Every year at this time, the State Department is in a particularly frenzied state, preparing for the annual spectacle that we lovingly refer to as UNGA – the UN General Assembly. For many of us who have ridden the UNGA roller coaster over the years, that acronym possesses a gratifying guttural quality – there’s a heavy dose of UGH in every UNGA. This year’s dose is complemented by the U.S. presidency of the Security Council for the month of September. A 2fer for us!
It’s true that every new General Assembly brings with it dozens of world leaders, as well as innumerable events, speeches, protests, media outlets, and traffic snarls. The atmosphere can at times seem more carnival than colloquium.
Also every year at this time, the State Department endeavors to illuminate in advance U.S. priorities for the new General Assembly, and I’m pleased to be assuming that task today. I do so in the confident knowledge that the United Nations remains crucial to many of our national interests, and that in spite of its carnival-like aspects, this annual gathering of UN member states can be concretely useful in advancing those interests.
I’ll speak a bit today about what I mean by that utility, and how the United States translates its goals and objectives at the General Assembly into tools, actions, and results. I’ll describe briefly how actions at the Security Council have real impact, and how inaction at the Security Council can have real implications. Because at the end of the day, the United Nations must be more than the sum of its parts: it must be the system that provides function to the collective aspirations of the world community. There simply is no other alternative.
First, though, a few words on the overarching objectives that will frame much of the work we undertake over the next few words. As in previous years, we approach each new General Assembly in the context under which the Assembly was established nearly 70 years ago: to foster a more peaceful world, and to promote development and human rights. In these categories fall the broadest range of issues you can imagine, from Ukraine to Syria to Afghanistan to nonproliferation to human rights to climate change. All of those issues and many, many more are present on this year’s UNGA agenda.
In addition to the peace and development themes, however, the United States approaches the new General Assembly with another enduring priority, to continue working for a more effective, efficient UN system. In this area – which really colors all of our work throughout the UN system – we will be unrelenting in our push for improved UN budget discipline and management reform to ensure that the UN is able to meet the demands posed by today’s global challenges, and do so accountably, transparently, and responsibly.
So, look, this is a challenging time for the United States and its partners on the world stage, and I think that might be understating the matter, to say the least. It’s hard to imagine a time of so many divergent challenges confronting the international community. We have the security and humanitarian situations in Syria and Iraq, and the serious threat posed by the terrorist group known as ISIL, which I will touch on in some more detail.
We have a conflict in Ukraine that poses a threat to European security. We have an acute regional health emergency in West Africa. The situation in Gaza remains a key concern. And these are just headline stuff. There also are a significant number of other issues that demand what the President refers to as collective action.
One obvious example: Climate Change. At this year’s UNGA, climate change will receive priority attention. High-level events will include a meeting of the Major Economies Forum to focus on Energy and Climate, and the Secretary General’s Climate Summit, which will feature discussion of concrete new actions to address the very real implications of climate change. President Obama and Secretary will speak at both. Secretary Kerry will also be reinforcing his own determined commitment to protecting the world’s oceans in a high-level event next week, which follows the very successful Oceans Conference he hosted here in Washington in June.
My point here is that the annual frenzy that defines the UNGA high-level period often can conceal opportunities and real action on issues important to the United States and, of course, to the other UN member states. Only rarely is it possible to have all the right people in the right place to make strides on difficult issues. UNGA can be such a place. Just last year at UNGA, for example, constructive action was achieved on the challenge of Syria’s chemical weapons, and negotiations related to Iran’s nuclear program.
Many of you will recall that as my colleagues and I were heading to New York for the start of the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, the conflict in Syria was reaching new dimensions, with recent evidence that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on its own people. Russia and China had blocked Security Council action on Syria, but because the moment was right and the key players were all at hand at UNGA, a certain intangible momentum took hold, and the Council successfully adopted Resolution 2118, obligating the Syrian regime to take immediate action toward eliminating its chemical weapons.
Those weapons were subsequently identified and destroyed in what is a case study in the utility of collective action. We found a way to use the Security Council in spite of previous political failures; we had a competent technical organization ready to assume this difficult task, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and we had a coalition of nations, led by the United States, ready to provide the necessary means of destroying these weapons.
And, on Iran – opportunities at UNGA last year have led to significant action in addressing Iran’s nuclear efforts. Expect more this year. Pretty dramatic: calls by the President, world leaders negotiating around the UN Security Council table, Russians coming on board – it could have been a made for TV movie.
And so while much of UNGA is dedicated to broad conversations on global themes, much work is done on a more discrete basis, in bilateral conversations, in impromptu meetings, and sometimes in quite unanticipated directions. And when it happens, the results can be significant.
I thought I would continue by summarizing a bit further what will be among the key themes and activities during this year’s high-level week, and I hope to leave ample time to hear your thoughts and questions.
Tomorrow, I will be joining Secretary Kerry in New York when he chairs a session of the UN Security Council to demonstrate broad and unified international support for the new Iraqi Government, and to emphasize the need for serious political inclusivity as the new government pursues its agenda on behalf of the Iraqi people.
The Council session will provide a platform for the international community to underscore its support for Iraq’s new government as it fights ISIL. In recent days, the Secretary has been traveling extensively to issue what he has termed a “wake-up call” to world leaders on the threat posed by ISIL, and build a coalition of nations to address that threat. As tomorrow’s session will show, these efforts have had growing success and a global coalition is coming together.
