The Role of the United Nations

The Role of the United Nations

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Esther Brimmer, CFR’s adjunct senior fellow for international institutions, discusses the evolution of the United Nations over the past seventy years and its role in the world today, as part of CFR's Academic Conference Call series.

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Esther Brimmer

Adjunct Senior Fellow for International Institutions, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

IRINA FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates.

We’re delighted to have Esther Brimmer with us to talk about the role of the United Nations. Dr. Brimmer is CFR’s adjunct senior fellow for international institutions. She is also a professor of the practice of international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs. She previous served in the State Department, most recently as the assistant secretary for international organization affairs, from 2009 to 2013. And she was a member of the policy planning staff from 1999 to 2001, and a special assistant to the undersecretary for political affairs prior to that.

Additionally, Dr. Brimmer was deputy director and director of research at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. And she’s taught at the college of Europe and Belgium as well. She was also a senior associate to the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. In addition to this distinguished career, she has published several articles and monographs and edited eight books on transatlantic and international affairs.

Esther, it’s great to have you with us today. I thought you could get us started by giving us an overview of the role of the United Nations, and how you’ve seen evolution of the organization over the past seventy years, not—just a little bit of a broad topic here.

BRIMMER: Well, I’d first like to welcome everybody on the call. I’m delighted that so many people from so many universities have been able to join us, and I look forward to our conversation today. To get us started, I will take up your invitation to talk about the role of the United Nations, and a bit about how it’s evolved over the past seventy years. I would first begin by noting that when we say “United Nations,” we should keep in mind that the United Nations really should be called the United Nations system.

In other words, we’ll be talking about the breadth of the organization, not only what we may think of as the iconic United Nations headquarters in New York, but also the whole network of independent agencies as well as the funds and programs. The United Nations has a global presence, including, of course, New York and Geneva, but many of the agencies that people know well, whether it’s the World Health Organization or the International Civil Aviation Organization. We’ll talk about this larger area.

We also will talk about some of the basic pillars. There are, in fact, three basic pillars to the United Nations system: peace and security, international development, and human rights. And we may want to talk about the change in each of those areas in a moment. It also is the umbrella for many of the major technical organizations that really provide the cooperation on a day-to-day basis in everything from telecommunications to aviation. And the United Nations also works with many regional organizations.

And in a sense, the United Nations and other international organizations have important roles, including rallying responses to crises, providing places for discussion, and, most importantly, setting standards for states, a place where countries go to set standards, but also where they provide resources and expertise to help states meet their obligations. And they can also set agendas for action. They’re often places where states go to deal with difficult—not only difficult crises, but also long-term issues as well.

But there are also important things they cannot do. We should remember and distinguish between the United Nations and its international secretariat, headed by the secretary-general and the extensive staff that works with him and the system of, again, international civil servants that staff the United Nations, and the member states. Also, when we talk about what the United Nations is doing is we’re talking about the actions of member states. And member states meet in bodies, including the General Assembly and the Security Council. But they also meet in a variety of other bodies as part of the system.

If we look at the three areas that I talked about—peace and security, development, and human rights, and I will throw in technical operations—there have been some important changes over the past seventy years. The United Nations was created by the United Nations charter in 1945 first and primarily to deal with peace and security. Of course, the idea for trying to create a new truly global institution was born during the Second World War. And all of the participants in working or writing the charter, of course, were aware of the experience of the League of Nations and other international organizations, and were trying to create an institution that would counteract aggression.

They were focused on the aggression between countries. They were concerned about war between countries and wanted to look at could they create a mechanism based on collective security to deal with war between states. And so then, as you read the United Nations charter, you see embedded in that the effort to try to deal with war between states. One of the most important changes over the past seventy years, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, is that much of the violence we’re dealing with now involves violence within countries, as opposed to between countries. And one of the real challenges has been how to try to adapt mechanisms designed for states to deal with non-state actors. And some of the most potent non-state actors are terrorist groups. You can also look at pirates.

But the challenge, as we look particularly since September 11th, we see the institution and member states trying to look at how to address these conflicts within countries. Some of the most egregious and tragic conflicts that we come to mind are these types of conflicts, whether it was genocide in Rwanda in 1994 or the crisis in Syria today. There are important differences among them as well, but there’s this issue—this overall structural problem that how do states address violence within countries, given that the United Nations system both talks about the sovereignty of governments and that now that many nations are trying to look at how to address these issues within states. Another aspect is the use of violence against citizens as an actual strategy.

So the challenges in peace and security have changed remarkably since the institution was founded in 1945. Yet, its main components remain extremely important. They include United Nations peacekeeping, which actually is not mentioned in the charter, but is one of the most important ways that member states use the United Nations system to address peace and security issues. There are now about—there are now sixteen operations. And we can talk about that if there’s an interest.

