Feinstein: UN Summit Document ‘A Missed Opportunity’

September 15, 2005

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Lee Feinstein, the Council’s top expert on the United Nations, says the compromise document to be approved by the world leaders assembled for the sixtieth anniversary UN General Assembly session, has been so watered down it is “a missed opportunity” for bringing needed reforms to the world body.

The Bush administration’s role in the preparatory work was similar to that of the Clinton administration, in that its attitude toward the United Nations was “tepid,” he says. “But for this administration, it’s even more sensitive between those who would like to rein in the United Nations and those who would like to empower it. So the United States has taken a very, very narrow view for the most part about what constitutes reform and did not lead a major effort to maximize the outcome of this meeting.”

Feinstein, who was project director for the Council’s independent Task Force on Enhancing U.S. Leadership at the United Nations, and is an expert on a congressionally mandated panel on UN reform co-chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), and former Senator George Mitchell (D-ME), was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 14, 2005.

The United Nations has opened a summit conference marking the sixtieth anniversary since the first session of the UN General Assembly. What is the purpose of this meeting besides taking note of the United Nations’ importance?

Well, it’s a birthday celebration but it is also meant to be the largest meeting of world leaders ever. In that sense, it’s significant. Second, the main objective of the meeting is to reach agreement on a set of reforms to make the United Nations effective. Originally this was meant to focus on the Millennium Development Goals, which were adopted in 2000 to address poverty and to expand opportunities for the majority of the world that lives in developing countries. But after the Security Council meltdown over Iraq, there was a lot of ferment on a range of reform issues. And so this meeting, which originally focused on development, has broadened its agenda.

I gather there’s a document the leaders will formally approve that was worked out by major countries last night. What are the main points? How do we break it down?

I would say there are six main points. First, as we just discussed, almost half of the document talks about support for the Millennium Development Goals that had been adopted earlier. It has compromised language on the [proposed] target of [assigning] 0.7 percent of GNP [gross national product to] development aid.

That 0.7 percent has been a kind of sticking point ever since development economist Jeffrey Sachsreport first suggested it, right?

Correct. There’s a debate as to whether the United States accepted this as a goal or not. Fundamentally, to some degree, the issue is assistance from the developed world to the developing world on the one hand, and improvement in the developing world on the other so that any assistance can be used effectively. So, it’s assistance on the one hand and good governance on the other.

Is this 0.7 percent a big issue?

Well, it’s a big issue symbolically, and I think it’s a legitimate target to have, in my own judgment. I don’t understand, as a political matter, why the Bush administration can’t bring itself to agree to the goal with some conditions. But it is a sticking point for conservatives for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is an aversion to allowing the United Nations set a budget target for the United States.

Have the other major powers accepted that 0.7 percent?

Basically, yes.

But this document skips over it?

What this document does is support those countries that have endorsed it as a goal.

And what are the other issues?

Another thing is, very importantly, this endorsement of a responsibility to protect, which has been a very controversial idea and was opposed both by the developing world, as well as—for different reasons—the United States. The document takes a slightly cramped view of this notion of responsibility to protect, but I think it’s nonetheless very important.

What does “responsibility to protect” mean?

Basically, what the document says is that governments’ first responsibility is to protect their own citizens inside their borders from atrocities and not to commit those atrocities. And the reason this is so significant is because the fundamental organizing principle of the United Nations until now has been the sovereignty of nations and the principle that what takes place within a country’s borders is not the business of any other nation.

Is this a discussion about genocide?

Exactly. This says that sovereignty entails rights as well as responsibilities. And in cases where there are mass killings inside a nation’s borders, those governments are responsible and other nations have the right to take action to stop that killing.

In reality, how would this work, say, in a country like Sudan?

First of all, it removes an excuse that a country like China has used in the past that could block a Security Council resolution or action, that [a humanitarian intervention] would be illegal interference in the internal affairs of a nation’s business. The endorsement of a responsibility to protect removes that excuse for all intents and purposes. It also, I think, places a moral burden on the rest of the world by saying, “It is unacceptable to stand aside or look the other way while these atrocities continue.”

But in reality, an outside country cannot send forces into another state without a full Security Council endorsement?

The way this document words it is that countries have the right to seek a Security Council resolution under Chapter Seven [of the UN Charter], the chapter that governs the use of force. Now, that’s a right they already had, so it dodges the issue of whether a Security Council resolution would be required under international law to intervene. The document’s language is worded in a way so that people who have different views on the subject [of whether a resolution is necessary to send forces] can declare victory. It definitely begins to, in my judgment, erode that principle.

What does the document say about terrorism?

On terrorism, it basically calls for a comprehensive terrorism convention. It is generally supportive of this idea that nothing—including an occupation—justifies a terrorist act. Unfortunately though, it walks away from a definition of terrorism that existed both in the secretary-general’s report [In Larger Freedom] last March and the earlier report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, which said any act of violence by non-state actors against civilians was an act of terrorism.

So there’s no definition of terrorism?


So one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter?

They did not resolve this issue, although this is important. It matters in political terms, first and foremost, because one of the big criticisms of the United Nations inside the United States is that there is a reservoir of support for terrorists in support of national-liberation movements, or acts that the United States would define as terrorism are not terrorism because they’re in support of national liberation. That’s been one of the most effective and toxic criticisms of the United Nations and its culture. So to have gotten the United Nations to agree on a definition of terrorism that was different would have been an important achievement.

