President-elect Joe Biden’s first message to fellow world leaders was clear: America is back. But there’s a glaring omission in his foreign policy plan: the United Nations.
After four years of the Trump administration’s defunding and leaving UN organizations and agreements, the United States’ relationship with the UN is ripe for revival. But what, specifically, does the new administration need to do?
PassBlue asked four legal and foreign policy experts to weigh in on the steps that are needed to re-engage with a range of UN agencies and initiatives: the Paris Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran (Iran nuclear deal), the Human Rights Council, Unesco, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
“The Biden administration can reverse a lot of that,” said Larry Johnson, a former assistant UN secretary-general for legal affairs and an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, referring to Trump administration policies. “But it will need political will.” As he sees it, “There’s no real difficulty or obstacles to the US returning and as a full supporter and full player and a leader within the UN.”
The Paris Agreement
Biden has said that climate change is a top priority. “The first thing I would do, on the first day,” he said in June as a presidential candidate, “would be to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement,” a vow he has repeated many times since then. Now, on his transition-team website, it says: “He will not only recommit the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change — he will go much further than that. He is working to lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets.”
The US officially withdrew from the 2015 agreement on Nov. 4. Paul Watkinson, an expert on climate change who was part of France’s negotiating team in 2015, believes it would be straightforward for the US to re-enter the agreement, as “any party which is not a party to the Paris Agreement, once it is in force, can join” — simply by notifying the UN of ratification acceptance and waiting 30 days.
The politics surrounding recommitment are more complicated. Many participating countries have revised their 2030 emissions targets, and the Biden administration would have to establish its own target, or carbon emission reduction, as well. If the US hadn’t quit the Paris agreement, it “would have had to revise that target now and set a target for 2030.”
“I think it’s fair to say that the international community remains committed to [the agreement], despite the decision of the US to leave,” Watkinson added. But while other countries have been preparing rules to implement the Agreement, “to some extent the full implementation is only just about to start. So the key question is what happens now,” making the potential role of the US at this moment “critical.”
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
Even more complicated are the politics surrounding the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The US withdrew from this agreement in 2018, though this summer the Trump administration argued that it was still a party to it and thus could trigger the reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran, having deemed it is in noncompliance with the deal. That action was rebutted by most of the other members of the UN Security Council, which authorized the Iran deal through a resolution in 2015. (The other parties to the deal are Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.)
“All it takes from the US, from a legal point of view, is to return to compliance, revoke what the Trump administration has done in terms of reimposing sanctions and just return to the letter of the agreement,” Johnson, the UN legal expert, said, adding that it’s not even “legally necessary” to announce it to the Security Council.
The US claim that it could trigger the snapback element to reinvoke UN sanctions was hotly debated in August in the Council through letters sent by most of its members to the Council president that month, Dian Triansyah Djani of Indonesia. Many of the letters argued that the US was no longer a legal participant to the deal, so US actions — which included submitting a draft resolution to trigger the snapback mechanism — were considered null and void. Ambassador Djani decided not to take any action on the US effort. Instead, he said, “Given the lack of consensus among Council members the presidency could not take further action on this issue.”
Johnson said, “The letters are extremely important, but there was no Council decision as such, and certainly no resolution and no decision as such.”
Since the president of the Council at the time did not conclude whether the US was a member of the JCPOA, Johnson believes the US doesn’t even need the Council’s approval to still be considered part of the agreement.
The Washington Post has reported that Biden intends to return to the Iran nuclear deal only if Iran returns to compliance. On Nov. 11, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed that Iran continues to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and is currently at 12 times the limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal, proving noncompliance.
A Security Council diplomat told PassBlue that his country is unsure whether the Biden administration would want to rejoin the Iran deal as Tehran has gained more technical skill in building nuclear weapons while violating the agreement.
Human Rights Council (HRC)
The US left the Human Rights Council in 2018 amid its three-year term, citing the body’s alleged bias against Israel and other issues. The Council is an intergovernmental body composed of 47 members elected in rotation every three years, based on the UN’s five regional groups.
Becoming a member of the Council again would mean getting elected. However, as history tells us, it’s not a goal the US could take for granted. In May 2001, the US lost an election to the Human Rights Council’s predecessor, the Human Rights Commission.
“The US lost its seat before the 9/11 terrorist attack, the US invasion of Iraq and its human rights abuses in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay,” Mona Ali Khalil, a former UN senior legal officer told PassBlue. However, the US was again elected in 2009, 2012 and in 2017. When it left suddenly in 2018, its seat was taken by Iceland.
