What should the United States do with the United Nations?

What should the United States do with the United Nations?

The United Nations cannot be disciplined just by cutting budgets, and there is (marginally) more to be lost by withdrawing than by staying in. While the United Nations is an ugly beast, we are married to it. But we can discipline its behaviour using the cleansing light of public criticism and, where necessary, condemnation. This is what missions to the United Nations ought to be doing; preparing media campaigns listing individual faults and condemning individuals, departments and actions for failing to live up to the standards the state expects of the UN. The media will do the rest. This is how the United States engages with, to reform, the United Nations.

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By Matthew Parish

The USA has always has a difficult relationship with the United Nations, despite the institution’s predecessor having been invented by an American. The League of Nations was the idea of US President Woodrow Wilson, although the United States never joined the institution. The League of Nations, located in Geneva, was dominated by the British Empire. There are two principal differences between the UN and the League. Firstly, a majority of votes is needed in the UN Security Council, including no P5 vetoes. In the League, the Security Council needed unanimity. Secondly, the UN’s headquarters are in New York. The United Nations has expanded its budget massively compared to the League, and with it staff numbers and areas of operation.

The United States, together with its ally the United Kingdom, has always been by far the largest contributor to the UN’s budget. Of the 193 UN member states, these two nations contribute some 34% of the annual budget of the United Nations. Notwithstanding, US influence over the United Nations is not as much as one might think. The US has a power of veto in the UN Security Council. But so do four other nations. The US is routinely outvoted in the UN General Assembly and (until it quit the institution) the UN Human Rights Council. The United Nations often makes statements critical of America’s domestic policy, most recently on immigration. And for what benefit to the USA?

The United States is not much interested in undertaking combat or peacekeeping operations under the UN umbrella. Nor does it wish to spend its development budget through the United Nations: it uses USAID, a bilateral agency, for that. The US does not contribute much to UNHCR, that by tradition is run by a European. The United States is persistently disappointed by the stream of criticism emerging from the UN against its strong ally Israel. Where the US does seek to act multilaterally, it prefers to operate through associations like “contact groups” of selected relevant states for a particular crisis. The natural question therefore arises as to why the United States pay so much into an organisation from which it receives almost no dividend. More fundamentally, should the United States seek to reform the United Nations, to do something useful with it? If so, then can it reform it; if so then how; and in what realistic direction can it push it? Or should the United States just withdraw?

Let us begin by contemplating the notion of US withdrawal from the United Nations. Aside from the anodyne point that the UN treaty framework generally does not make provision for states to leave it (that would surely not otherwise deter a decision by the USA to withdraw), the United Nations is admittedly a powerful microphone. US withdrawal would not decrease the number of public statements made in the UN context that are offensive to the United States. The US maintains considerable influence in the UN system, because its extensive network of bilateral political, diplomatic and commercial relationships with other states gives America formidable lobbying power. The US can persuade other countries to vote with them, or at least not to speak against them.

The work of the UN Security Council is arguably valuable. The Council provides a forum for the P5 to discuss and seek to reach consensus upon international security policy crises. There is no real reason for the USA to withdraw from such a forum, since it is difficult to put together diplomats representing the P5 powers on short notice – with the exception of the UN Security Council.

Moreover the USA is uniquely privileged by virtue of the fact that the UK always votes with the US on the Security Council (except periodically on issues relating to the conflict between Israel an the Palestinians), and therefore the USA effectively wields two vetoes. One might ask what the value is of two vetoes; and the answer is that in exercising its veto and more generally very rarely is the USA isolated on the UN Security Council. As a piece of pure multilateral diplomacy, it is hard to imagine the United States able to conceive an institution structure in which its position could be stronger.

That is not true, by contrast, of some UN specialised agencies. UNESCO may be one of the most pertinent recent examples. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation is based in Paris. Its principal mandate is to classify historical and cultural sites as worthy of preservation, and it sends out missions to make the requisite evaluations. If their teams are treated well, then the site may receive UNESCO classification and potentially some limited UN grant funding. The problem with this mandate is that after a number of years, UNESCO discovered it had run out of colourable sites to classify; therefore to continue performance of its principal mandate it needed to find ever more imaginative destinations to investigate.

Politics soon get involved. Under the one member state, one vote simple majority system applicable to UNESCO’s governing council, UNESCO decided to admit the State of Palestine – a little controversial, because Palestine is not a state by the conventional measures of such things in international law. That way, UNESCO could start certifying sites in the State of Palestine, and everyone would be happy. Everyone, that is, except Israel and the United States, who took the position that a UN satellite agency should not be pre-empting the outcome of final status negotiations in what is perhaps the world’s most intractable civil conflict. They quit.

This did not really seem to deter UNESCO from continuing to operate. No wealthy countries care about UNESCO certification and that includes the US and Israel. Other states will fill in the funding gap left by the United States. Contributions to UNESCO’s budget are modest in the grand scheme of UN things. UNESCO is left looking absurd and discredited. They plough on notwithstanding. UNESCO staff may console themselves that the US and Israel will be forced eventually to rejoin. But that will probably take two things, neither of which is likely to happen relatively quickly: a Democrat in the White House, and an amicable resolution to the Israel / Palestinians conflict.

Hence this is one model for the United States to deal with errant branches of the United Nations: withdraw, discredit them, then ignore them; and leave someone else to pay. If states want to waste time and money acting multilaterally in ways that are not particularly effective or valuable, then there is no reason why everyone has to participate just because the letter “UN” are involved in the name of the agency. If the United States considers that UNESCO does not serve its national interests, it should withdraw. The only remaining questions are (a) why the US did not do this years ago; and (bIy the every other member state does not withdraw too.