Another important component and tool of the Security Council are economic sanctions. And there are a variety of economic sanctions, both against organizations and individuals. But one of the important developments in recent years has been the effort to craft responses to crises that include both peacekeeping and sanctions mechanisms. And so the role—the Security Council has become much more active on using sanctions. Traditionally, they were broad commodity sanctions.

Now the effort is to create highly tailors sanctions against specific individuals, which is really a remarkable development over the past twenty years of how the Security Council, particularly with the help of the United States, has gotten more and more effective at tailoring sanctions towards specific individuals and entities. There are other important aspects, such as peacebuilding and other mechanisms within the peace and security area, including the role of the secretary-general in mediation and other efforts.

If we turn to development, here as well there’s been important changes. Many people on the call will be aware that the general assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals at the end of last year. This is a remarkable development. These are a series of seventeen ideas with numerous subcategories, where member states adopted what they saw as frameworks for successful human development. And they are contained in the concept of sustainable development. And remarkably, these ideas and these principles apply to all member states.

That’s an evolution, because its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, which were adopted in 2000 and ran to 2015, they applied to countries that were recipients of development assistance, so that it was a relationship between the donor states and the recipients of assistance. The sustainable development goals changed that to obligations of all member states towards certain principles of development. I would flag one in particular.

Here in the United States, we tend to assume that we would, of course, be able to meet all seventeen of those quite easily. However, one of them is access to safe drinking water. And as we’re well aware, you know, whether you’re in Flint or elsewhere, we as the United States also have to think seriously about how we will meet our sustainable development goal commitments.

And then finally turning to human rights, that the human rights structure within the United Nations is based on the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights. That document provides the basis for this structure of international human rights, and there are a series of successive covenants after those. The United States has ratified the International Convent on Civil and Political Rights, but not the one on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.

And within the United Nations System, there are mechanisms based on the United Nations charter and derived from the authorities of the charter. They’re called charter bodies, the most important of which is the Human Rights Council, which is a member state body in Geneva. And there are treaty bodies, this is the other category, which are obligations—additional human rights obligations based on treaties to which countries accede.

The other important development—extremely important development in recent years is the Universal Periodic Review. That is a review of every member state in the United Nations reporting on its own adherence to Human Rights. It’s a remarkable and important mechanism that was developed a decade ago, and is a real innovation.

And finally, I would say is that the whole group of technical agencies play an extremely important role in the United Nations system, whether it’s, as I say, international aviation or telecommunications. I mean, everybody on the call who’s on a cellphone, the reason your cellphone works internationally is because of the International Telecommunications Union. And so those technical agencies—whether aviation, maritime, international patents, and of course global health—those are important components as part of the United Nations system.

So I will stop there, having just introduced some elements of the United Nations system, and we can go—have our conversation from there.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you so much. Let’s open it up to the students for questions.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open up the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from the University of Notre Dame.

Q: Good afternoon. My name is Matthew Evans (sp), and I’m a sophomore here at Notre Dame.

And my question is: What role, if any, does the United Nations play in the war on terror? What have they done? And what, if anything, can they still do?

BRIMMER: Thank you very much for that question. Indeed, one of the innovations born of the tragedy of September 11th has been the use of the Security Council to try to address international terror. Historically, there had been a real disagreement amongst member states about how to address international terrorism and how—because there was a debate about how to define it. For some, of the countries, the idea of a terrorist was clear as, let’s say, an individual who creates certain types of violence, but for many other member states, particularly coming out of the anti-colonial movement, said the old phrase used to be is one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. How did you define that and the politics behind them?

That debate went on for years, and went in circles. But the tragedy of September 11th changed all that, that member states of all different types recognized the horror of September 11th. Of course, remember, many of them were in the building at the United Nations on September 11th when the planes crashed into the twin towers. That wasn’t that far. And indeed, one of the concerns was that, you know, maybe, you know, the UN might itself be hit as well. Again, there was, you know, alerts for all of the tall buildings in New York and elsewhere. So people really understood the severity of the attack and began to take on the implications for international peace and security.

So one of the first thing is—the first resolution was passed within days of September 11th. And then, then Security Council became the place to adopt measures for global sanctions on international terrorists. So you saw the power of the United Nations Security Council is that under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter, it can pass legally binding resolutions. So it passed resolutions against al-Qaida. This was the first time that a resolution had been adopted against a non-state actor. Usually they’re resolutions against a specific country. This was against, again, a non-state actor. And under that resolution, numerous individuals and entities were then sanctioned.

