The United States is planning to hold a high-level meeting on United Nations reform during the opening days of the 72nd General Assembly debate. The Sept. 18 meeting is to be chaired by Donald Trump and held a day before he is scheduled to address the UN for the first time as America’s president in the General Assembly Hall.
Trump is slated to speak in the General Assembly on Sept. 19, after Brazil’s president, Michel Temer. That country traditionally gets the No. 1 spot in the national lineups during the open-debate session.
A spokesman for the US mission to the UN would not confirm plans for the Sept. 18 high-level meeting, saying that everything was still up in the air, although a letter about it, dated Aug. 30, 2017, has been sent by the US mission to other country missions to the UN. A follow-up letter was sent to participants on Sept. 12. (It will be a busy day, as Secretary-General António Guterres is asking heads of state on the same day to sign a new “compact” to combat sexual abuse by all UN peacekeepers.)
The US-led meeting, to be held in the morning of Sept. 18, is expected to be a forum for member states to engage with Guterres’s reform agenda, which he announced on June 30.
That plan prioritizes strengthening the executive powers of his position, remaking the development system to shift control to regional UN commissions reporting directly to the secretary-general and streamlining the bureaucratic red tape that is so characteristic of the UN.
The June 30 plan was followed by three separate letters representing various views sent to Guterres in July from Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN; the European Union; and the CANZ countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and others). They all laid out their hopes and expectations for systemwide reform.
Haley’s letter had stressed that Guterres use his “executive authority” — somewhat controversially — to push the US-led reform agenda. A Latin American diplomat who asked to remain anonymous thought the Sept. 18 meeting would reinforce the strong tenor of Haley’s letter from July, and “might seem as an endorsement to swift reform without say of concerned broader membership.”
The following countries were invited by the US to participate in drafting the 10-point UN Reform Political Declaration, which was finalized just recently for Sept. 18: Britain, Canada, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Slovakia, Thailand and Uruguay.
The diplomat who expressed reservations about the draft declaration and whose country was not invited to participate, noted that much of the developing world and members of the nonaligned movement (states that are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc, including many countries in Africa, South America, the Middle East and parts of Asia) had not been consulted in writing the declaration.
Uruguay, the only country invited from Latin America to participate in the process, is an elected member of the UN Security Council; it is also an “observer” to the nonaligned movement and not an official party.
A European diplomat whose country was also not invited to participate told PassBlue that the final declaration would be sent to all UN member countries for comment, although the letter from the US mission does not mention feedback. It only says that heads of state who “join” the declaration will be invited to the Sept. 18 signing ceremony.
This diplomat found the first draft of the US concept note “rather harsh” — with such language as “we commit to holding the Secretary-General responsible for strengthening the United Nations system’s accountability framework. . . ,” adding that the final version is more aligned with Europe’s approach to UN reform.
Few member countries even knew the first draft had even existed, according to the diplomat. The final version is friendlier, beginning with: “First, we declare our confidence in the Secretary-General’s reform initiatives and encourage him to lead organizational reform.”
Overall, the declaration supports Guterres’s reform agenda in peace and security, development and management while echoing the early calls by the US for executive leadership on reform; or, as it says, “aligning authority with responsibility.” Other priorities include eliminating redundancy and overlap and enhancing collaboration across the UN system. It also agrees to concrete changes proposed by Guterres to better integrate the UN’s work on humanitarian response, development and peace-sustaining initiatives.
Changes within the organization would also include reforming management to focus on impact and fieldwork, strengthening oversight and accountability and developing human resources to better attract high-performing staff — many changes the US has been advocating for years.
When Britain was asked about the Sept. 18 meeting, a spokesman said, “The UK is looking forward to joining a wide range of member states in reiterating our support to the Secretary-General for his reform proposals.”
Separately, as president of the Security Council in September, Ethiopia has called for a high-level meeting on Sept. 20 to tackle peacekeeping reform. According to the invitation, obtained by PassBlue, the debate will be “an opportune time to take stock of the progress made” since former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s report on peacekeeping two years ago and the leaders’ summit on peacekeeping.
Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article.
This article was updated on Sept. 14, 2017.
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Kacie Candela is an assistant editor for PassBlue and a news anchor and reporter with WFUV, a public radio station in the Bronx, N.Y., where she covers the UN and other beats. Her work has won various awards from the New York State Associated Press Association, New York State Broadcasters Association, PRNDI, and the Alliance for Women in Media.