In a much-anticipated gathering, the United States led a high-level meeting on United Nations reform on Sept. 18, with President Donald Trump and UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaking to the assembled world leaders. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, also spoke briefly; in Trump’s entourage was his chief of staff, John Kelly, and H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser.
“I actually saw great potential right across the street, to be honest with you, and it was only for the reason that the United Nations was here that that turned out to be such a successful project,” Trump began, referring to the location of a Trump commercial edifice across the street from the world body.
Trump noted changes that Guterres has said will be forthcoming at the UN and that the UN could regain the world’s trust by reforming.
“We encourage all members states to look at ways to take bold stands at the United Nations, with an eye toward changing ‘business as usual’ and not being beholden to ways of the past,” said Trump at the Monday morning meeting, part of the opening days of the 72nd session of the General Assembly this year.
Those attending the meeting were countries that have agreed to sign a declaration of support for UN reform. They were asked by the US to wear a pin, provided by the US, to the session. As of Sept. 18, 128 nations had signed the declaration, which Haley said gave momentum to Guterres’s reform efforts. (The UN has 193 member nations; the latest nation to sign up, it appears, was France.)
Trump expressed support for Guterres’s reform agenda, which the US pressured him to take up by emphasizing his executive powers, much to the consternation of some member states, who feel that the US is really leading the agenda.
“We pledge to be partners in your work,” Trump said. “And I am confident that if we work together, and champion truly bold reforms, the United Nations will emerge as a stronger, more effective, more just and greater force for peace and harmony in the world.”
Trump was clear, however, that he expected the UN to provide a return on the investment by the US to the UN, a recurring theme for the Trump administration, even though the “investment” in the UN amounts to less than 1 percent of America’s foreign aid budget.
What is meant by “return” on its investment is unclear as well, but Haley has said that American money saved from the UN would go to US military spending.
While the UN, Trump added, “on a regular budget has increased by 140 percent, and its staff has more than doubled since 2000, we are not seeing the results in line with this investment.”
What he didn’t mention was that the increase matches the US inflation rate over that time period and that the UN is also flung the world’s worst problems to solve, including famines, conflicts and humanitarian disasters.
The US is the largest donor to the UN, but the Trump administration has already made large cuts to the UN Population Fund and peacekeeping operations this year. The UN’s general biannual operating budget for 2016-2017 totals about $5.4 billion, of which the US provides 22 percent. Assessments are based on a country’s gross domestic product, or its national wealth.
“To honor the people of our nations, we must ensure that no one, and no member state, shoulders a disproportionate share of the burden — and that’s militarily or financially,” he said.
Guterres echoed the president, saying the common goal of the UN and the US is “value for money while advancing shared values.”
“Reform,” he added, “is for the hardworking taxpayers who underwrite all the crucial work we do.”
Guterres bluntly expressed his frustration with the UN, saying “bureaucracy,” “fragmented structures,” “byzantine procedures” and “endless red tape” keep him up at night. “I even sometimes ask myself whether there was a conspiracy to make our rules exactly what they need to be for us not to be effective.”
Yet Guterres pointed out that UN reform serves all people: “People suffering in poverty or exclusion . . . people victimized by conflict . . . people whose rights and dignity are being denied . . . but also people with ideas and dreams who need a helping hand. Reform is for them.”
UN reform, he added pointedly, “is for everyone serving under the UN flag, all of whom deserve the conditions to do their vital job.”
Guterres’s reform agenda includes ending sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers; achieving gender parity at the UN upper-management levels; strengthening conflict prevention; and making peacekeeping more effective, including its costs.
Guterres also discussed making the development system more field-focused, with an eye toward achieving the sustainable development goals and cutting out unnecessary UN layers in field offices. Lastly, he discussed internal reforms to management, budgetary procedures and eliminating redundancies — noting his effort to “protect whistle-blowers and strengthen counterterrorism structures” within the UN system.
The goal for UN management reform, he said, is “to simplify procedures and decentralize decisions, with greater transparency, efficiency and accountability.”
“Value for money while advancing shared values — that is our common goal,” Guterres said.
Trump concurred, even offering praise, saying, “And I look forward to advancing these shared goals in the years to come, and it is a great honor to be with you today.”
Trump’s speech, said Angelino Alfano, Italy’s foreign minister, to the media, had a reassuring effect: it endorsed multilateralism. — KACIE CANDELA
A ‘Hoax Invented in China’: Climate Change
After the UN reform meeting, another UN conference was led by Secretary-General Guterres to discuss how the UN and other important players can abide by the Paris Climate Agreement, despite Trump’s withdrawal from the pact. Recounting recent tragedies from droughts and floods, Guterres said “governments cannot handle the enormity of this challenge alone.”
Attending the meeting were, among other notables, Al Gore, the former vice president of the US; former Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York City; and California’s governor, Jerry Brown.
When asked about the status of the US and the Paris agreement, Bloomberg led with, “We’re in, we’re out, we’re in, we’re out” — noting the hashtag #WeGotThis on social media. Bloomberg, who is the UN special envoy on cities and climate change, promoted the work of America’s Pledge, which, with Gov. Brown, his partner in the initiative, mobilizes alternative “power centers.” These include civic bodies, local and state governments and business leaders bridging US government deficiencies as it withdraws from the agreement.