Now, there have been evolutions in how—over the past fifteen years—in how that’s been managed and some changes in the resolution, but that resolution created the legal basis for countries to be able to sanction individuals, to seize assets of individuals, to try to prevent terrorism. So that meant that countries did not have to individually pass legislation, though of course have their own domestic legislation. But it created a power to go after individuals and go after their financing using these resolutions.

You also have seen the efforts to include, within peacekeeping operations, activities that would complement anti-terrorism activities by national governments. And you’ve seen greater exchanges in information about how to fight terrorism, and the United Nations has been a venue for the creation of new terrorist bodies. There was a Counter-Terrorism Committee created to track these issues, and numerous other bodies within the UN that allowed member states to consult with each other in efforts to fight terrorism, and subsequently the Counterterrorism Forum, which was, again, another body created between the U.S. and Turkey and a variety of other member states, also used these meetings at the United Nations to help advance greater cooperation by countries in fighting terrorism.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Colorado Technical University.

Q: Good morning.

BRIMMER: Good morning.

Q: Good morning, Esther. Thanks very much. This is—I have a question from the line of kind of historical compare and contrast between the League of Nations and the United Nations. Could you kind of explain what, you know, the difference between the two were and, et cetera? So, you know, the League of Nations, I know, came after World War I. But what—would you mind doing a little compare and contrast?

BRIMMER: I’d be happy to. So for callers I’m going to take a few minutes and compare the League of Nations, which was created after the—as part of the peace settlement after the First World War with the United Nations as well.

Now, if we look back and say one of the important developments over the past century and a half has been the spread and creation of bodies that brought together states, so the creation of international organizations so that states could help manage the relationships between them. And this movement starts in the 19th century. And there are a variety of different forums both on the legal side and on the political side, as well as on the technical side.

But the idea of creating a body—a permanent body to deal with peace and security and political issues really came to fore with the League of Nations. And the leading advocate was U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, among others. There were many who were also in many countries supportive of this idea of having a permanent body which would try to, again, deal with war and to try to manage relations between states. And as I say, there was a whole movement after the First World War, including the work here on arms control and other issues.

Now, the greatest challenges was the United States and others adopt the creation of a League of Nations, which was to bring together the major states. It was to meet in Geneva. And the idea was that each country would then—would then ratify it. The United States said it did not ratify and rejected the League of Nations Treaty. This means that when it was convened—the League of Nations that did convene in Europe and included the major European powers—Great Britain, France, and others—but it meant it did not include the United States.

So you then had what had what had become a much more powerful country, the United States. And by then it had become an international creditor. In 1917 the U.S. becomes an international creditor. And the United States, although not—obviously not in Europe, is an important political factor now for global politics. And you have a major power not in the system. So it meant that during the League of Nations power, there was always a degree of instability because that—the question was, how do you back political arrangements without military power?

And as you look through the 1920s, you had both the concerns about how to manage Germany, and which we know after the end of the first war went through a series of economic crises, most particularly with the inflation of 1923. You had the efforts to deal with the process of repatriations with Germany, which was one set of economic issues. But you also had a series of political issues as well. And the challenge was, although the U.S. was not a member, it did participate in some of the—some of these efforts, including an effort to ban war under the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928.

But by the time you have the 1930s and you have the rise of authoritarianism, whether it’s Nazi Germany, or in Italy, and elsewhere, you have a series of crises. And the League of Nations is not able to address the crises because ultimately international organizations are only as powerful as the member states in them and only can do what their member states want to do with them. And so you have the crises that eventually lead to the Second World War. And the League of Nations is not able to address them. And the member states within them are not able to address them. And the most important power is sitting on the sidelines, as you know, very much somewhat hobbled by the approach of an isolationist—the original America first view—that term in the 1930s.

The major innovation of the United Nations system was to say that the system had to include the major powers and the rule of law, and to try to marry both of them into one system. And therefore that is why you have the creation of the Security Council and have permanent members with vetoes on the Security Council, because what the Security Council does is it creates the entity, as people know, of—originally it was eleven, it was later expanded to fifteen member states. There are five permanent members. Now, the five permanent members at the time, in 1945, reflected the victors of the Second World War. But the ideas to try to have the major powers in the system, rather than be outside the system.

And so I would argue, if you ask me now about the Security Council, I think that, yes, it’s, you know—you know, people say it’s not equal. So I would say, that’s right, because you have to try to account for power in international relations as well as the rule of law. And so then the structures within the United Nations peace and security system allow for the role—bringing in major states. And it means that, yes, major states can both defend their interests or, indeed, block action, if they think it’s against their interest, within the system. So in one sense it’s a weakness, because if a member states wants—if a permanent member state of the Security Council wants to block action by the Security Council they can. But that is the price for keeping the major powers in the system, rather than having them outside the system.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government.

