U.S. Hopes To Raise U.N. Reform, Human Rights at U.N. Meeting

By Stephen Kaufman
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The Bush administration is placing management reform and human rights at the top of its agenda for the upcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly and hopes to gain assurances from the organization as to its use of member resources, as well as direct its attention to critical human rights situations around the world.

In a September 12 interview with the Washington File, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Kristen Silverberg said management reform at the United Nations remains a “key priority,” and echoed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s view that reform will be a main factor in the decision of whose candidacy the United States will support for the position of the next U.N. secretary-general. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s five-year term expires December 31.

“The United States spends throughout the U.N. system over $5 billion a year, which is a significant part of our budget to work on development and humanitarian assistance,” Silverberg said.  “We want some assurance that that investment is a wise one for the U.S. taxpayer, and that it actually is resulting in some improvements on the ground in developing countries, for people who are suffering from human rights abuses, [and] for people who are at risk of communicable disease.”

The next U.N. secretary-general should be someone “who has a commitment and the skills necessary to drive the reform agenda in the future,” Silverberg said.

She said the Bush administration wants to ensure that the U.N. is “holding itself to the highest ethical standards” and is “focused on the oversight of member state resources.”   The organization also needs to complete its review of ongoing programs to evaluate their utility and effectiveness.

In 2005, the United States asked Secretary-General Kofi Annan to identify and catalogue all existing programs that the U.N. secretariat has been mandated to implement by the Security Council.

“They came up with some 9,000 mandates, many of which date essentially from the founding of the U.N.,” Silverberg said.  The General Assembly should look at the performance of those mandates and programs to see “whether they are still serving an important purpose, whether they’re being administered effectively, [and] whether they take the right approach in solving problems.”

The assistant secretary welcomed the establishment of a U.N. ethics office and changes in financial disclosure rules, as well as the strengthening of its oversight office over the past year.  However, she said the mandate review process remains “incomplete.”

“It’s still possible for the General Assembly to take positive action on this, but they really need to show some progress in the near future,” she said.


Silverberg also said the United States thinks it is important that the General Assembly and the newly created Human Rights Council pay attention to critical human rights situations in countries such as Burma, North Korea and Cuba, rather than what she described as the council’s “unconstructive focus on Israel.”

“We’ve been pretty disappointed by the performance to date of the new Human Rights Council in Geneva.  But there is a real opportunity to work in the General Assembly … to call attention to some of the key critical human rights crises in the world, and so we’re going to do that at as an important priority in the [General Assembly].”

She added that when member states act decisively, “the General Assembly can call attention to human rights issues, and it can be a very powerful message to an oppressive regime to hear that a universal body like the General Assembly has condemned its actions.”

However, the council has “gotten off to a very bad start,” she said, and the United States remains undecided about joining due to disappointment over the council’s “lack of attention to some of the really pressing human rights problems we see in the world.”

Regarding the situation in Burma, Silverberg said the United States formally has requested that the Security Council include the issue on its agenda for the coming month, saying the long-standing human rights problems there now have resulted in regional consequences.  Citing a report by former Czech President Vaclav Havel and South African Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, she said the flow of refugees from Burma is causing instability, drug trafficking, human trafficking and the spread of communicable diseases.

“We are going to be discussing this actively in New York during the General Assembly and then we think the council will need to take action later this fall,” she said.


Silverberg said first lady Laura Bush is hosting a literacy conference in advance of the General Assembly to which she has invited other leaders' spouses, ministers of education and educational experts.  The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which runs many international literacy programs, also will be participating.

Silverberg said the event will highlight U.S. efforts to promote literacy and help encourage other countries on the issue.  The promotion of global literacy “underlies a lot of things on our international agenda,” she said, because literate populations are more likely to develop to be economically successful, and literacy is key to developing a thriving democracy. (See related article.)

“[D]emocracy depends on an informed population that can hold its elected officials accountable, and you can’t do that without a population that can read,” she said.

It is also essential to focus on women’s literacy, she added.  “There’s no better predictor of a child’s chances of becoming literate than whether his or her mother is literate.”

The United Nations also will hold an event on migration ahead of the General Assembly, and Silverberg said it would be an opportunity to emphasize that the United States continues to strongly support immigration and international visitors. (See related article.)

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the U.S. record on visa issues.  There’s an impression that the country is hostile to immigrants,” she said.  “We really need to get the message out that most Americans continue to strongly support immigration and to want the U.S. to be a place where people visit and where legal immigrants choose to live long term.”


The Bush administration continues to “strongly support” the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals for developing countries, and Silverberg said the goals “have to be met with concerted action.” But she tied the issue to the need for management reform, citing “overlap and duplication” within the U.N. system that reduce its effectiveness.  The organization also needs to partner with host developing countries and focus on policy conditions on the ground, she said.

“It’s not sufficient for the international community, for donor countries, to continue to contribute foreign aid without paying attention to whether there’s a policy environment in the country that can help make that foreign aid effective.  Namely, are there policies that invite foreign investment, that invite trade?  Are there policies that can help encourage the growth of small business?” she asked.

A priority for the United States in the coming General Assembly will be to get U.N. programs to address regulatory barriers that are hindering business creation and development.

“So many businesses in the developing world operate in the informal economy, so they operate outside of the tax system or outside of the credit system or without property registration,” she said.  The United Nations needs to “work with countries to create the conditions on the ground that really help small businesses grow and flourish.”

The United Nations is “doing some good work” in the area of development, but she said there is “a lot we can do to make U.N. development programs more effective and better contributors towards reaching the Millennium Development goals.”

For more information, see U.S. and U.N. Reform.