SPEECH: Obama Official Speaks on International Law and the United Nations

International Law and the United Nations

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs

Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Washington, DC

March 2, 2010

Date: 03/02/2010 Description: Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer at speaking engagement in Chicago. - State Dept ImageI want to thank David Hiller and Dr. Rachel Bronson for that wonderful introduction. I am honored to be here to participate and open the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Spring 2010 Chicago and the World Forum Series.

I want to thank the Chairman of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Lester Crown, the Council’s President Marshall Bouton and its Executive Director Thomas Wright for this extraordinary opportunity. Marshall and Tom are old friends and I am fortunate to have worked closely with them on numerous occasions. I am also heartened to see so many friends and colleagues here today.

It is a real pleasure to be in Chicago and at the Council, whose stature; reputation and reach go far beyond Michigan Avenue, the shores of Lake Michigan and the Midwest region, influencing global audiences and advocating greater international cooperation and the resolution of 21st century problems.

As has been the case since its founding in 1922, the Council’s leadership and expertise, through conferences, task forces and other initiatives, with the participation of public figures and elected officials, including then Senator Barack Obama in 2007, civic and commercial leaders and international scholars are essential to shaping the opinions and actions of policymakers across the country and beyond.

Decades later, it seems obvious to all of us, why we need the United Nations and why it exists. As Secretary Clinton said last May, “If we didn’t have the United Nations, we would have to invent one.” However we know that when the 23 founders of the Chicago Council of Global Affairs met for the first time in Chicago in the early 1920’s, the UN, the multilateral institutions and matrix of international organizations we take for granted — did not exist.

Surely the prescient founders of the Chicago Council in 1922, who were definitely progressive thinkers, ahead of their time, fully understood that the United States, “catapulted” onto the world stage after World War I, would be more successful and secure in cooperation with the international community, rather than in isolation. They also realized the urgent need for multilateralism, and an international forum to maintain peace and stability and resolve conflicts.

We all understand the disastrous results of isolationist policies, and understand the fundamental importance of strategic global engagement to the United States; which is as real today, as we address 21st Century challenges, as it was when the Chicago Council was founded. In fact, the challenges we face today are more complex, require more effective international cooperation, greater burden sharing and demand a global response to global challenges.

It is precisely a policy of broader deeper engagement — the implementation of smart power that President Obama and this Administration have pursued for the last year — that has renewed America’s global leadership and ushered in a new era of American engagement. Advocating a vision of a common security, on the basis of mutual respect, bolstered by investments in our common humanity, this President, along with Secretary Clinton, have advanced our security interests, and sought the “cooperative effort of the entire world.”

Over five months ago, President Obama spoke about the need for a “cooperative world effort” during the last UN General Assembly and about America re-engaging the United Nations. At the UN, the President, Secretary Clinton and the Administration have built new bridges, strengthened existing ties and have fully embraced the fact that the United States does not and cannot stand separate from the world, but rather is embedded in it – economically, politically, and culturally.

President Obama has affirmed America’s commitment to the United Nations as an indispensable, if imperfect, institution for advancing our security and well-being in the 21st century. We know that when we fully employ our unique ability to work multilaterally through the UN and other international organizations, it results in considerable benefits to the United States and the American people.

Ultimately, the President’s era of engagement rests upon the recognition that we must strengthen and employ the multilateral tools available to realize shared responsibility and a future of peace and prosperity. It is the decision to take these issues to the United Nations and other international organizations, to press multilateral institutions to fulfill their intended roles, that make real the President’s commitment.

In the UN Security Council, this Administration has sought to promote America’s core security interests.

The United States looks to the UN and in particular the Security Council to address problems of international peace and security and to advance one of the President’s top priorities: nuclear non-proliferation.

Early in his Administration, the President took the momentous decision to recommit America to the goal of a nuclear-free world. He determined that this goal cannot be reached in isolation; instead it must be achieved with the support and commitment of the international community.

To that end, President Obama, working through the UN Security Council–where he became the first U.S. President to chair a session of the Council, led efforts to pass Resolution 1887. The resolution called for concrete actions by all UN member states, not just the United States, to work toward a world without nuclear weapons, and endorsed a broad framework of actions to reduce global nuclear dangers.

In an effort to build greater international consensus, the President will hold a Nuclear Security Summit in April that will bring 44 nations together, in Washington, to advance our goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years, so that they never fall into the hands of terrorists.

The United States is engaged in a multi-faceted effort, including working diligently with the Russian government to complete a START follow-on treaty, seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the appropriate time, moving toward restarting negotiations on a verifiable Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, and preparing for this year’s Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

One only needs search the Web, read a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch television to know that the threat of proliferation is growing in scope and complexity.

This Administration knows that inaction is not an option. It is not, when we calculate the worse case scenarios, including nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists and attacks on an unimaginable scale or a global nuclear arms race.