Q: Hello. My name is—(inaudible)—


Q: —and—sorry, can you hear me?

BRIMMER: Yes. I can hear you. Hello.

Q: OK. As stated, the UN has grown into a larger UN system with a lot of fragmented individual agencies all under the UN umbrella. My question would be, would you argue that this fragmentation within the UN is a strength of a weakness to accomplishing its overall goal of peace, security, and development?

BRIMMER: OK. I think I would actually use a different term. Rather than saying its fragmented, I would suggest you may want to think about the United Nations system as a network. When I began my remarks, I said we want to think about the United Nations system as a whole. And I used the world system because that suggests that there is a relationship amongst separate parts.

And what it does—and so I would suggest that, first, there are mechanisms that allow for coordination amongst—or contact among certain agencies. So those—for example, those funds and programs that are part of the United Nations do—there are meetings amongst the heads of the different agencies. So for example, something like, you know, the UN development program, you know, environment program, the heads of the agency do meet—the secretary-general does have a—basically the equivalent of an executive board between—with these agencies. They meet a couple times a year. Also, some of the funds and programs do come out of the budget of the United Nations. Others have—the agencies have their own budgets.

But ultimately, they do have a reporting relationship. And I would suggest that you actually are—one of the advantages of having independent agencies that are still part of the United Nations—so, for example, let’s take the World Health Organization. World Health Organization, of course, has its own director general. And the organization is based in Geneva. The presence is worldwide, but the headquarters is in Geneva. But that said, they are part of the system. And they—and the important thing is that it means that you are able, for instance, to insulate the technical agencies from some of the immediate politics at—let’s say, going on in New York or other parts of the system. And it allows them, ideally—not always really, but ideally—to focus on their technical mission.

So it does—so there is a question about—to make sure that you are having good flows of information, and that different parts of the institution are able to work with each other, when they’re on the ground in the same place dealing with, you know, different crises. But I would say, as I did say, I would describe it as a network rather than as a fragmented situation.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Syracuse University.

Q: Hi, Dr. Brimmer.

My question is, should the U.S. accept Syrian refugees?

BRIMMER: Hello. Thank you for the question. Yes, I do think the United States should accept Syrian refugees. President Obama has said that he would want to accept 10,000 refugees. But yes, I think we should. And this is why: First of all, that all countries including the United States that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention have taken on an obligation to accept refugees, including those who have a genuine fear of violence if they return home. We then take on an obligation as something called refoulement, which is a French word which is used in diplomatic circles, which means that you do not—you cannot return a refugee to a situation of violence. You’ve taken on an obligation not to put someone back in peril.

So what it is important, is that the United States and other countries develop appropriate mechanisms to evaluate, first, that someone is actually a refugee and that they are the person they say they are, and to make sure that person is genuinely a refugee and not a terrorist or not someone else who’s not entitled to refugee status. But clearly, there is a situation, you know, crisis in Syria. And that we should take more. And the United States actually has a quite extensive procedure working directly with the United Nations.

And this is here where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who’s in charge of the international refugee framework, provides a real service for the United States because actually refugees that are coming—or, you know, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reviews the status of refugees who want to come to the U.S. Then the U.S. reviews them. And then when they are reviewed here, they are reviewed by—of course, by the Department of State, but also Department of Homeland Security.

It’s actually a very extensive procedure. It takes about eighteen months or longer, sometimes a lot longer, to go through that. So I would suggest that we’d want to see how we can apply more resources, more people to reviewing refugees, because we should be taking more refugees. We need to follow our procedures, but I think we do need to see what we can do to accelerate them because, you know, we have a long tradition of welcoming those in need. Sometimes we have not always honored that, but we should try to honor that in what is truly a crisis of momentous proportions.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Texas University.

FASKIANOS: Are you there? Hello? I didn’t hear a question.

Q: Hi. I heard Texas University. Actually, it was Texas—(inaudible)—University. I don’t know if that’s what you meant, but I’ll go ahead and take the spot if it’s available.

FASKIANOS: Sure, go ahead.

Q: OK. So as an adviser to the United Nations, what would you suggest would be two things or three things they could do as an opportunity for improvement?

BRIMMER: I’m not sure if I got all the question. What would be the top two or three areas for improvement?

Q: That you would suggest they prioritize, yes, as an opportunity for improvement, since we don’t want to call them fragmented, I certainly agree. But, yeah, so what would you suggest those might be?

