Reforms Needed for a More Effective United Nations: A Memo to President-elect Obama
[I]t is important that we don't provide veto power to the
United Nations or anyone else in acting in our
--Barack Obama, second presidential debate, October 7, 2008
[T]he UN is an indispensable and imperfect forum. [Susan
Rice] will carry the message that our commitment to multi-lateral
action must be coupled with a commitment to reform. We need the
United Nations to be more effective as a venue for collective
action against terror and proliferation....
--Barack Obama, remarks announcing national security team,
December 1, 2008
President-elect Obama, while we may disagree with your view that
the United Nations is "indispensable," we do agree that it is
imperfect and in need of substantial reform. We also believe that,
as President, you should never give the U.N. a veto over American
action to protect American national interests.
The U.N. suffers from confused purposes, competing interests,
and lopsided burden-sharing. It has shown itself to be unreliable
in addressing threats to international peace and security, such as
Iran and North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, and in helping to
establish vibrant democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has
displayed an unhealthy interest in intervening in member states'
domestic policies in such areas as economic regulation and legal
rulings. It has been uneven and unfair as an arbiter of human
rights. And it has proven to be susceptible to corruption,
mismanagement, and abuse with distressing frequency.
It is time to rethink and reshape our engagement with the United
Nations so that it better serves both U.S. interests and the
organization's own stated purposes. Your statements indicate that
you understand this.
We especially agree that the U.N. needs to be reformed. Noble
intentions do not excuse its many failings. It has proven
ineffective in bringing lasting peace and security in many places
around the world where the Security Council has sent U.N.
peacekeepers or where the U.N. has facilitated peace negotiations.
Countries continue to wallow in poverty not because of a paucity of
U.S. support for the U.N., but because of their own poor
governance, corruption, and anti-market economic policies. The
record of abuse, corruption, and mismanagement in U.N. institutions
charged with delivering food, medicine, and other humanitarian
assistance is unacceptable. Acknowledging these failings provides a
much-needed reality check between what the U.N. claims to do and
what is actually being accomplished. The unintended consequences of
failing to deal with the U.N. realistically lead to greater
insecurity, poverty, and oppression.
As you have said, "The United States must champion reform so the
United Nations can help us meet the challenges of the 21st
century." But reforming the U.N. is not enough. The
United States must continue to lead the international community in
working through the U.N. when it can be effective, but it must also
lead in establishing alternative mechanisms, coalitions,
partnerships, alliances, and organizations when the U.N. proves to
To help make the reform that is desperately needed to ensure the
U.N.'s effectiveness a reality, you and your Administration
- Use America's financial leverage to focus the U.N. on
key activities; trim outdated mandates and unnecessary expenses;
and improve transparency, management, and accountability.
In a July 2008 speech, you said, "It's time to reform the United
Nations, so that this imperfect institution can become a more
perfect forum to share burdens, strengthen our leverage, and
promote our values." Regrettably, however, there is considerable
confusion about the form that such reform should take.
Some countries see reform primarily as expansion of the U.N.
Security Council on the premise that it no longer reflects the
modern world, but any increase in membership would only exacerbate
the council's tendency toward paralysis and inaction. For an
Administration seeking to work closely with the U.N., expansion of
the Security Council should be anathema.
Other countries see reform as expanding the U.N.'s power and
authority by granting it regulatory authority over global issues
like climate change and international financial transactions. But
the well-publicized scandals involving the Iraq Oil-for-Food
program, abuses by U.N. peacekeepers, recent revelations of
corruption in U.N. procurement, and the U.N. Development Program's
violation of its own rules and regulations in North Korea are
evidence of deep-seated problems that must be addressed before the
organization is given additional resources or authority.
The unfortunate reality is that most member states are not
interested in dealing with the U.N.'s waste, inefficiency,
mismanagement, lack of accountability, or opacity. The General
Assembly agreed in the 2005 Outcome Document to adopt a number of
reforms; but despite voluminous reports and proposals by former
Secretary General Kofi Annan and current Secretary General Ban
Ki-moon, it has failed to fully implement or enforce such measures
as a review of U.N. mandates, enhanced oversight, and outsourcing
to reduce costs. In budget discussions this past fall, a number of
member states refused to continue to maintain the U.N. Procurement
Task Force (PTF) as an independent investigatory entity, despite
its success in uncovering hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud,
waste, and mismanagement. Russia recently sought to prevent PTF staff
from being transferred to the U.N.'s own investigatory unit, the
Office of Internal Oversight Services.
