Experts say U.S. must renew role in international organizations

Not only must the U.S. be present, or “seated” at the UN “table”, it must be “standing” and leading reforms and upholding the values enshrined in the UN Charter, say witnesses at a U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing Tuesday on “the United States Standing in International Organizations”.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and witnesses discussed the role and responsibility of the U.S. in shaping international organizations as well as how the U.S. can serve its interests – and those of its potential allies – by supporting global economic development, advocating for human rights and democratic values, and joining UN Conventions, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and Convention on Persons with Disabilities (2007), among a host of others. They also discussed how the U.S. could strengthen its own diplomatic and development capabilities.

Witnesses included The Honorable Maria Otero, Former Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights; Mr. Jordie Hannum, Executive Director of Better World Campaign; Ms. Gay J. McDougall, Senior Fellow and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Fordham University School of Law; Mr. Hugh Dugan, Former Senior Director for International Organization Affairs at the National Security Council.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, joined by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, meet with bipartisan members of the House to discuss infrastructure Thursday, March 4, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz) 
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, joined by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, meet with bipartisan members of the House to discuss infrastructure Thursday, March 4, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

The subcommittee hearing – its second ever – comes as the U.S. prepares to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). In 2018, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, in announcing the U.S.’ withdrawal from the UN body lambasted what they perceived as its failure to safeguard human rights, hold violators accountable, and implement reforms.

Although Mr. Dugan praised Ambassador Haley for calling out structural failures at the UN, the Biden administration’s thinking – similar to Obama’s – is that the U.S. can be more effective at advocating reforms by working within organizations including UNHRC.

A major obstacle to reform, however, are the countries, China and Russia especially, which were not only content to see the U.S. abdicating its place at the helm of the so-called liberal, international rules-based system, but also took measures to strengthen their influence within those institutions. Other countries have used lax enforcement as cover for their human rights violations and foot-dragging on reforms.

In most cases – and whatever its intentions – China has cultivated its influence at the UN by “playing hard” and “by the rules”; it now heads 4 specialized UN agencies including the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), while the U.S., Britain, and France combined head the same number. There are a total of 14 leadership positions open this year at the UN. Also occurring this year is the appointment of a new UN Secretary-General.  

A lack of presence at the leadership level is not the only personnel issue the U.S. has. There is also concern about the competence – the knowledge, skills, and abilities – of U.S. delegations and U.S. citizen presence in the UN secretariat. The U.S. needs to rejuvenate its “talent bench for international politics” so that it can better perform in international organizations; its role shouldn’t be to “just take down adversaries” but instead advance common objectives through working with other countries. This requires greater standing of international organizations in Washington. U.S. diplomacy could also be made more effective if its personnel better “represents the diversity” of the U.S., said Ms. McDougall.

Some argue that the U.S. should have made its rejoining the WHO and its $200 million in financing contingent on the organization’s commitment to reforms (Mr. Hannum says there is an ongoing independent study on reform). Mr. Dugan suggests that the WHO’s failures to denounce Chinese suppression of information and to effectively investigate the source of Covid-19 has called into question its ability to serve this purpose; furthermore, these are evidence of the WHO’s capture by China. In general, China is accused of the “manipulation of those principals” in the UN Charter. There is, however, “no appetite for an alternative” to the WHO, which the U.S. continues to see as “vital”.

Regardless of missed opportunities at the WHO or UN Security Council, the witnesses agreed that a successful U.S. approach to international organizations involves a combination of speaking, coalition building, and funding. On the first point, there is consensus that the Biden administration has been sending the right messages concerning its reengagement at the multilateral level. Coalition building is viewed not just as a “force-multiplier” but also as the U.S.’ greatest strength. Finally, funding is particularly important both because the U.S. provides a quarter “of the regular and peacekeeping budgets” of the UN system and a show of U.S. commitment could mobilize other countries to pay their dues (the U.S. owes $1 billion to UN peacekeeping programs).  

But how to organize funding, through what organizations, and for what purposes? Beyond using U.S. tax-dollars to support development finance institutions and other programs, the U.S. could do more to tap global capital markets; this, it is thought, would relieve some of the financial burden – and negate the need for a U.S. ‘$1 trillion plan’ – of addressing peacekeeping and humanitarian needs as well as combatting Chinese economic and political influence, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. There is concern of Chinese ownership of foreign assets that were initially lauded as development projects and using some of these assets for espionage. China is also accused of using economic coercion to gain political support at the multilateral level.

The U.S., according to the witnesses, should focus on private investment and creating suitable conditions for U.S. businesses overseas. Ms. Otero explained how business owners in low-income countries often lack access to capital in part due to a lack of collateral. International finance institutions must then be able to meet the high demand for capital while covering the cost of lending, she said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks to employees at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain] 
Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks to employees at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]

Beyond economic development and at times competition, the U.S. has the responsibility to speak to racial “equality” not just for Black people in the U.S. but around the world; it must do the same for indigenous people, women, and others; it should also “constantly question if the UN is fit for that responsibility” and “be honest about failures to address human rights at home,” said Ms. McDougall who serves on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) at the UN. The UNHRC, in a session on police violence and systemic racism last June passed a resolution that Ms. McDougall believes “could have gone further” with U.S. support. 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the Durban (South Africa) World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance; this presents an opportunity for the U.S. “to engage fully and vigorously” in this area.

One concrete measure the U.S. can take is to reinstate funding for UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which as the UN’s “sexual and reproductive health agency” promotes reproductive health for women and girls; prevents child marriage, genital mutilation, and gender-based violence, among other roles. “Cutting resources directly affects how women live especially in the poorest parts of the world,” said Ms. Otero, citing declines in maternal health, lack of access to healthcare, and ability for women to be educated and “participate fully in their societies”. The Sahel region, in particular Niger, was cited as a priority area. More women should be included in more UN peacekeeping efforts because they have been found to better connect with and assess the needs of local communities after violence. Mr. Hannum said “we have two decades of data that shows” that when women are included in peacekeeping, this “saves lives and shortens conflicts”.

The Subcommittee on International Development, International Organizations and Global Corporate Social Impact previously held a hearing on the status of international development a year into the Covid-19 pandemic.

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