BRIMMER: Right. Well, there are several different areas, and some of which are in the control of the United Nations officials, and some of which are in control of member states. I think one would be a reminder first to member states to actually meet their obligations to help the organization be better. So one of them is actually paying their dues. The United States, we need to start. We don’t pay our dues till the end of the year. We should pay them earlier. That would actually help the institution, because then they would manage their finances better if they actually received their funds earlier, rather than borrowing while waiting to get U.S. funds.

But I would say in terms of items within the institution, on the management side two things I would do. One is update the personnel system. The most recent United Nations General Assembly budget adopted in December does try to do some of this, to basically rationalize the system so that you have more consistent compensation and, hence, a more professional approach to how people are awarded for their work, yes. And then the second would be to adjust how we do the budget. Again, the budget runs over two years. And I think I would adjust how we organize that. That would be—allow for greater administrative and management improvements.

And over on the peace and security side, I’d particularly like to see even greater enforcement of some of the sanctions provisions, and probably greater assistance to member states to enforce Security Council sanctions. Big countries like the United States, while, you know, it can track and administer sanctions, but for many smaller countries it’s very expensive. But it’s really important when trying to accomplish and implement Security Council sanctions resolutions, let’s say, against terrorists, against people who are trying to proliferate nuclear weapons, you need every country, so there’s no weak link, to participate. And I think greater technical assistance to help countries do that would be really helpful for peace and security.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Seton Hall University.

Q: Thank you very much. My name is Tavish (sp). Good morning.

My question would be that I’m not sharing the same level of optimism on the peace and security, because as a Middle Eastern citizen, I see that Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and the entire region is failing. And most importantly, two main players of the UN Security Council, including America and Russia, are there. My question is that if UN is not containing the ambitions of the two main—of its members, how the prospect of peace and security should be looked very promising? I’m borrowing the words of UN former undersecretary, who wrote a piece in March that I love UN, but it’s failing because the bureaucracy—the mission is serving the bureaucracy, rather than another way.

BRIMMER: So I think you’re—and I say, I wouldn’t say I necessarily would use the word optimism about my view. That I think they’re useful structures, but two sets of things, that indeed first is that, yes, the United Nations system cannot overcome—it structurally cannot overcome the actions of its most powerful member states, that—and as I say, the way the Security Council was designed to keep the major countries in the system, so that—you know, so you don’t have countries leaving the United Nations. But it does mean that if—you know, if countries want to block actions on Middle East issues, they can. And you’re right, that the system cannot overcome resistance by its most powerful members.

But the question is, what elements can—you know, what can it do? And I would suggest that some of the things that I can do are extremely important. But ultimately, you need national governments to want to agree on how they want to address crises in the Middle East and elsewhere. So the collapse of states and the—that if member states are not able to provide—you know, decide they want to provide assistance and support, you’re right, the system cannot overcome that. What they can do is it can provide some help to individuals in some of these crises, which I go to back why—whether it’s some—whether it’s humanitarian relief. So there are some elements of that. The system can help improve—it can help coordinate.

But that—and I would suggest that in crises that are not as acute, and the systemic collapse of the state system in the Middle East, again, is a world historical phenomenon of huge proportions, of which the United States alone will not—and you’re right, it’s just not able to deal with. And it wasn’t designed to deal with that. And it goes back to my earlier point that the system was designed to deal with war between governments, and does not deal well with crises within governments. And so the question is what—you know, are there other ways to help?

And to what extent can outsiders help at all? It’s really, I’d say, a sobering question, because there are limits to what people outside a country can do to help people inside a country. They should do whatever they can, but you’re right, we also have to be very sober about recognizing that the tools of outsiders are not as—you know, not as important ultimately as the choices made by leaders and peoples inside of countries. And so you’d have to say what can we do, what can international organizations not do? And there are a lot of things that they cannot do.

That said, that particularly in crises that are not as acute as some of those in the Middle East, that the United Nations system can then provide important tools for many other crises, where the question may be bringing in peacekeeping troops to help support a peace agreement, or long-term transitional issues and long-term development issues. Those are—or, crises where bringing greater development assistance and a longer-term program can be helpful. The United Nations can be very effective in those. But you’re right, there are areas where ultimately you need governments and others to be more active because they can do more than an international organization in these extreme crises.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Daniel Morgan Academy.

Q: Yes. Thank you for speaking with us today. And just to preface my question, you know, understanding that no member state is perfect, could you address last September’s appointment of the King of Saudi Arabia to chair a UN Panel on Human Rights, and whether or not you think the concerns over this appointment are legitimate, either from anti-UN voices who might point to this episode as a type of hypocrisy, or sympathetic critics who might say that an appointment like this undermines the good that the UN does accomplish?

