize the highest-level political support as we head toward Paris.
On September 29th, there will be a special foreign minister session of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Environment – on Energy and Climate that Secretary Kerry will host. And the event is intended to encourage participating countries to build a sense of common cause in the lead up to Paris.
And finally, on countering violent extremism, which remains at the top of the President’s agenda, and the UN is a key platform for the United States to strengthen multilateral cooperation to counter terrorism. At UNGA this year, we will be looking to strengthen global initiatives to counter ISIL, foreign terrorist fighters, and violent extremism. We will convene a Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism on September 29th in New York to highlight strides made against ISIL this year, as well as progress made since the February White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The summit and various related side events will also serve as fora to announce new commitments to support these efforts.
UNGA is, to be sure, a mad dash. I was going to use the line about diplomatic speed dating, but Bill stole my joke. (Laughter.) We all show up and load more and more events onto its calendar every year, but this in and of itself proves both the uniqueness and the value of the multilateral system. No other venue provides so many opportunities to get stuck in really bad New York traffic. But frankly, last year we had ample feedback from allies and partners, broadly praising the robust U.S. engagement and demonstrating leadership across a range of priorities. And that is our aim again this year.
But I think it’s also helpful to remember, of course, that U.S. leadership and engagement of this system matters more than just for one week of the year in New York, and in that light I’ll talk for just a minute about our leadership and engagement over the past six years at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, which also happens to be meeting this [month] for one of its sessions of the year.
And as we near the end of two consecutive three-year terms on the Council, I think it’s a good time to take stock of the positive developments that we’ve seen in Geneva over the last several years, all of which required strong and constructive U.S. leadership. And these include: reducing the structural bias and exaggerated focus on Israel; sustaining focus on the human rights situation in Iran through a special rapporteur on human rights in Iran; the creation of special rapporteurs on North Korea and Belarus; a special commission of inquiry on Syria, and in fact, the action on North Korea in Geneva led to North Korea being – the human rights situation in North Korea being put on the agenda of the Security Council for the first time ever in a historic meeting last year. And I actually learned yesterday that North Korea is now on what’s called the so-called “seizures agenda” of the Security Council. Little known fact, but I now understand what it means when the Security Council says it’s deciding to remain actively seized of a matter.
We have – it’s nice that my parents laugh at my jokes. (Laughter.) We’ve taken complementary action to illuminate the impact of violent extremism and we’ve made groundbreaking efforts on violence and discrimination facing LGBTI persons worldwide. It’s hard to believe that at this time last year Ebola was at the top of the global agenda. The UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, or UNMEER, was established last year at UNGA in September of 2014, and having achieved its mission of scaling up the international response and coordinated action to the outbreak, it closed at the end of July.
Oversight of the UN system – system’s Ebola response is now being led by the World Health Organization, which is working with partners and working with countries – the affected countries to continue the intensive efforts to free West Africa of Ebola. Liberia has been Ebola-free for more than 50 days, and cases are more limited in Guinea and Sierra Leone. The successful transition from UNMEER to WHO serves, we hope, as a promising precedent – it certainly runs counter to the narrative suggesting that the UN never ends a program, project, initiative, or mandate, though it may be the only such example.
In this case, with strong U.S. leadership and our own robust bilateral commitment, the need was met through an innovative UN-led initiative. It was the first ever mission focused on a health issue, and then the initiative was retired. So while it’s a lonely example for now, it’s an important signal of the system’s ability to evolve and adapt, and the UN is trying to learn from it through one of many high-level panels the secretary-general has launched this year on looking at lessons learned from the Ebola response. Other high-level panels in this very busy 70th year of the UN include ones the secretary-general has launched on peace operations; on peace-building; on women, peace, and security; and on humanitarian financing.
Another sign of evolution is the changing dynamics we might be seeing within regional blocks. These often make negotiations more challenging, though they remain salient, because at the end of the day we have to have negotiating partners. And in the Post-2015 development agenda negotiations, we saw some interesting developments with increasingly loud voices of some of the subgroups, like the Small Island and Developing States and others within the G77, that definitely helped shape the context and contours of where we ended up in that agreement eventually.
The United States is at the forefront of efforts to drive positive evolution in the management cultures of the UN, and there have been some encouraging results. We have improved budget transparency and accountability, stronger investigation tools, progress on whistleblower protection and internal review mechanisms and audit transparency, but there is much, much more to be done in this effort. And the slow-footed response on the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse only makes clear how much more work there is to be done.
We mark 70 years of the UN this year, and in doing so it’s important to pause and consider the institution’s role in global affairs. For the United States, this role is clear. And while the system’s weaknesses and failings demand action, we should tackle them in the interest of strengthening an indispensable partner. As we gear up for UNGA, we are looking at a series of events that will showcase steadfast, clear-eyed, and instrumental U.S. leadership, a commitment we are also demanding of others. The conflicts and crises of today are, of course, many, and we need the UN as a credible bulwark against these global challenges. And indeed, with the evolving refugee crisis in New York, the UN secretary-general will now host a high-level event, again seizing the opportunity with all UN member states being in New York in the coming weeks, and demonstrating the important convening power and the credibility of voice that the UN has.
We obviously won’t get all of that done in New York in one week, but we will certainly make the most of our engagements there this year across a broad range of issues as I’ve laid out today. And now I look forward to a discussion with all of you. (Applause.)