Deputy Secretary-General calls for stepped-up US engagement with UN

6 June 2006

The United Nations Deputy Secretary-General today called for greater United States engagement with the UN, warning that Washington cannot “go it alone” in approaching diverse problems ranging from the threat of bird flu to the situation in violence-wracked Darfur, Sudan, while the world body needs its host country’s leadership to tackle these pressing challenges.

In an address on ‘Power and Superpower’ delivered in New York, Mark Malloch Brown warned that “a moment of truth is coming” since the world’s challenges are growing but the UN’s ability to respond is being weakened without US leadership.

He cited the issue of human rights, noting that former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had championed the issue. By contrast, “Today, when the human rights machinery was renewed with the formation of a Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, and the US chose to stay on the sidelines, the loss was everybody’s.” Washington had called a vote on the proposal, and was joined by only three other countries in opposition, with 170 supporting the measure’s passage.

Mr. Malloch Brown praised those US officials who have supported the UN and played leadership roles, but noted that “in recent years, the enormously divisive issue of Iraq and the big stick of financial withholding have come to define an unhappy marriage.”

While the US is constructively engaged with the UN – on issues such as Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and the Middle East, “that is not well known or understood, in part because much of the public discourse that reaches the US heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors” in the media.

“Exacerbating matters is the widely held perception, even among many US allies, that the US tends to hold on to maximalist positions when it could be finding middle ground,” he added, citing the proposed renovation of the dilapidated UN Headquarters in New York. “While an architectural landmark, the building falls dangerously short of city codes, lacks sprinklers, is filled with asbestos and is in most respects the most hazardous workplace in town. But the only government not fully supporting the project is the US.”

The Deputy Secretary-General said that when the US does champion the “right issues like management reform,” Washington provokes more suspicion than support. He recalled how last December, largely at US insistence, instead of a normal two-year budget, Member States approved only six months’ worth of expenditure.

In the current climate, “even relatively modest proposals that in any other organization would be seen as uncontroversial, such as providing more authority and flexibility for the Secretary-General to shift posts and resources to organizational priorities without having to get direct approval from Member States, have been fiercely resisted by the G77, the main group of developing countries, on the grounds that this weakens accountability,” Mr. Malloch Brown noted, referring to the “Group of 77” caucus.

He cited the prevailing “perception among many otherwise quite moderate countries that anything the US supports must have a secret agenda aimed at either subordinating multilateral processes to Washington’s ends or weakening the institutions, and therefore, put crudely, should be opposed.”

Another factor in play is “a real, understandable hostility by the wider membership to the perception that the Security Council, in particular the five permanent members, is seeking a role in areas not formally within its remit, such as management issues or human rights.” In addition, he cited “an equally understandable conviction that those five, veto-wielding permanent members who happen to be the victors in a war fought 60 years ago, cannot be seen as representative of today’s world” even in financial terms.

The so-called G-4 of Security Council aspirants – Japan, India, Brazil and Germany – contribute twice as much as the P-4, the four permanent members excluding the US.

“The US – like every nation, strong and weak alike – is today beset by problems that defy national, inside-the-border solutions: climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, migration, the management of the global economy, the internationalization of drugs and crime, the spread of diseases such as HIV and avian flu,” the Deputy Secretary-General said. “Security has gone global, and no country can afford to neglect the global institutions needed to manage it.”

For the UN, it starts with politicians who will assert that Washington is going to engage with the world to tackle cross-border issues. This, he noted, will require “inside the tent diplomacy at the UN. No more take it or leave it, red-line demands thrown in without debate and engagement.”

To illustrate this point, he noted that President Bush wants to do more to respond to the situation in Darfur, and questioned the ability of the US to act on its own. “What can the US do alone in the heart of Africa, in a region the size of France?” he asked, adding: “A place where the government in Khartoum is convinced the US wants to extend the hegemony it is thought to have asserted in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The US, he stressed, needs the UN as a multilateral means to address Sudan’s concerns. “It needs the UN to secure a wide multicultural array of troop and humanitarian partners. It needs the UN to provide the international legitimacy that Iraq has again proved is an indispensable component to success on the ground.”

The dependence, he added, is mutual. “The UN needs its first parent, the US, every bit as much if it is to deploy credibly in one of the world’s nastiest neighbourhoods.”