BRIMMER: Mmm hmm, right. Well, there’s always—and it depends which—you know, which bodies we’re talking about, which type. There are wide variety of bodies within the United Nations, just more generally. But there is always a question and an issue with the human rights records of individual countries. And I think we should try to appoint countries that have strong human rights records to head—you know, head a UN agency. That said, that within the—you know, within the system there will be times when you will see states that are—you know, are appointed to particular slots, which—and I think, you know, member states should try to discourage—you know, discourage that actually happening.

And try to—and one of the ways is to try to encourage other states to become, you know, more active, and to try to put ahead of alternative—you know, alternative candidates to take on leadership rolls. They have—I’m just pulling it up—you know, and so—you know, and there are individual states. So that when individual states go for leadership roles, I think it’s important to highlight whether they’re the best candidates for them or not.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Richmond.

Q: Hi, Dr. Brimmer. My name is Jen Sirte (sp).


Q: I’m a student here at the University of Richmond. And I was wondering—


FASKIANOS: Go ahead. Hello? Hello? Hello, University of Richmond?

Q: Hi. Yes. (Laughs.) My name is Jen Sirte (sp). I’m a junior here.

And I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit further on your perspective on the criticisms that the P5 controls the Security Council with their own national interests, and more specifically which model of reforms for the Security Council you consider to be the most viable option?

BRIMMER: OK. Sure. I’ll take both parts of the questions. First, so, to the permanent five and their control, and then the second is on reform.

The first, on control, that indeed to some degree because they are, you know, the permanent five, that they do have important influence on the direction of the Security Council. And ultimately, because they have the veto, they do have the power to stop certain measures. It’s—the veto is used relatively rarely, but that said it is used on crucial issues. We think of Russia and the Syria issues, or the U.S. and Israel issues. That said, that on most issues the permanent five does not actually use their veto. And actually, the permanent five on a day-to-day basis actually have a professional, practical, pragmatic working relationship, because they see each other day in and day out. The Security Council is much busier than it was, you know, thirty years ago, when it met every few weeks. Now it virtually meets almost daily, or several times a week.

And they have to, in a sense, deal with each other. They do provide certain services to the Security Council as well. The permanent five all have groups of experts, you know, in their missions in New York that provide, you know, the analysis—I was talking earlier about the role of sanctions. Well, when you write a Security Council resolution, you have to have done the research to understand who should be sanctioned, who are the individuals who should be sanctioned? And these member states often help provide the expertise to the Security Council. The UN itself isn’t going to have the depth of the expertise that the member states can have.

The other thing is one should not discount the role of the non-permanent members, the ten countries that are elected to two-year terms. They actually can have an important role as well. And you see member states that seek out seats on the Security Council because they have an issue they want to advance. And they can help set the agenda. They can help. They also can bring their own issues forward. And sometimes they are issues that are championed, that are really championed by one of the non-permanent members. Now they’ll want to get the support of the permanent five, but it’s a much more subtle relationship than it might appear. Yes, the permanent five are extremely, extremely important—extremely important.

But their relationship with the other states are important as well, especially since the permanent five tend to try to work with countries from the region in crisis. So if there were a crisis in—let’s say on the African continent, the member states from African countries will have at least some voice, probably the other members will want to hear what they have to say. In addition, the member states will also sound out, you know, regional organizations and other countries that are seen as leaders.

So I would say it’s a much more—it’s a nuanced relationship. And countries that may not be permanent members, but have a strong ambassador, that person can help get their voice heard, literally and figuratively. And so the diplomacy—the effect of having permanent diplomats in New York, means that you can build constituents for ideas or policies, even if you are not a permanent member. So there’s a greater complexity to the diplomacy of the permanent five on the Security Council.

Now, on reform, you have to sort of say which type of reform you mean. If you mean the expansion of the Security Council, as to whether it should be expanded, or the reform in the working methods, which is because one of the arguments is that the Security Council should be more transparent, and then other methods on both.

On the first, I actually—I do support expansion of the Security Council. I actually think it would be in the U.S. interest. No matter whoever would actually—might join the Security Council, first—(inaudible)—would be able to, you know, have veto on that. But also, any of the likely countries are all countries with which the United States has good relations. You think of the countries that have often been mentioned: India, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Mexico—a variety of countries have been mentioned. And we can talk about the different plans if you’d like. But all of them are countries that the U.S. can work with.