While President Obama has advocated diplomacy, he also believes that to make the world more secure and safe, it is essential to hold governments accountable for their actions, especially when they fail to live up to their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and international obligations.

We are not breaking new ground today when we point to the Governments of North Korea and Iran, whose actions threaten to take us down a very dangerous slope. To ensure regional security and stability, and escalating dangers, these governments must be held accountable, treaties enforced and UN sanctions rigorously applied by Member States.

We are working in the Security Council to ensure that both Iran and North Korea meet their international obligations. Last June, following a provocative North Korean nuclear test, the United States negotiated a unanimous Security Council resolution 1874 that condemned the nuclear test and beefed up sanctions on North Korea. Our Ambassador at the UN Susan Rice noted that Security Council resolution 1874, imposed the “toughest array of sanctions on any country in the world today – including asset freezes, sweeping financial sanctions, complete embargo on arms exports, and an unprecedented set of obligations for the inspection of suspect vehicles.”

Actions do have consequences and Security Council Resolution 1874 has given the United States and the international community new arrows in the quiver to impair North Korea’s ability to proliferate and threaten international stability. The U.S. effort, led by the U.S. Coordinator for the Implementation of Resolution 1874, has also been robust and the worldwide effort to ensure implementation of UN sanctions on North Korea unprecedented. As a result of this effort, a number of high-profile sanctions violations have been uncovered by diligent countries. For example, last week the Government of South Africa notified the UN Security Council that it had seized a shipment of North Korean arms bound for the Republic of Congo in violation of UN resolution 1874.

Far from perfect, this Administration is looking to make UN Sanctions more effective across the system. As the President said during his Nobel speech, “Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure—and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.”

As a former academic, it is hard not to get in the weeds on the importance of the Security Council’s impact on U.S. national security interests.

We know that the Security Council is integral to America’s national security interests, specifically in the areas where we must work closely with the international community. Today we see the critical areas where the UN takes such actions – ranging from UN peacekeeping and non-proliferation, to nuclear disarmament and sanctions.

It bears mentioning that we see its greatness and its flaws. On issues such as Haiti, Afghanistan and countering piracy, the Administration understands the positive role of the UN and the Security Council to bring many voices together. We know that unanimous agreement is not always achievable at the Security Council; that not all nations on the Council share our view of what constitutes a threat to international peace and security. We have seen these moments over the past decade, for example, whether on Darfur or Zimbabwe or Burma. At times, grievances are exploited at the Security Council and serious problems are left unresolved. We know these problems exist, and no one should be under the impression that the United States, especially when there is a crisis that has an impact on our interests, will be anything but resolute.

As I said earlier, the United States looks to the UN and in particular the Security Council to help address problems of international peace and security. I want to raise a topic of critical importance to this Administration. The United States has joined with the UN and international community in sending an unequivocal message: sexual violence against women and children in conflict will not be tolerated and must be stopped.

In an historic session last September, Secretary Clinton chaired a Security Council session and helped lead the unanimous approval of a US-sponsored resolution to strengthen protection of civilians from sexual violence in conflict. She spoke from her personal experience visiting with the women and children of the Democratic Republic of Congo of the difficulties they face. The resolution championed practical ways to increase the focus on one of the most abhorrent features of modern war: the use of rape and sexual violence, as a weapon, against women and children. Further, it directed the Secretary-General to appoint the first-ever Special Representative to lead the effort in support of resolution 1888.

We know this is a difficult issue and we look forward to working hand in hand with the UN Secretary-General’s newly-appointed Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, in her efforts to lead, coordinate, and advocate for efforts to end conflict-related sexual violence against women and children and bring more attention and action on this critical issue.

The protection of civilians from sexual violence links to another priority area for the United States – the UN’s peacekeeping missions. Peace operations not only help shield civilian populations from violence, but they move fragile states toward a durable peace. In September President Obama said, “UN peacekeeping can deliver important results by protecting civilians, helping to rebuild security, and advancing peace around the world. From Sudan to Liberia to Haiti, peacekeeping operations are a cost-effective means for the United States and all nations to share the burden of promoting peace and security.”

As one of the Security Council’s greatest responsibilities, these peacekeeping missions are often the face of the UN worldwide, as blue-helmeted soldiers and civilian peacekeepers meet the call from the nations of the world for warring parties to end violence, engage in peaceful resolutions, and as necessary, protect civilians through the dispatch of peacekeepers.

Today, the UN has more than 100,000 peacekeepers deployed, including troops, police and civilians, participating in 15 different missions in such places as Haiti, Lebanon, Kosovo, Liberia, Kashmir, Timor-Leste, Afghanistan and Sudan. These peacekeepers, from 119 countries from across the globe, are working to end wars, prevent bloodshed — opening the possibility to renewed hope and security to millions of people, where it previously did not exist.