History shows that the U.S., with only one vote out of 192 at the
U.N., needs to use its financial leverage if it wishes to advance
U.N. reform. Last year, over objections by the United
States, the U.N. passed the largest budget increase in its History
while simultaneously failing to adopt key reforms, thereby breaking
a 20-year tradition of consensus-based decisions on the budget. The
decision to overrule the U.S.--which is by far the largest
contributor to the U.N. regular budget--was met with a standing
ovation by the other member states. Lacking a financial incentive,
other nations felt little need to heed U.S. concerns on the
U.S. interests are best advanced when policy decisions are based
on a realistic appraisal of what works effectively and what does
not. A number of U.N. technical agencies and specialized bodies and
activities are effective and serve U.S. interests. They should be
preserved. Others are hindered by policies, practices, and mandates
that squander effort and resources. They should be reformed and
refocused on their core missions. Finally, some parts or activities
of the U.N. serve little practical function or are unable to
fulfill their mandates and should be eliminated.
In other words, seeking to make the U.N. more effective and
accountable requires that the U.S. focus its influence where it can
be most effective and acknowledge where its efforts will be futile.
A prime example is presented by the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC)
and, more broadly, the U.N. human rights system. Some specific
recommendations in this area include:
- Do not join the Human Rights Council until vitally
needed reforms have been implemented. The HRC replaced the
discredited Commission on Human Rights (CHR) in 2006. While a
strong proponent of replacing the commission, the U.S. voted
against the resolution creating the council because it feared that
the HRC lacked the safeguards needed to make it an improvement over
the CHR. During its short History, the HRC has proven worse than
the old commission. It disproportionately focuses its criticism on
Israel, has ignored rampant human rights abuses in places like
China and Zimbabwe, and has supported resolutions calling for
constraints on freedom of speech and expression to avoid
"defamation of religion."
There remains a slim hope that the Human Rights Council could
right itself through a mandatory General Assembly review by 2011.
You should seek to address the HRC's flaws in that review but
eschew any formal association such as seeking a seat on the council
until its flaws are addressed. Engaging with the Human Rights
Council before these reforms have been implemented will only give
it undeserved legitimacy.
- Boycott the upcoming Durban II Conference.
Within the first months of your Administration, you will have to
decide whether to participate in the Durban Review Conference
(Durban II), a follow-up to the U.N. World Conference Against
Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance
that was held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001--a conference that
devolved into a platform for anti-Israel and anti-America rhetoric.
To its credit, the Bush Administration steadfastly refused to
attend preparatory meetings on Durban II and voted against U.N.
resolutions supporting and funding the conference.
Both Canada and Israel have announced that they will not attend
Durban II since all available information indicates that it will
likely be a repeat of the 2001 disaster. You should follow the
example set by Canada and Israel and boycott Durban II.
- Encourage the creation of a new Liberty Forum for Human
Rights as an alternative to the existing U.N. human rights
system. As you have observed, "Stalin's obstruction
created stalemate in the United Nations, but the United States was
not deterred. American presidents created new institutions, like
NATO, and encouraged others, including the European Economic
Community, to advance the principles and mandate of the U.N.
Charter." We agree with you that international
cooperation is critically important to U.S. interests, but we
should not let the U.N. constrain our efforts to bring peace and
prosperity to more people. The U.S. must continue to demand reform
of existing organizations to improve their effectiveness and, as we
have in the past, be willing to explore new options should these
existing organizations continue their History of failure.
The U.N. human rights system is so complex and politicized that
making a clear assessment of specific human rights situations is
practically impossible. A mentality of moral equivalence pervades
the system to the point that exemplary states such as Sweden are
dutifully considered on par with genocidal states such as Sudan;
i.e., neither state is perfect, and both need to improve. This
false moral equivalence is driven by political motivations,
including an obsessive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian problem to
the neglect of other grave human rights situations. The system is
focused on claiming ever more tenuous norms and asserting new
"rights." This may serve the purposes of international diplomats
and human rights professionals, but it falls far short for those
around the world who have been deprived of their dignity and
The U.S. and other countries interested in promoting fundamental
human rights should not tolerate institutionalized mediocrity or
ineffectiveness. Given the U.N.'s checkered record in this area,
the U.S. should explore and take the first steps toward
establishing alternative means for promoting fundamental human
rights. One such alternative should be a new and more transparent
forum of freedom-loving countries. We believe that a new "Liberty
Forum for Human Rights" would offer such countries a proper venue
to discuss these issues and increase understanding of the very
critical linkages among freedom, good governance, and the rule of
law; human rights and security; economic and political freedoms;
and the role of the free, democratic, sovereign state in upholding
liberty, justice, and equality before the law.
