Obama Urged to Strengthen Ties with UN

A bipartisan group of some three dozen senior foreign policy figures has released a statement calling for President-elect Barack Obama to make strengthening long-troubled US relations with the United Nations a major priority in his new administration.

It calls, among other things, for the incoming administration to pay US dues to the world body on time, join the much-criticized Human Rights Council (HRC) in order to better influence its direction, and seek Senate approval of key treaties signed by past US presidents but never ratified.

It also calls for the new administration to lead UN efforts on nuclear proliferation, climate change, and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), an ambitious set of targets adopted in 2000 that include increasing foreign aid from wealthy countries like the United States in order to, among other things, halve the proportion of poor people living on less than one dollar a day by 2015.

Among the signatories are three former National Security Advisors – Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Samuel Berger – as well as four former Democratic cabinet officers, including former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, and former defense secretaries Harold Brown and William Perry. The full statement will be published in a full-page ad in the New York Times Thursday.

"The next president has a unique opportunity to revitalize the US-UN relationship as a symbol of America’s commitment to constructive international cooperation. This investment will pay off substantially by helping to enhance our standing internationally and strengthen our ability to keep America safe and strong," according to the statement, which was released Wednesday by the United Nations Foundation (UNF) and the Partnership for a Secure America (PSA).

The statement is broadly consistent with much of what Obama and his vice-presidential running-mate, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden, promised during the campaign. It is one of a number of similar bipartisan declarations and reports issued by individuals and organizations designed to influence the incoming administration as it prepares to take power Jan. 20.

In this case, the signatories span the spectrum from Republican realists and moderates, such as Scowcroft, who served under former Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush; Ronald Reagan’s former deputy secretary of state, John Whitehead; and several prominent former senators, such as Warren Rudman, Howard Baker, Nancy Kassebaum Baker, John Danforth, and Alan Simpson; to liberal internationalist Democrats, such as Christopher and Albright, former Sen. and UNF president Timothy Wirth; and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group with former Secretary of State James Baker and has long headed the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Also signing were a number of senior former career foreign service officers, including three former UN ambassadors; Gen. Anthony Zinni, who served as head of the US Central Command under Clinton; and former World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

Washington’s relationship with the United Nations has been troubled for much of the past decade dating back to Reagan administration in the 1980s.

When Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, they approved legislation – including unilateral cuts in US dues and its contributions to peacekeeping – that hobbled the world body’s ability to deal with crisis situations. It also cut, and in some cases eliminated, funding to certain UN agencies that offer social and development assistance to poor countries.

While the Bush administration had a much easier time gaining Congressional approval for paying UN dues and peacekeeping costs, it pressed strict austerity on the UN secretariat and did not disguise its distrust – and even hostility, as most bluntly expressed during the controversial two-year tenure of Amb. John Bolton – of multilateral institutions in general, particularly treaties, such as the Kyoto Protocol to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, and even the Geneva Conventions that, in its view, constrained Washington’s freedom of action.

"The purpose of this statement is to make sure that the UN is among the first tier of issues tackled by this administration, because it’s essential to all of the issues that the US must put back on the agenda," Nancy Soderberg, a signatory and a senior official at the US mission at the UN in the latter part of the Clinton administration, told IPS.

The statement released Wednesday calls for the new administration to take nine steps to redress the recent record, beginning with the issuance of "an early and visible statement on the United Nations that expresses American commitment to international cooperation through the UN"

In an implicit rebuke to Bolton’s tenure at the UN, when Washington was seen as obstructing major reforms, it urges the administration to play a "constructive role in UN reform efforts and updating the UN’s management and budgetary systems" and calls for Washington to "pay our debts on time, work to remove Congressional caps, and alter the schedule of US payments so that we are in a position to honor our treaty obligations."

The US is currently in some 150 million dollars in arrears on its regular UN dues and more than 800 million dollars behind in its contributions to international peacekeeping operations, an amount that could rise to nearly 1.4 billion unless the US makes up a 538-million-dollar shortfall for 2009. The US also pays its dues at the end of the year, rather than at the beginning as most member-states do, making it difficult for the UN to plan.

The statement urges Washington to join the Geneva-based HRC, an agency that has been singled out for scorn by Bolton and other hawks in and outside the Bush administration, since it replaced the UN Human Rights Commission in 2006 due to the presence there of governments accused of serious human rights abuses. Like its western allies, the statement said Washington should "work to influence [the HRC] from within."

"The HRC has drawn a tremendous amount of fire, and the fact that you’ve got all these people coming together and saying that the best way to effect change in the institution is to have a seat at the table is very powerful," said PSA director Matthew Rojansky, who helped draft the statement.

The statement did not single out those treaties that Obama should ask the Senate to ratify, although Rojansky noted that the long-pending UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Law of the Sea Treaty, which was backed by Bush, all commanded strong support and are likely to be acted on most quickly. Other pending treaties, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is supported by Obama, and the Rome Protocol, on which he is not taken a firm position, are likely to prove more controversial.

"These steps are all things the administration can do pretty much early on, and I think they’re very much inclined to do them," said Soderberg. "Having been through a presidential transition myself [in 1992-93], I know you get a little bit overwhelmed with all the priorities you have to deal with. These obviously won’t all happen in the first 100 days, but it’s important to send a strong signal of support now."

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Jim Lobe

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.