In Speech to a Challenged UN, Three Tasks for Obama

By Michelle Brown
The General Assembly observes a moment of silence during its opening session on Tuesday. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

As the 67th General Assembly opens this week, and as the United Nations gears up for the countless high-level meetings and side events that follow, the enormity of the challenges facing the UN is striking.

The world remains unable to end the terrible bloodshed in Syria, and the escalation of violence there is eating away at regional stability. While there has been some progress toward reaching agreement between Sudan and South Sudan on oil, the scale of the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Blue Nile and South Kordofan continues to shock the world. Fighting in northern Mali between insurgents and government forces also continues, exacerbating a severe food crisis in the region and overwhelming the vulnerable communities now hosting refugees. Since April, an additional 1.5 million Congolese have been displaced by fighting between the government and Rwandan-backed rebels. And then there’s Rakhine State in Burma, Somalia, and Yemen.

In short, this year has seen worsening humanitarian crises in the world, with the UN – and the United States – struggling to address them. President Barack Obama, who will address the General Assembly on Tuesday, is a strong believer in the UN, and each of his three previous speeches to the General Assembly has underscored the importance of the UN in making the world a safer and more secure place. So this year, in the face of terrible bloodshed and human suffering, what more should the president say?

Humanitarian Assistance: Given the growing global humanitarian challenges and the economic difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama should highlight the importance of non-traditional donors, such as Turkey, the Gulf States, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Turkey, for example, continues to play an integral role in responding to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia, and the OIC is the primary donor responding to the crisis in Rakhine State. The UN has an increasingly important role to play in ensuring that these various actors are coordinated, work in accordance with humanitarian principles, and reinforce stability and peacebuilding.

Post-Conflict Transitions: Neither the U.S. nor the UN has done a particularly good job recently of assisting countries as they transition from conflict to stability. The DRC remains unstable five years after its first democratic elections, despite billions of dollars of international assistance. There are worrying signs in South Sudan of growing police and military brutality against civilians. In Libya, recent attacks on the U.S. consulate have underscored the fragility of the country, while attacks in civilians in Iraq have become more and more common after a period of relative quiet. The question of how the world can support countries in transition has plagued governments for decades, but in recent years the stakes have become much higher due to the proliferation of non-state actors. The UN clearly plays the preeminent role in supporting countries in transition – especially in ensuring that rule of law and respect for human rights prevail, and President Obama should pledge to support the UN’s work in these fragile states.

Peacemaking: Another priority for the U.S. must be supporting the UN in crafting political solutions to conflict. All too often, the UN – or to be more precise, the members of the Security Council – respond to political problems by deploying peacekeeping missions. RI has been a long-time supporter of effective peacekeeping missions that protect civilians, and RI welcomes the peacekeeping community’s positive innovations in recent years. But unfortunately, similar resources have not been directed at developing and supporting political solutions to deal with the root causes of conflict. The DRC is a perfect example of this, with the UN mission there encountering many of the same fundamental problems (from the rule of law, to security sector reform and democratic legitimacy) ten years since it was first deployed. The president’s speech should reinforce that achieving political solutions – whether through the Security Council, so-called ‘friends groups’, or the Secretary General’s office – must be the priority, and that military intervention should remain a last resort.