Obama Administration Cites Progress at the U.N., Slams Republican Critics

By Patrick Goodenough | September 8, 2011 | 5:59pm EDT

Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer addresses the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 14, 2009, the day the U.S. took its seat on the body for the first time. (U.N. Photo by Gilles Sereni)

(CNSNews.com) – As President Obama prepares to attend the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly opening in two weeks, a senior administration official has defended its engagement with the world body, criticizing a Republican initiative that would curtail U.S. funding of the U.N.

“This administration has strengthened our national security and restored U.S. global influence by engaging multilaterally,” Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer said in a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C.

“Yet there are still some here in Washington intent on forcing a U.S. retreat from global leadership, by hindering our participation in the U.N. system, seemingly unaware of the profoundly altered global landscape.”

Brimmer described as “backwards” GOP calls to withhold funding to the U.N. – “given the impact doing so would have on U.S. influence and leadership across the U.N. system.”

Introducing the U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act last week, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said its goal was to end “the era of no-strings-attached contributions” to the U.N.

The bill seeks to change the way the U.N. is funded, to allow the U.S. and other member states to fund only those agencies and activities they consider to be necessary and well run.

The U.S. pays 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular operating budget and 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget, along with billions of dollars more for various U.N. agencies. The total U.S. contribution in FY 2010 was $7.69 billion.

“Making U.N. funding voluntary will give the U.S. control over how our contributions are spent at the U.N.,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Otherwise, U.S. taxpayer dollars will keep being spent on the bad, the ugly, and the indefensible, and there will continue to be no incentive for the U.N. to reform.”

In her USIP speech, Brimmer said the U.S. has for too long “played games with our U.N. assessments, paying them when we wanted to and withholding them whenever we felt doing so was somehow justified. It undermined U.S. credibility, and hurt our ability to get things done at the UN.”

“But all this has changed,” she continued. “President Obama’s decision to pay our U.N. assessments in full has given us greater influence with allies, partners, and others, and helped us achieve both our policy goals at the U.N. as well as much-needed management reform and budget discipline.”

Brimmer said the administration’s engagement has advanced U.S. interests in a number of areas, from the international response to the civil war in Libya to what she called a “dramatic improvement” in the workings of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The Bush administration shunned the Geneva-based HRC after its establishment in 2006, and said later its decision to do so was clearly proven correct by the council’s subsequent conduct, particularly the presence of some of the world’s most egregious right-abusing governments, and its repeated targeting of Israel.

Reversing the Bush policy, Obama joined the HRC in 2009, a decision Brimmer argued had brought significant progress.

“In just two years, the HRC has gone from an institution that too often was incapable of addressing real human rights crises – yet was very capable at unfairly focusing disproportionately on Israel – to a more serious body, repeatedly responding to pressing human rights situations in real time, with concrete action and a unified voice.”

She listed several HRC achievements, including its appointment last March of a “special rapporteur” on the human rights situation in Iran. (The measure passed by a vote of 22-7, with China, Cuba, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ecuador and Mauritania voting against. Crucially, a bloc of Islamic states led by Saudi Arabia abstained.)

Brimmer also pointed to the holding of emergency “special sessions” on the crisis in Syria and “major successes” in preventing Syria and Iran from joining the HRC.

(Iran withdrew its HRC candidacy shortly before the 2010 election, but as a consolation Asian countries approved its membership in the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, with neither the U.S. nor any country objecting.)

President Obama and U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon at the G8 summit in Deauville, France on May 27, 2011. (UN Photo by David Ohana)

‘In the real world’

Brimmer conceded that problems still persist at the HRC, citing the existence of a permanent agenda item reserved for Israel – and no equivalent for any other country – and the fact that “regional groups still sometimes select countries to represent their regions on the Human Rights Council that trample those very rights they should uphold and promote.”

She did not mention countries by name, but HRC members include China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, all listed by democracy watchdog Freedom House last June among the world’s worst human rights abusers.

Brimmer attributed the “radical transformation” of the HRC to U.S. leadership, while suggesting that critics of the Obama approach were out of touch with “real world” 21st century realities.

The progress was achieved, she said, “not by walking away and criticizing from afar; not by marching in and demanding that other states choose between our way or the highway.”

“In the real world, that is not how diplomacy works. In the real world, if you want to achieve your diplomatic goals, you need to approach your international partners with a certain seriousness and commitment.”

Ros-Lehtinen’s bill calls for an end to U.S. funding for, and membership in, the HRC until it includes no member that is subject to Security Council sanctions, under Security Council-mandated human rights investigation, is a state-sponsor of terrorism, or is designated a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations. China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba are current HRC members that fall into those categories.

Brimmer slammed those who she said were now proposing that the U.S. “pull down the flag and go home, leave the Human Rights Council to the human rights abusers.”

“This approach would restrict U.S. engagement at the U.N. and with the world,” she said. “It is not in the U.S. interest.”

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