On the working methods side, that greater transparency is important. And the Security Council in recent years has started to have more briefings for the rest of—for the rest of the United Nations system explaining more what it’s doing. They also take in more information, so that they get more briefings from other member states, other parts of the UN, before taking decisions. And they tried to have—now they have a series—they now have a series of various subcommittees. There’s one, for example, for each sanctions regime. So they’re trying to improve the information they supply both to the members of the Council and to the institution as a whole. There’s more work to be done there, but both of those areas are important for thinking about the future of the Security Council.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Norwich University.

Q: Oh, hi. Thank you, Dr. Brimmer. And also thank you to the—hello?


Q: Yes. And also thank you for the reading material. While I was reading it, I was wondering—and this is my question—you state in your—I think it’s yours, right—that the United States and NATO may not be perfect, but they are necessary. You know, the world is better off with them. And the next author, Patrick, also states that they have a lot of challenges, the UN has a lot of challenges. And they need to find out what their greatest strength is and continue to focus on that. And why don’t you think—I was wondering, with cybercrime growing as it is, how is the status? Is the United Nations involved? And is it—you know, what’s the status on that? Are you getting, you know, results, or is it a good process? And what can you—what can you say about that, and also advice?

BRIMMER: Thank you. If I heard the question that you’re asking me, is what does the United Nations do on cybercrime?

Q: Yes, because they took it up, you know, in one of their responsibility areas. But cybercrime is so huge, so I was wondering, if both of you say that it’s not perfect but if it’s doing its job and doing a good job it’s better—the world is better off with it, and then Patrick said that—

BRIMMER: That’s a very good example of a new issue that is only just beginning to be addressed. And at this stage, although member states have talked about some of the issues, so there have been General Assembly resolutions that have tried to talk about some of these issues, particularly the nature of privacy online, that I would say that this is an area where there has been—where there’s been relatively little action, compared to other bodies. Now, in specific, individual independent agencies, you’re seeing the issues come up.

So member states have been grappling with whether to try to raise some of these issues in the International Telecommunications Union, which deals with the technical interlinkages between a variety of devices, whether radio or, you know, cellphones and so forth. Or some people think that it should be dealt with in law enforcement channels, and therefore would be better to be handled through law enforcement cooperation—let’s say Interpol—as opposed to the United Nations system.

So I would say this is an area where the member states are still trying to figure out what they want to do, and where many member states are raising these issues in other places. So for example, in the NATO context, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, context, as opposed to the UN context. It’s also an area where there is not yet the same depth of expertise in the general peace and security institutions on this issue.

And I think there’s also—I think some member states would prefer to raise the issue in environments, let’s say, with their allies, or with countries who would take a similar approach to cyber issues, because there’s such differences amongst member states—and the U.S. and China are a good example—take very difference views on these, so it would be harder to use the UN system. So I’d say this is an area where they really—it’s not—they have not yet been at the forefront of this issue. I think there’s still—it’s not been the main place to address this issue yet. You’re right, that is a gap.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question comes from Brigham Young University’s Kennedy Center for International Studies.

Q: Hi. My name is Rebecca Lee (sp). I’m a senior at Brigham Young University.

And my question is: How has the UN responded to the humanitarian needs of refugees during the refugee crisis?

BRIMMER: OK, thank you. Thank you for that question.

Indeed, this has been, you know, quite complex as well. I think what we want to do is actually, first, define which refugee crisis you mean, because there is both—there’s—and the headlines now are focusing on the crisis in Syria and the outflow of refugees there. So we’ll talk a bit about that. But we should also remember that there are refugees around the world, and that there are almost sixty million people who are displaced, and that you have both refugees—of course, the definition of refugee is a person who is able to cross an international border, able to get out of their country in crisis and apply for asylum and meet the refugee conditions.

There are many internally displaced people who are—who have lost their homes inside of countries. So we have to remember, there are many displaced people. Only some have been able to cross borders. The largest number of refugees have actually come from other places, such as the outflow of refugees from Afghanistan who are now in Pakistan. The outflow of refugees of, let’s say, of Palestinians who are in Jordan, who are, you know, third generation. The outflow of refugees from Somalia, or—which are—you know, who now live in Kenya. Or the outflow of refugees from Sudan—both Sudan and South Sudan. That there are crises that have been going on for quite some time which have generated huge numbers of refugees.

So we have to keep that in mind. And the main United Nations body, the High Commissioner for Refugees, manages relief centers for refugees. They help document who’s actually applied for refugee status. That’s where we get a lot of this data, is that, you know, UNHCR actually then—will actually provide the documentation of who actually qualifies as a refugee. They often provide assistance. The assistance comes from member states who both pay their dues to the United Nations system, and hence the High Commissioner for Refugees. Many countries also provide voluntary assistance. The United States provides significant additional voluntary assistance to the High Commissioner of Refugees to help house refugee populations.

