A new administration and the UN.

Author:Schlesinger, Stephen
 
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Among the innumerable issues the Obama administration in Washington will have to deal with--very rapidly--is the question of how to engage with the globe's most important security organization, the United Nations. As a much-maligned body under the Bush Administration, the UN has only recently come back into the American public purview as the go-to outfit for security matters. Even Bush himself, following his Iraq imboglio, regularly returned to the UN for help. Nonetheless, it seems that this is an appropriate time to take a fresh look at how new leadership in the White House might think about reconnecting with the UN in the coming years--both to help restore American leadership around the world and to reinvigorate this institution as the globe's foremost peacemaking enterprise. Here is an agenda for our new president in dealing with the world's premier governing body.

The first serious gesture toward the United Nations would be for President Obama to travel to New York City in the first few weeks of his tenure and deliver an address at the UN informing the world community that America is back and ready to re-engage with all member-states. As part of that endeavor, the president has already taken the commendable step of naming his trusted campaign national security advisor, Susan Rice, as American envoy to the organization, while returning the position to the Cabinet-level status it held during the Clinton years.

At the same time, the Obama administration must proclaim its support for the continuation of the UN reform movement. Spurred on by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in 2005, the UN enacted a number of important changes to modernize the institution and get rid of archaic rules, and most important, to confront the new twenty-first century perils of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and failed states.

A Catalog of Reforms

Two crucial new ventures, the Democracy Fund and the Peacebuilding Commission, were established to help fragile states coming out of conflict, or nations on the verge of falling apart, to obtain direct help from the international community in order to rebuild their societies and set in place democratic governance. So far the Democracy Fund is beginning to have some useful impact, but the Peacebuilding Commission is still attempting to find its way. Member nations, including the United States, should now make sure these crucial reforms work.

The UN is expressly forbidden by its Charter from intruding in the domestic affairs of its member-states. But a new provision, the so-called "responsibility to protect" provision, would allow the Security Council to intervene when a country is committing genocide against its own people. This has been regarded as a real breakthrough for the UN. But, in practice, it has so far not been used in conflicts like Darfur, Somalia, or other disputes. Why? Because usually one of the five permanent members of the council vetoes such action. So, for the time being, the political will is lacking to employ this power. Washington needs to refocus much of its diplomatic skills on making this provision operational.

Another priority should be the Human Rights Council, which was designed to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission that had fallen into the hands of states which themselves were human rights abusers. Unfortunately, though, the new council has its own share of retrograde members and, when it has acted, it has aimed most of its condemnations at a single country--Israel, thereby sidestepping censures of a host of other flagrant violators of human rights. This has to be remedied and should be near the top of the agenda of the new Obama administration. One of the Council's glaring weaknesses is that the United States refuses to join. If Washington were to enlist in this new body, it might be able to help get the Human Rights Council back on track. But it...

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