Today, however, peacekeeping missions are overstretched, under stress and lack key capacities or struggle to meet their mandates. The work is hard, but it is indispensible. Ask yourself what would be the consequences, the impact, the cost in terms of human lives and economic loss — if UN peacekeeping missions did not exist.

Peace operations has been identified by the President as a key security issue that merits enhanced and expanded attention on the UN and international stage.

The President has taken bold steps to invigorate the debate at the UN and in the Security Council regarding the next generation of UN peacekeeping. Last September, at the UN General Assembly, the President directly engaged leaders from top Troop-Contributing Countries including Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Italy, Jordan, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, Senegal and Uruguay to discuss means of strengthening peace operations and listen to their views on steps toward that end.

The Administration understands that it is not enough to support the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops; we must make certain that these missions have the proper resources, leadership, planning, and budget to accomplish our collective objectives.

Shifting gears for a moment, I want to turn our attention to a current crisis, Haiti. Not just because it has a critical UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSTAH, but because it offers a prime example of the President’s global vision: America’s global response to a global challenge.

Americans should be proud of this Administration’s immediate response to the crisis in Haiti, proud of the heroic aid workers, diplomats and service members who worked in coordination with the Haitian government, the United Nations, NGOs and aid organizations to help lead this international effort to address a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable scale and proportion. As I speak today, we are turning toward recovery — and critical aid is getting to the Haitian people — more today than yesterday, more tomorrow than today. For example, we are working closely with the Haitian government and the UN, to help provide shelter to protect Haitian families during the upcoming rainy season.

As the President expressed in an op-ed that appeared in Newsweek; shortly after the earthquake struck Haiti, our nation acted “for the sake of the Haitian people who have been stricken with a tragic history, even as they have shown great resilience; and we act because of the close ties that we have with a neighbor that is only a few hundred miles to the south. But above all, we act for a very simple reason: in times of tragedy, the United States of America steps forward and helps. That is who we are. That is what we do.”

Let me be clear – no one in the Administration is patting themselves on the back; we are reminded on a daily basis of the daily needs and the collective psychological trauma endured by the Haitian people who continue to suffer and mourn the loss of loved ones.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, we also recognize our long-term partnership with Haiti. Over the coming months and years, when international attention to the disaster in Haiti diminishes, the UN and Haiti’s partners, including the United States, will remain to help the Haitian people complete the painstaking work of reconstruction and rebuilding their nation.

As the U.S. mission in Haiti transitions, it is important to know that this transition is based on increasing capacity in Haiti, not an arbitrary timetable. As the U.S. military presence in Haiti redeploys, others, including the Government of Haiti, MINUSTAH and international aid organizations, will increase their capacity.

This is a long-term commitment, and if we are to realize the true meaning of community, we must all prepare to do what is necessary to help Haiti recover. That is why the United States, which has already committed significant resources to Haiti and will be a key participant in organizing the March 31 donors conference for Haiti, as President Obama said, “the United States will be there with the Haitian government and the United Nations every step of the way.

The last thing I want to discuss this evening is the Administration’s commitment to human rights. Believing that American interests are better served by being in the tent rather than outside, this Administration has acted to strengthen multilateral protections for human rights and human security from the inside.

If you piece together the intricate threads of engagement, the Administration’s commitment to protect human rights and uphold international law, its belief in universal standards, its pledge to lead by example, that are interwoven in President Obama’s speeches and policies and that of Secretary Clinton, a clear pattern emerges and is manifest in our decision to join the Human Rights Council last summer.

I know for some, this decision was hard to stomach. We know that the Human Rights Council has not lived up to the hopes that fueled its creation. This Administration’s decision, last year, was not taken lightly or hastily. We did not and do not underestimate the challenge of improving the performance of the Council.

Like the Human Rights Commission before it, the Council has at times diverged from the cause of human rights by political distractions, particularly its disproportionate focus on Israel. We know that political bias too often results in protection of the violator countries and leaves others, most notably Israel, open to repeated criticism. As a result, the United States until last year employed an arms-length approach to the Council.

So why did we change course with respect to our participation in the Council?

As I explained earlier, the President’s era of engagement rests upon the recognition that we must strengthen and employ the multilateral tools available. It also means that while we hold true to our principles in promoting our human rights agenda, stick to our guns, we need to be flexible and pragmatic in order to be successful.

In explaining why we rejoined the Human Rights Council in a speech at Georgetown University, Secretary Clinton said, “we have rejoined the Human Rights Council not because we don’t see its flaws, but because we think participating gives us the chance to be a constructive influence.”

We know the Council has plenty of warts, at the same time, we firmly believe that the Human Rights Council can, and indeed must, play its intended role as a balanced, credible, and effective forum for the advancement of human rights. The United States has an important, credible voice on these issues, and this Administration has dedicated itself to a comprehensive diplomatic effort to ensure that the Council realizes its mandate.