Now, the crisis in Syria—so on top of these already existing millions of refugees, we then add the Syria crisis. Now, during the Syria crisis you saw—you know, we have to go back and remember that in 2011, 2012, initially the crisis in Syria was not a humanitarian crisis, because this was a middle-income country that—and so it was a political crisis, and a crisis of, you know, violence, but it was not yet a humanitarian crisis. It later became a humanitarian crisis.

And there, you had—so, anyways, you had—first you had large refugee populations in the neighboring countries, many of whom—many of whom are actually being cared for by the individual governments. So the refugees in Turkey, many of them, they were called guests and they were—you know, the Turkish government has provided a lot of the assistance for them. That said, the United Nations humanitarian bodies, including the High Commissioner for Refugees, and the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, who’s one of the people who reports to the secretary-general and coordinates many types of humanitarian assistance, they have provided—you know, provided assistance to refugees.

And there—of course, if you’re providing assistance to people inside the country—hence, the internally displaced people—you have to work with the government. So some of the United Nations emergency response groups, such as the World Food Program, which provides, you know, a humanitarian and emergency food, they—you know, they would have to get the government’s, you know, agreement to go into the country to provide food assistance. So you have both assistance to refugees outside the country, outside of Syria, and to displaced people inside the country. But the UN agencies have to get the government’s at least tacit agreement to provide humanitarian assistance inside the country.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Arizona’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Q: Hi. My name’s Walter.

I would like to know what your opinion is on how United Nations Human Rights Council can have more influence on existing members and non-existing members, besides the use of shaming and including them in the organization.

BRIMMER: OK, great. Thank you for the question about the Human Rights Council.

Just to give—provide background for people—everyone on the call, the Human Rights Council is what I described earlier as a charter body. It derives its authority from the general assembly. And it is based in Geneva. The current Human Rights Council comes out of the reforms of 2005, which changed many aspects of the United Nations system. It replaced the Human Rights Commission, which had been created in 1940. The Council includes forty-seven members. Countries are elected to three-year terms. The United States first served—was elected in 2009, and again in 2012. The United States is not currently a member, but is running to be reappointed. The election will be at the end of this year.

Now, Human Rights Council does—operates both by reviewing disparate aspects of human rights within member states. And much of its actions—traditionally, its actions were taken by resolution. So a resolution would be voted on the human rights issues in any given country. The Human Rights Council meets three times a year. One of the innovations—and I will—I’ll say the U.S. should get credit for this—(laughs)—was actually in 2010, 2011, to try to use and create new tools within the Human Rights Council.

So one, for example, was the statement. In other words, that much as the General Assembly has several tools it can use, and the Security Council has several tools it can use, the idea was that the Human Rights Council too should have mechanisms besides just passing resolutions. So sometimes the idea was also to be able to create statements so that it expresses its view on an issue, particularly a crisis. The Human Rights Council can also help support the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner for Human Rights is an official with a staff that—also based in Geneva—that can provide significant technical assistance to countries.

At the very beginning, I talked about different things that international organizations can do, including setting standards and helping states to meet them. And indeed, one of the things that these human rights mechanisms could do is help states meet the obligations they’ve taken onboard. And countries do come to the—you know, actually in Geneva to try to, for example, get help with rewriting constitutions or maybe improving electoral roles, or on some of the nuts and bolts of human rights practice. And so some of those technical things, they’re not in the headlines, but those things can actually be very supportive.

The Human Rights Council also provides a place for government and non-governmental organizations to talk about human rights issues. And sometimes in some countries, you know, the nongovernmental organizations would not be heard, except for the fact that, you know, the government has to face them in Geneva. So it provides an important venue for deepening the actual practice of human rights issues. And some of those, you know, are not glamorous, but very practical measures that can actually improve—help countries improve how they implement human rights issues, if they want to do so.

FASKIANOS: Well, unfortunately we are out of time, Esther. But thank you very much for being with us for this hour. I think we would all agree that it has been wonderful to hear your insights. And we appreciate your service to the country as well as going back into the academic community to teach. Your colleagues are lucky to have you at George Washington University. So thank you, again.

BRIMMER: Thank you very much. It was very nice to talk to everyone. Thank you for all of the questions. Best wishes.

FASKIANOS: So this concludes out Winter-Spring 2016 Academic Conference Call Series. Our next call will begin again in September at the start of the fall semester. And we will share the fall lineup this summer, so that you all can plan. So I encourage you to follow CFR’s Academic Outreach Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Academic for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events. And I hope that you all—good luck on your exams. For those of you who are graduating, enjoy graduation and commencement. And we hope that you have a wonderful summer.