We’ll see more next Wednesday when President Obama chairs a Security Council Summit to focus high-level international attention and action on the growing and dangerous related phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters.
Although the problem of terrorists traveling to foreign conflicts is not new, the threat recently has become grave, with an unprecedented flow of fighters and facilitation networks fueling multiple conflicts worldwide, such as in the Horn of Africa, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. These terrorist fighters not only exacerbate existing conflicts, but also often return to threaten terrorist attacks on the homefront.
As I said earlier, these are some of the headlines. But there will also be other events of importance to U.S. priorities. Next week for example will feature the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, which will strive to strengthen protections for indigenous cultural heritage and advance progress toward the goals of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In additional we’ll be discussing the post-2015 Development Agenda, the set of goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals at the end of next year, and set the world’s development agenda for the next fifteen years or more. Heady stuff. Important stuff.
Peacekeeping will also be a major focus as we look to peacekeepers to carry out increasingly complicated and dangerous tasks around the globe. That aim was central to the Secretary General’s decision to launch a comprehensive strategic review of UN peacekeeping. And reinforce our own view that we need to work to improve UN peacekeeping mission logistics, planning, and force generation capabilities; to expand the pool of troop and police contributors; and to enhance the ability of peacekeepers to protect civilians, including from sexual and gender-based violence. The U.S. pays over $2billion a year in support of UN peacekeeping mission around the world – we’ve added two over the last year in Mali and CAR. We want to get them right.
These are just a few of the big ticket issues that will be under discussion during high-level week in New York. We can certainly discuss others, which include addressing gender-based violence in conflict settings, cementing progress made on the human rights of LGBT persons, country-specific events on Libya, South Sudan, DPRK, CAR and much more.
You may also be aware that tomorrow the Secretary will be making remarks at USAID’s Frontiers in Development Forum, where he is expected to elaborate his vision for American leadership on development issues, including the importance of the evolving post-2015 Development Agenda.
Finally, and as usual, world events shape UNGA in ways we could not predict even a few months ago. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa will of course be the feature of several high-level events at UNGA, and there is much happening now that will determine the agendas and outcomes of those events.
On Tuesday, the President spoke at the Centers for Disease Control, where he detailed our efforts to partner with the United Nations and other countries to help the Governments of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal respond to the outbreak just as we fortify U.S. defenses here at home. The President laid out four goals associated with this effort:
- control the epidemic at its source in West Africa;
- mitigate second-order impacts, including blunting the economic, social, and political tolls in the region;
- engage and coordinate with a broader global audience; and
- ortify global health security infrastructure in the region and beyond.
This effort, which includes assets from the Department of Defense, CDC, USAID, and other USG agencies, is built upon a crucial partnership with the World Health Organization and other international organizations that help coordinate and manage crises of this nature. In many ways, this is a unique international challenge, and only through maximum collaboration and communication can we ensure the greatest and most beneficial impact.
I’ve been all over the map I know, but that underscores the role of the UN in so many diverse and critical areas. And, I hope that gives you just a quick sense of some of the key events and activities that will constitute this year’s UNGA experience. It’s a little like spring break for foreign policy types – it’s non-stop action, just a little out of control, and guaranteed to leave you sleep-deprived and ready to go home. But another truth about UNGA is that it doesn’t end when all the heads of state depart and the high-level summits are concluded – the work, the initiatives, the collaboration, they are all just beginning.
This is a particular apt moment in time when we should pause to recognize that over the last 70 years, we have built an amazing – though admittedly flawed – international system designed to advance our human aspirations and respond to our human needs.
The UN and its agencies and organizations did not evolve from lesser entities, the nations of the world created them for specific purposes. While we member states may not value equally all the organizations in question, times such as these remind us of the utility of the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, UNICEF, and even those less known, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization. As many have said, if the United Nations did not exist, we would need to invent.
That utility requires investment by member states, and we all understand that the United States provides very significant support to the UN system. We do so because this system advances our interests and values, and because we accept that collective action on global issues offers the best path on a host of global issues. At the same time, we recognize that this varied and expansive bureaucracy is imperfect.
As we work to strengthen UN peacekeeping, UN capacity to respond to health crises, or advance access to quality education to all corners of the globe, we are determined to see improvements across the UN system in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, transparency and management reform. It is in this context that we support efforts such as the Secretary General’s peacekeeping review, efforts across the UN system to constrain staff costs, and elimination of redundant responsibilities. Vocal and active U.S. leadership on these issues is making a difference, but that leadership must be sustained, best practices amplified, and failures illuminated. In times of extraordinary challenges, business as usual is really not an option. We have to be tough because we expect so much from the UN.
So, criticisms aside – this is actually quite a remarkable time to be a UN watcher, and I encourage you to pay particular attention to this year’s UNGA. I have no doubt that the next week or two will feature some surprises, perhaps new ground will be broken on recurring issues. What will people be talking about after the summits and speeches have concluded? What event at UNGA will be best remembered at this time next year? I won’t offer a prediction here, but I will be very surprised if we aren’t all surprised in some manner, and that’s really what makes UNGA UNGA.