I do not know the answers to these questions. I do not believe that voters in western democracies are influenced in their decision-making by membership of the state of their nationality in UNESCO or the activities on UNESCO, and hence we might imagine that UNESCO membership is electorally irrelevant for a state that accordingly has no reason to be a member of it. True, UNESCO may issue grants to domestic cultural heritage organisations in UN donor democracies, to secure lobbying for continued membership and financing of UNESCO. But that is lobbying at its lowest, because it does not represent a genuine constituency. It is just taking member states’ money to give it back to member states’ NGO’s to have them lobby for an organisation with no obvious purpose. If member states fall for such a trick, then they should not. A functional democracy ought to call out such an act.

The decision on the part of the United States to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was a more finely-balanced judgment call. The Human Rights Council is a committee of member states that vote, by simple majority, to open human rights investigations into anything they want in any corner of the world. These Investigations are typically led by a Special Rapporteur who is guided by the staff of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner chairs the Human Rights Council when it meets quarterly in Geneva. The member states of the Human Rights Council are selected, also by simple majority vote, by the UN General Assembly. Therefore the Human Rights Council acts as a rotating subcommittee of the UN General Assembly, creating numerical alliances of member states who open investigations either of mutual convenience, or mutual inconvenience, to other alliances of member states. There is a tit-for-tat quality to the issues investigated by the UN human rights architecture, resulting in the most incredibly obscure human rights issues being investigated.

On the other hand, none of these investigations, or the periodically incendiary and absurd speeches of Council member states’ Ambassadors attacking one-another (the Human Rights Council may involve such bizarre affairs as the Venezuelan or Iranian Ambassadors criticising the US domestic human rights record), are a priori particularly important. They are substantially less important than the annual UN General Assembly meeting of world leaders making miscellaneous more or less credible speeches about their visions of world affairs. And that doesn’t matter at all.

The Human Rights Council attracts a number of journalists. That is principally because it permits the attendance of NGO’s, who lobby journalists to report upon the speech of a diplomat that fits their lobbying goals. But the Human Rights Council gets relatively little publicity in the broader international public consciousness. Because journalists are present, a lot of absurd things are said by different diplomats seeking a rare opportunity to please their foreign ministers by making a statement in a public forum.

The Human Rights Council is a farce. But it is basically an unimportant farce. It should be important, but it will need heavy reform before it can become so. At the current time it is a source of low-grade hostile diplomatic publicity, either in Ambassadors saying something offensive (for example, against Israel) or an offensive investigation being initiated. But this may be one of those instances in which the best way of combatting offensive actions in the Human Rights Council is to deconstruct them – in the Human Rights Council. There is so much wrong with the way the Human Rights Council works that it is very easy to condemn the things it does. ¨

The Council’s voting methods make its resolutions obviously biased. Ambassadors’ statements are obviously nonsense in many cases. The members of the Human Rights Council are obvious human rights abusers. The work of the Special Rapporteurs is often obviously bad. Their reports are unreadable. Nobody has any illusions about this.

Can the Council be reformed? Now outside it, the United States can encourage an increase in professionalism, through targeted budget reductions to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and through media statements. The United States should not reduce its UN budget contributions en bloc. It is not merely (or even mostly) a matter of money. There is so much fat in the United Nations that the organisation can always find a way to absorb budget cuts.

Or, as it has done in the past, the United Nations can just wait until the United States changes its mind about budget cuts (usually upon a change in the White House or the next time the United States wants something from the UN), and all back-payments are found. In the interim, the UN can borrow – even from its own bank / investment vehicles for UN staff pension funds. The United Nations is not sufficiently expensive, even for its two biggest donors, that curbing UN funding is really that important to anybody.

Instead the way you do UN reform via the tool of budget cuts is to make small, focused budget cuts to specific agencies with which you are unhappy, and accompany the announcement of a budget cut with reams of publicity criticising what that agency has done. Or if you really want to apply extended pressure, you phase your budget cuts over time, each budget cut being trivial but accompanied by a barrage of new criticisms and condemnation.

UN officials are paralysed by public criticism, particularly where it is focused upon specific individuals and departments. If the United States wants to reform the UN’s human rights architecture, it would look at its budget contributions towards the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Then it should divide those contributions by twelve, and cut one tranche each months, together with a press release containing a raft of criticisms of the UN’s human rights regime. It doesn’t matter if you are just cutting a few tens of thousands of dollars every month. You have an open microphone for a year’s worth of heavy attacks upon the organisation. You apply discipline in this way.

Reform of the UN human rights architecture is through use of media and public relations. The UN human rights architecture uses media platforms to exert its influence. The key to its reform is to use media platforms against the institution itself. Focused public criticism of an organisation whose principal sin is biased and unjustified criticism of others, from the United States – what one British historian has called “the noisy nation” for its exceptional skill in capturing international media narratives – will sure be highly effective.

The United Nations cannot be disciplined just by cutting budgets, and there is (marginally) more to be lost by withdrawing than by staying in. While the United Nations is an ugly beast, we are married to it. But we can discipline its behaviour using the cleansing light of public criticism and, where necessary, condemnation. This is what missions to the United Nations ought to be doing; preparing media campaigns listing individual faults and condemning individuals, departments and actions for failing to live up to the standards the state expects of the UN. The media will do the rest. This is how the United States engages with, to reform, the United Nations.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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