Bloomberg expressed his hope that Trump would “get there” in recognizing the importance of the Paris pact.
Brown represented the “West Coast” as opposed to Bloomberg on the “East Coast,” said Robert Orr, the former UN official tasked with climate change. Brown began his remarks by connecting the UN to his state, where the UN originally convened in San Francisco in 1945.
Brown, more outspoken than Bloomberg, had choice words to say about Trump on climate change.
“It’d be great if the president would join the movement,” Brown said. He lamented that unfortunately, Trump “believes the whole thing we’re talking about is a hoax, and a hoax invented in China.”
And then the meeting went dark, closed to media, to discuss the next steps in the plan to bridge the gap on the Paris Agreement. The UN is holding a roundtable on climate change on Sept. 19, and a representative from the White House is expected to attend. — LAURA KIRKPATRICK
Child Marriage: It’s Got to Go
Unicef and the UN Population Fund held a meeting with heads of state on accelerating ending child marriage in Africa by 2030. Moderated by UN Women’s executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the presidents of Zambia, Malawi and Uganda spoke about combating child marriage in their respective countries.
Ending child marriage falls under Sustainable Development Goal target 5.3, “eliminating all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations” — Goal 5 is gender equality and empowering women and girls.
According to Laura Londen, the deputy executive director of the UN Population Fund, nearly 40,000 girls are married off every day — many of them under 15 years old. Unicef says about 750 million girls and women today are married or were married as children.
Edgar Lungu, the president of Zambia, called child marriage an “impediment to development and prosperity,” and stated his country’s commitment to engaging community leaders and chiefdoms. A Zambian chief at the meeting said his chiefdom has pushed the legal age of marriage to 21 (the national age is 18) because in Zambia, that is when females finish education and vocational training.
Mlambo-Ngcuka said Uganda had one of the most effective child-marriage laws, while other countries still allow loopholes for parental consent and tradition. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, said the key to ending child marriage lies in changing conceptions of female biology: starting in the villages, expanding access to education and social programs and ensuring economic empowerment of women.
According to the African Union’s commissioner for social affairs, 32 countries in the continent have banned child marriage, but 23 have yet to follow. (Since there are 54 recognized countries in Africa, it is possible the commissioner was also counting the Western Sahara territory.)
The star of the event, by far, was the African Union’s goodwill ambassador for ending child marriage, Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda of Zimbabwe. She called on African leaders to regard child marriage not as an aspect of culture and tradition but as a criminal act.
“We need to stop normalizing practices of sexual violence,” she said, criticizingd widespread impunity for sexual offences and lack of justice for victims. Gumbonzvanda was also highly critical of the financial outflow from Africa and corruption among political elites.
“Africa is not poor,” she said. “Illicit financial outflows of Africa should finance our children’s education.” — KACIE CANDELA
Sex Abuse: ‘A Problem of the Entire United Nations’
Near the end of a day of many events, Secretary-General Guterres met with leaders of nations who have signed or accepted in principle a voluntary commitment to give political support to a new initiative to prevent and combat sexual exploitation and abuse in and around UN peacekeeping missions. The numbers are coming in slowly.
Of the 193 member countries invited to join the plan — whether or not they are actively engaged in peacekeeping — 75 leaders are on board (39 have signed and 36 say they will sign the compact), according to Atul Khare, the UN under secretary-general for field support.
Guterres announced that 57 heads of state or government had joined his Circle of Leadership, a group aligned with him to press for adherence to new rules for not only peacekeeping troops but also civilians working in field missions.
Among the UN’s top financial contributors to the UN’s regular budget, the following have joined the group: US, Japan, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Canada. (Russia and China are missing.) From the top 10 contributors to the UN peacekeeping budget: US, Japan, Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Canada (Russia and China missing).
The top troop-contributing countries have joined, except for India and Pakistan: Bangladesh, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Togo and Uruguay.
In his opening remarks to the high-level government leaders’ meeting, Guterres made the stunning point that peacekeeping troops were not the biggest problem.
“First, sexual exploitation and abuse is not a problem of peacekeeping, it is a problem of the entire United Nations,” he said. “Contrary to the information spreading that this is a question related to our peacekeeping operations, it is necessary to say that the majority of the cases of sexual exploitation and abuse are done by the civilian organizations of the United Nations, and not by in peacekeeping operations.” — BARBARA CROSSETTE
Myanmar: On the Security Council Agenda?
On the margins of the UN General Assembly, Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, convened Myanmar’s national security adviser and deputy foreign minister with ministers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Turkey, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Denmark. The US was represented by Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN.
Besides securing full, unhindered humanitarian access for international aid agencies, including the UN, and calling for an end to violence, the attendees urged Myanmar to carry out the Annan commission recommendations.
“While Burma has undoubtedly made encouraging progress towards democracy in the last few years, the situation in Rakhine, the terrible human rights abuses and violence are a stain on the country’s reputation,” Johnson said in a statement, referring to the country as Burma. “For this reason Burma should not be surprised to find itself under international scrutiny and on the Security Council’s agenda.” — DULCIE LEIMBACH
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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.