Such a body should be structured to avoid the inherent flaws and
key impediments of the U.N. system. Specifically, membership should
include only states that actually observe basic human rights. By
helping its members to transcend restraints that are imposed by the
U.N.'s regional and bloc voting, the forum would encourage a better
focus on fundamental civil and political rights. Membership would
not be perpetual. Members that abuse their citizens should lose
their membership--a formula that would ensure people that their
governments will be held accountable at the Liberty Forum.
Nations that have not yet achieved the highest standards of human
rights should not be wholly excluded, however, because such a
policy would discourage nations that have the best of intentions
but have unresolved and intractable problems. Therefore, nations
that can establish a commitment to human rights should be permitted
to participate as observers until they meet the criteria for full
Like the U.N. human rights system, the new Liberty Forum would
engage in activities aimed solely at promoting the universal
enjoyment of human rights. Unlike the U.N. system, however, it
would focus on fundamental civil and political rights (universal
suffrage, equal rights under the law, free speech, a free press,
and the right to assemble peacefully) and the most egregious human
rights issues (genocide, ethnic cleansing, arbitrary execution, war
crimes, human trafficking, and torture) rather than the multitude
of social, cultural, and economic "rights" that divert attention
and resources in the U.N. system from these critical issues.
Members of the Liberty Forum would be in a better position to
coordinate collective actions such as joint sanctions for gross and
systematic human rights violations and policies that promote
protection of civil and political rights through technical and
other assistance. They should also consider issuing joint
statements to draw attention to best practices and progress, as
well as abuses. Such actions are often hindered or completely
blocked within the U.N. system due to its universal membership.
Given that elected representative government is in many ways the
keystone of civil and political rights, the body should also offer
electoral assistance, observers, and judgments on the freedom and
fairness of elections of its members and other nations. The Liberty
Forum should not shy away from "naming and shaming" the world's
worst human rights abusers.
A body willing to confront nations about their violation or abuse
of fundamental human rights will naturally draw the interest,
participation, and respect of human rights non-governmental
organizations and nations committed to preserving fundamental human
rights for their citizens and promoting those rights elsewhere. The
ultimate goal would not be to replace the U.N. human rights system,
but to establish a credible body that takes concrete actions to
protect fundamental human rights that the U.N. has not
However, the contrast with the U.N. system will be stark, and
nations will likely move away from it as the Liberty Forum's
prestige rises. You and your Administration should enlist countries
that share our values to join with you in commencing this new forum
and developing it into a dynamic global platform for championing
freedom and human rights around the world.
Today's international system is struggling. Too many
international organizations formed in the aftermath of World War II
are either no longer serving the purposes for which they were
intended or struggling with competing interests. They frustrate
more often than aid efforts by the U.S. and its allies to advance
freedom in the world and--as you have said--require "constant
management and revision" if they are to be worthwhile.
The time has come for a new strategic framework that includes
reform of existing organizations and creation of better
alternatives. It is now up to you to lead in the creation of
organizations and alliances that will not only serve U.S.
interests, but also uphold our values and unite all of the nations
that share them.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International
Regulatory Affairs and Steven Groves is Bernard and Barbara Lomas
Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
Show references in this report
U.N. Department of Public Information, "Fifth Committee Recommends
2008-2009 Budget of $4.17 Billion, as It Concludes Work for Main
Part of Current Session: Financing for Darfur Hybrid Mission,
International Tribunals, Administration of Justice Among Issues
Addressed by Wide Range of Texts," General Assembly Document
GA/AB/3835, December 21, 2007, at http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2007/gaab3835.doc.htm (January
Obama, "The United States and the United Nations."
Kim R. Holmes, Liberty's Best Hope: American Leadership for the
21st Century (Washington, D.C.: TheHeritage Foundation,
2008), p. 122.