The Council is regularly criticized for electing countries that breach international human rights. At its most recent election, in October, Russia and China, who are repeat members, won seats despite opposition by organizations like Human Rights Watch; but Saudi Arabia, also opposed by Human Rights Watch, failed to get a seat. Venezuela and the Philippines, also highly questionable human-rights protectors, also sit on the Council.
The bias against Israel is also an argument that has been made by previous US administrations against the main UN human-rights body in its current and previous forms — in 2006, President George W. Bush cited it in boycotting the Council’s elections. But the bias argument does not hold for Khalil.
She said, “While the [Human Rights Council] has indeed passed successive resolutions to address violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, the [Human Rights Council] annually adopts other country-specific resolutions on violations in Belarus, Burundi, DPRK, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, the Philippines, Venezuela, Yemen and elsewhere.”
Thus, the question of whether to run for election is going to have to be thought through by the Biden administration. Johnson supposes that the US will do it sooner rather than later to signal Biden’s commitment to international human rights. “Given Biden’s track record as being pro-human rights and pro-international justice and accountability, I would think they would want to make a statement right away in general about human rights, that the US is back on the human rights stage,” Johnson said, adding, “This is a political issue, clearly not a legal one.”
Or, as Khalil put it, the US will “have to balance any potential political risks at home against the inevitable risks of forfeiting its leadership on the international stage.”
The US also left the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, on the grounds of bias against Israel. In 2011, after Unesco admitted Palestine as a member, the US stopped funding the organization, as the US is legally required to do so with any UN entity that formally recognizes Palestine, or “accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”
In 2011, the Obama administration stopped paying its dues to Unesco, and Trump officially withdrew the US from it in 2018, while remaining an observer member in order to “contribute US views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.”
While Biden hasn’t announced a US plan for Unesco, Jordie Hannum, executive director of the Better World Campaign, a nonpartisan organization focused on the relationship between the US and the UN, said: “I can certainly see the administration rejoining as the first step. In terms of funding the organization, it would require either repealing the two 1990s laws or amending them.”
The US previously left Unesco in 1984. In 2003, the US rejoined it and started funding the organization again. If the US wants to be a full-fledged member again, it can do so, but a lot depends on Biden’s political position toward Israel and, of course, the legal restraints.
World Health Organization (WHO)
The World Health Organization has been under fire by President Trump for its alleged bias toward China and its role in the coronavirus pandemic. In July, the US formally started the process of withdrawing from the organization, but since the withdrawal takes effect a year later, the US only has to cancel its notice of withdrawal to remain a full-fledged member. “More important from the WHO’s point of view is whether the US, as a member, would restart its full funding,” Hannum said.
Because withdrawal takes a year, “the US can change its mind and withdraw that withdrawal before it becomes effective on July 6, 2021,” Hannum added. “Then funding is the next step. . . . Right now, there’s a $300-to-$400 million hole in the [WHO] budget for money we promised in the middle of a pandemic. So these contributions are critical. They were serving American interests, and it’s essential that not only do we rejoin, but we make sure that we refund because right now the WHO is in desperate straits.”
UNRWA & UNFPA
The US could also re-engage with the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, and UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, but that would require financing the organizations again. The decision to fund them is “just a matter of political will,” Johnson said, and no legal issues are involved. (The UNFPA, according to a PassBlue report, is thriving despite the US defunding.)
Vice-President-elect Harris pledged to reverse Trump’s decision to defund organizations providing aid to the Palestinians. “Will take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem and work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington,” she is quoted as saying in an article in Middle East Monitor.
Rebuilding relationships with America’s oldest allies could be the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the incoming president. But since the UN wasn’t even mentioned in Biden’s foreign policy plan, how much will the UN be prioritized by the new people in the White House? One hint: Biden has a US mission to the UN “agency review team” in his transition camp. (On a trivial note, Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, were married in 1977 in the chapel of the Church Center for the United Nations, which is not part of the UN but located across the street from it.)
“The reality is that China is playing chess on the world stage right now while we play checkers,” Hannum said. “They are ramping up their efforts at the UN in multilateral forums as well as bilaterally with economic initiatives like [the] Belt and Road [infrastructure investments], while we have withdrawn from the world stage, hollowed out the State Department and USAID.
“That approach by this administration has failed, and that’s something Republicans and Democrats have realized, and the administration itself admitted as much when they appointed for the first time an envoy to counter China’s influence globally.
“But it’s going to take more than one staff person. What’s needed going forward, what we’re saying to Congress, and the president, is there need to be tangible signs that we are serious about re-engagement with the world. I think the Biden administration recognizes the importance of it, too.”
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.