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Public Statements

The United States and the United Nations

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I rise to discuss the United Nations General Assembly. Today, as President Bush prepares to speak before the United Nations General Assembly, we are reminded both of the great potential of American leadership to enhance global security and prosperity and, tragically, of how much ground we have lost in recent years in fulfilling that potential. That ground can only be regained with new, bold, and visionary American leadership that acknowledges past mistakes, embodies and embraces change, and unifies our country to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

America has surmounted far greater hurdles before, renewing itself and leading the world towards shared security and common progress. That is the story of the founding of the United Nations. Its original architect, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, died weeks before the U.N.'s inaugural meeting in San Francisco. Roosevelt never had the opportunity to address the U.N. General Assembly, but his legacy speaks volumes. As American power reached new heights and Allied forces swept across Europe and the Pacific islands to free the world from tyranny, Roosevelt laid the foundations for a new era of collective security by creating a new institution that aimed to guarantee the peace and protect the basic rights of all human beings.

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. In the decades that followed, the United States led and listened, gained by being generous, and ultimately prevailed in the struggle with totalitarianism.

Today, it is fashionable in some circles to bash the United Nations. This is all too easy to do, but it is also short-sighted and self-defeating. The United Nations is, we should recall, an American creation. It is also a commonsense vehicle to share global burdens and costs. Despite its evident flaws and failings, the U.N. remains essential to advancing U.S. interests, enhancing global security, spurring development, and providing food, medicine, and life-saving assistance to the world's most needy every day.

The U.N.'s work in development addresses the dire needs of 1 billion people living in extreme poverty. It is the U.N., funded in part by the generosity of America's taxpayers, that prepares and monitors elections in more than 30 countries and assists fragile new democracies. It is the U.N., funded in part by the generosity of America's taxpayers, that feeds the famished and shelters 20 million refugees fleeing conflict and natural disaster. It is the U.N., funded in part by the generosity of America's taxpayers, that has convened the world's leaders on the urgent issue of climate change. It is the U.N., funded in part by the generosity of America's taxpayers, that strengthens global health and has helped reduce child mortality to its lowest level in history.

Today, the U.N. has more peacekeepers than ever--over 100,000--deployed in 18 missions around the world. Only a small handful are Americans. Since September 11, 2001, more than 700 men and women have lost their lives serving on U.N. peace operations to protect fragile post-conflict transitions in the Great Lakes region of Africa, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Haiti, Sudan, and elsewhere. We should not forget that one of the first terrorist attacks in Iraq targeted the U.N. compound in August of 2003 and resulted in the murder of 22 people, including U.N. Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

No country has a greater stake in a strong United Nations than the United States. That is why it is particularly painful when the U.N. falls short not only of its potential but also of the principles expressed in the U.N. Charter. All too often, member states use U.N. processes as a means to avoid action rather than a means to solve problems. In recent years, U.N. member states have failed to act swiftly or decisively to end the genocide in Darfur.

The Human Rights Council has passed nine resolutions condemning Israel, a democracy with higher standards of human rights than its accusers, but none condemning any other country. The Council has dropped investigations into Belarus and Cuba for political reasons, and its method of reporting on human rights allows the Council's members to shield themselves from scrutiny. The oil-for-food scandal revealed the extent of corruption in the institution and the extent of member states' willingness to tolerate it. Although U.N. operations are often greeted as legitimate, their inefficiencies or misdeeds can turn local people against them.

Progress and renewal will come from reform, not neglect. In the 1940s, the international community with American leadership created the United Nations to meet the needs of their times, but its leaders well understood that time would not stand still. Today, we face a world that is dramatically different than that of 1945. Decisionmaking procedures designed for a world of some 50 nations must now accommodate almost 200. Some of the old rules are harmless. The General Assembly meets when it does because this was when the steamships used to arrive in New York harbors. But some of the procurement and hiring rules have slowed and encumbered multifaceted peace operations that depend on nimbleness and efficiency for success.

Most of the gravest threats faced by the United States are transnational threats: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, climate change, and global pandemics like HIV/AIDS. These threats are bred in places marked by other transnational challenges: mass atrocities and genocide, weak and failed states, and persistent poverty. By definition, these are challenges that no single country can manage. America's national security depends as never before upon the will and capacity of other states to deal with their own problems and to take responsibility for tackling global problems. A strong and competent United Nations is more vital than ever to building global peace, security, and prosperity.

The United States must champion reform so the United Nations can help us meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The United Nations must step up to the challenge posed by countries developing illicit nuclear programs. The largest test of our resolve on this grave matter is in Iran, where leaders appear resolved to ignore their responsibilities to the international community. The United Nations must send a clear message to Tehran that if Iran verifiably ends its nuclear program and support for terrorism, it can join the community of nations. If it does not, it will face tougher sanctions and deeper isolation. To this end, all U.N. sanctions against Iran must be fully enforced in order to ensure their effectiveness in pressuring Iran to halt its illicit nuclear program, which has all the hallmarks of an attempt to acquire nuclear weapons.

Governments willing to brutalize their own people on a massive scale cannot escape sanction by the international community. The U.N., joined by the United States, has endorsed the responsibility to protect--the right and responsibility of the international community to act if states do not protect their own people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. But, there is a huge gap between words and deeds. Governments must replace their willingness to talk about the abstract ``responsibility to protect'' with an actual willingness to exercise that responsibility. And they should start in Darfur.

The United States should seek to reform the U.N. Human Rights Council and help set it right. If the Council is to be made effective and credible, governments must make it such. We need our voice to be heard loud and clear, and we need to shine a light on the world's most repressive regimes, end the Council's unfair obsession with Israel, and improve human rights policies around the globe.

We need ambassadors to the U.N. who will represent all of America, not an ideological fringe, who will forge coalitions with others, not isolate America, and who will work tirelessly to strengthen the U.N.'s capacity, not revel in weakening it.

The U.S. needs to lead the effort to reform and streamline the U.N.'s bureaucracy, increase efficiency and root out corruption. Managing urgent and high-stakes transnational challenges will be difficult under the best of circumstances. Just as we must demand professionalism, rigor, and accountability from officials in our own government, we must not ask less of those who serve the global good.

Congress needs to support the U.N. with the resources it deserves and abide by the commitments we have made. The Bush administration's record on the payment of dues is uneven, which has depleted the U.N.'s capabilities and sent a signal that this administration does not respect its purpose or its promise. We must guarantee full and prompt payment of our U.N. dues. At the same time, the U.N. and its member states have to uphold their end of the bargain. Too often, we have seen resources wasted or spent to protect parochial interests. It is time to ensure that the U.N.'s money is well spent.

We should not merely react to crises once they occur. By working through the U.N., as well as other multilateral agencies and private organizations, the United States can do more to prevent mass violence from occurring in the first place. Combining effective diplomacy and economic assistance or, when necessary, sanctions can help forestall crises that undermine regional and international security.

The U.N. is ultimately an instrument of its member states. Its future is in our hands. Let us provide bold and effective leadership to reinvigorate it so it finally achieves the potential that Roosevelt envisioned and on which our common security and common humanity depend.


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