So, we have been on the Council since September, and it’s fair to ask for an assessment of successes or failures. This is particularly relevant given that the Council’s 13th regular session convened yesterday in Geneva.

Have we agreed with all the actions of the Council since our election? No, of course not. For example, there is still an anti-Israel bias at the Council. We knew at the beginning that strengthening the Council and addressing its weaknesses will be a long-term proposition, and that there will be setbacks as well as successes. Even with these obstacles, we are prepared to roll up our sleeves and get to work and take steps to make the Council more effective.

In addition to an enhanced diplomatic strategy we have launched a comprehensive effort to build new partnerships and strengthen dialogue which we hope will, over time, further improve the effectiveness of the Human Rights Council.

And we have seen successes even in our short time on the Council, our efforts last year in the Council paid dividends in the form of a consensus resolution, cosponsored by the United States and Egypt, affirming the fundamental, universal values of freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and freedom of the media. Ideally, this resolution could be a model for what we envision as a more effective, more responsive Human Rights Council.

We saw other achievements during our first session on the Council, including the strengthening of the mandate of the independent expert on Somalia, the continuation of important council work on Burundi and on Cambodia, a new resolution co-sponsored by the United States on the independence of judges, and more.

We also encountered some challenges, of course; chief among those was the Goldstone Report. As you may know this issue is still front and center, the United States, this Administration standing with Israel, voted, along with several nations, against another Goldstone resolution at the UN General Assembly last Friday.

Once again, we have been clear in our response to the Goldstone Report – the United States continues to have serious concerns about the report. As Secretary Clinton said last week during testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee; “We have stood very staunchly on the side of those who reject the underlying premises of this report.”

I’ve discussed at some length why we believe engagement on the Human Rights Council provides the best hope of redirecting it toward its intended purpose. We intend to lead by example. Later this year, the United States will make its own presentation as part of the Council’s Universal Periodic Review process – a process by which all UN member states are measured against their universal human rights obligations.

We will endeavor to make our review a model of transparency, openness, and coordination with civil society, and will be seeking input from a wide range of voices in our society, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs included, to ensure that the full range of views is reflected in our UPR presentation to the Council.

We are also taking steps to highlight the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran following their Presidential elections last June. During the Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Iran’s human rights record in February, my colleague Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner clearly articulated the U.S. position “strongly condemning the recent violent and unjust suppression of innocent Iranian citizens, which has resulted in detentions, injuries and deaths.”

I would also note very briefly that the Human Rights Council itself is slated for review in both Geneva and New York in 2011. Our views on the substance and the process for this review are evolving, but we are determined that it should be meaningful. That would entail bolstering those things the Council is doing well, addressing its reflexive and largely unhelpful consideration of Middle East issues, addressing international concerns regarding discrimination, and reinforcing the Council’s intended role as the dedicated multilateral forum for the defense of universal human rights.

Before concluding my remarks, I want to highlight some additional Administration priorities at the March Council session.

First, the Administration takes seriously the concerns of some states regarding combating discrimination on the basis of race and religion. At the same time, we are deeply troubled by efforts to impose a global ban on defamation, the equivalent to an international blasphemy law. It is a priority of this Administration, at the Council, to find a consensus based approach to address racial and religious intolerance – however we will not support efforts at the Council that would protect minorities from offense by restricting free speech. We are committed to a respectful, inclusive approach that speaks to real concerns of discrimination and intolerance, but leads to an acceptable path where governments can take concrete action to make progress and promote mutual respect.

Second, we are committed to pushing the Council to deal effectively with country situations. We are exploring potential support for a resolution on the human rights situation in Guinea, seeking to renew and strengthen the special procedures mandate for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and renew the Country Specific mandates for North Korea and Burma. These efforts are aimed to reverse a troubling trend whereby prior to the U.S.’s joining, the Council had been in retreat on its country-specific work.

Third, we will seek to achieve a constructive and depoliticized outcome in Geneva on the Goldstone Report, advancing our long-term goal of normalizing Israel’s position at the Council and within the UN System more broadly.

Secretary Clinton in December said, “Throughout history and in our own time, there have been those who violently deny the truth. Our mission is to embrace it, to work for lasting peace through a principled human rights agenda, and a practical strategy to implement it.”

Over the past year, this Administration has employed, not only a “principled human rights agenda” and a “practical strategy,” but an effective strategy to address core U.S. national security imperatives, an effective strategy that has reestablished American leadership, where we lead by example and in the process address our own shortcomings. This effective strategy has resulted in new and stronger coalitions, greater global burden sharing, insuring that that the infrastructure for international cooperation is not only able to withstand the stress and complexity of 21st Century challenges, but thrive.

I will end there, I would welcome the opportunity to hear your views and answer any questions. Thank you very much.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s