UNITED NATIONS (IPS)—Ed Koch, a former New York city Mayor (1978-89), stopped short of using a four-letter word to denounce the United Nations. Instead, he opted for a five-letter word dismissing the UN as a “sewer” relegating it to the lower depths of degradation. In a bygone era, some of the most vociferous rightwing, conservative [...]

Sunday Times 2

After vilifying the UN, US returns to the world body


UNITED NATIONS (IPS)—Ed Koch, a former New York city Mayor (1978-89), stopped short of using a four-letter word to denounce the United Nations.

Instead, he opted for a five-letter word dismissing the UN as a “sewer” relegating it to the lower depths of degradation.

In a bygone era, some of the most vociferous rightwing, conservative US politicians never ceased to denounce the world body primarily because of a rash of UN resolutions condemning Israel for human rights violations in occupied Palestinian territories or for resolutions mis-perceived as anti-American.

The late Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican chairman of the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, once said “providing funds to the UN was like pouring money into a rat hole.”

When the 193-member UN General Assembly elected some of the world’s “repressive regimes” as members of the Human Rights Commission (later the Human Rights Council), Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (Republican of California) hollered: “The inmates have taken over the asylum. And I don’t plan to give the lunatics any more American tax dollars to play with.”

Former President Donald Trump not only decried multilateralism and challenged the effectiveness of the world body but also dismissed it as “a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”

Trump pulled out of two historic international agreements:  the Paris climate change agreement and the nuclear deal with Iran.

But things have dramatically changed since he was ousted from the White House— and the US is gradually returning to the UN, whose primary home is New York, even though most of its agencies are based outside the US, including in Geneva, Rome, Vienna, Paris, Bonn and Nairobi.

The administration of President Joe Biden, which took over from the Trump administration about six months ago, has not only returned to multilateralism but also pledged to re-engage both with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organidation (UNESCO) in Paris.

Additionally, the US has agreed to restore funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), both of which suffered funding cuts under Trump.

Last April, the Biden’s administration said it plans to provide $235 million to Palestinians, restoring part of the assistance cut by Trump. Two-thirds will go to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which has suffered a financial crisis since it lost $360 million of US funding in 2018.

In 2016, UNFPA received $69 million in funding from the US. And in July 2019, UNFPA expressed concerns over US withholding funds for the third consecutive year. The Biden administration is expected to restore the cuts.

Penny Abeywardena, Commissioner for International Affairs at the Office of the New York city Mayor Bill de Blasio, welcomed the move by the United Nations to gradually return to near-normal after a 16-month pandemic lockdown.

She said, “The UN General Assembly has for decades been a staple of Fall in New York and as Host City to the UN, we have always been proud to welcome the international community who gather here”.

Kul Gautam, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, told IPS the whole world, including the United Nations, breathed a sigh of relief at the advent of the Joe Biden administration in the US, following four years of the erratic and unpredictable Donald Trump presidency.

Mirroring Trump’s “America First” bravado, his senior diplomatic team, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Niki Haley showed little regard or diplomatic finesse in dealing with the complex issues high on the UN’s agenda, he pointed out.

Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton had so little respect for the UN that as the US Ambassador to the UN, he had once proclaimed that if the UN Secretariat building in New York “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference,” said Gautam, a former deputy executive director of the UN children’s agency UNICEF.

Similarly, his Trump-era successor Niki Haley told a Republican National Convention that the “UN was a place where dictators, murderers and thieves denounce America, and demand that we pay their bills.”

In contrast to the Trump-era narrative of the UN being a largely bureaucratic and profligate anti-American organisation, dominated by China and Third World countries, the Biden administration quickly proclaimed that “America was back” at the UN and would provide constructive leadership and support a multilateral approach to solving the world’s most pressing issues from COVID-19 to climate change.

Not only is Joe Biden himself a seasoned statesman in international affairs, but his senior aides, including Secretary of State Tony Blinken, UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Special Envoy John Kerry are all consummate diplomats who believe in multilateralism, Gautam noted.

Mandeep S. Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations, told IPS the United States played a key role in establishing the UN Charter who’s opening words, ‘We the Peoples’, mirror the opening words of the US Constitution.

Eleanor Roosevelt stewarded the drafting of what is arguably the UN’s finest achievement – adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Trump administration’s disdain for the UN devalued these historical achievements. Traditionally, the United States has been a supporter of rights and democratic values at the UN as core pillars of its foreign policy, said Tiwana.

The Biden administration’s commitment to re-engage at the UN is being welcomed by many in civil society working to challenge discrimination and oppression. It’s a step in the right direction for people-centered multilateralism which lies at the core of the UN’s founding.

“The administration has an opportunity not just to repair the damage of the Trump years but to demonstrate commitment to laying the ground work for the ambitious advancement of justice, equality and sustainability for future generations,” he declared.

Gautam said that while Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was severely constrained from taking some bold initiatives during his first term due to fear of the veto-wielding and chest-thumping Trump administration’s non-cooperation, he should, in his second term, feel more empowered to act more decisively to push for the kind of bold vision he outlined in July 2020 in his Nelson Mandela Lecture: “Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era”.

The ball is now in Guterres’ and his senior management team’s court to harness the potential of the Biden administration’s goodwill to assert the UN’s proactive role to help tackle the most pressing global challenges of our times, said Gautam, author “Global Citizen from Gulmi: My Journey from the Hills of Nepal to the Halls of the United Nations’’ (Nepalaya Publications 2018).

(Thalif Deen, Senior Editor and Director at the UN Bureau of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, is the author of a newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment -– and Don’t Quote Me on That.” Peppered with scores of anecdotes-– from the serious to the hilarious-– the book is available on Amazon worldwide and at Vijitha Yapa Book Shop.  The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/)


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