Now the Human Rights Council. That’s a major issue, right?

It’s a major issue. There’s wide agreement at the United Nations, in the United States, and elsewhere that the Human Rights Commission needed to be abolished because its membership was polluted with some of the world’s worst human-rights abusers.

So what action was taken?

Well, there was agreement to create a Human Rights Council to replace the Human Rights Commission. There was not agreement, however, on what the size of the council would be, whether there would be standards for becoming members of the council, or how members would be voted onto the council. You have the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, now you would also have a Human Rights Council. But there was no agreement on the “how.” The question I have is, until you create this council, are you stuck with the Human Rights Commission? I don’t know the answer to that.

Who was opposed to putting teeth into this council?

Well, the secretary-general proposed the idea of a Human Rights Council in his report and the United States subsequently endorsed this proposal. I’d say with differing degrees of enthusiasm, in general the European Union also supported it, although support was begrudging in some cases. The main opponents of this were countries like Egypt, Syria, Cuba, and others—China as well—and they basically opposed a recommendation to require a two-thirds [General Assembly] vote to become a member of the council.

Was nuclear proliferation an issue, too?

Nonproliferation basically dropped out of the document and [Secretary-General] Kofi Annan was very critical of that. That basically reflects the bitter residue from the [May] NPT [Nonproliferation Treaty] Review Conference, which did not end up with an agreed outcome for the second time—the first time was in 1990. That is basically a reflection of differences between the nuclear haves and have-nots, very effective lobbying by Iran, and then some side issues having to do with limits on small arms.

Was there also concern the U.S. and other nuclear countries were not doing enough to disarm their own nuclear programs?

Right. There were questions about whether the United States, Russia, and the other nuclear powers were meeting their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the NPT. But more profoundly, there was a lot of discourse about a double standard—not only between nuclear haves and have-nots, but among the have-nots’ differential treatment. So for example, there is the issue of Iran and its access to peaceful nuclear energy as a member of the NPT versus, say, Japan [which produces one third of its electricity from nuclear power].

What are the other issues?

The Bush administration has made UN management issues its highest priority, and there was some progress in the document on that. The document supports the establishment of an internal ethics office, something Kofi Annan himself proposed. It also called for the strengthening of the Office for Internal Oversight Services, the OIOS. But what it failed to do and what it ought to have done, was to limit the micromanaging of the United Nations’ personnel system and budget system by all 191 members.

I didn’t realize that. So the various members can have a say on how the United Nations is run?

Budgets have to be approved by all 191 countries. Hiring and firing authority rests with the General Assembly. There are two parts to making the place more effective: one is, increasing the accountability of the secretariat and the secretary-general, but another is increasing the authority of the secretary-general to do his job. Right now, he can’t do that job in many respects because he has 191 countries looking over his shoulder and he can’t even hire and fire people without their approval.

Then you had two more issues that I would flag for you: One was the creation of a peace-building commission. Peace-building is United Nations-speak for nation-building. The idea here is that the effort to rebuild institutions after an intervention ought to be much better coordinated, better funded, and more systematically funded. It would create something like a peacekeeping office—a Department of Peacekeeping—that would focus on the nation-building aspects of the intervention.

And what was agreed here?

Well, the document creates a peacekeeping commission, but doesn’t reach agreement on its governing structure. The United States favored having the peacekeeping commission accountable to the Security Council and that has not been accepted by others—largely developing countries—who prefer a larger body like the General Assembly or another intermediate group that would be representative of the larger membership.

What about the Security Council reforms? Was it agreed that it was not possible?

What came to be known as the G4 [Group of Four]—Germany, Brazil, Japan, and India—joined together in a lobbying effort to get Security Council enlargement into this document. They’ve been lobbying for over a year. There was reference to this issue in the High-Level Panel’s report, which came out last December, and Kofi Annan also addressed the issue. The way it was addressed was by offering a couple of alternatives to how you might expand the [fifteen-member] council. You could not get agreement about how one might expand the Security Council, with what voting rights, and the big question of who [would be added].

Because the nomination of U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton was so controversial and was never confirmed by the Senate, when the United States put forth its amendments and ideas a couple of months ago, much attention was focused on the United States as being a naysayer. Do you think the U.S. role in drafting this document was constructive, destructive, or what?

I don’t think Bolton’s arrival on the scene changed the U.S. position. The U.S. position has basically been tepid toward this whole process. The administration is walking a tight rope, politically speaking, just like the Clinton administration did. But for this administration, it’s even more sensitive between those who would like to rein in the United Nations and those who would like to empower it. So the United States has taken a very, very narrow view for the most part about what constitutes reform and did not lead a major effort to maximize the outcome of this meeting.

If you want reform to take place at the United Nations, there’s no question the United States would have to lead it. But you had a very old and destructive pattern emerging, which was an absence of true cooperation among the democracies at the United Nations and particularly between the United States and Europe on key issues. And if you don’t have transatlantic cooperation, you leave the field open to others who act as spoilers. And that’s what happened in the case of the peace-building commission; that’s what happened in the case of the human-rights council; that’s what happened in the case of terrorism. It’s not easy to get the United States and Europe working together and then, once they do work together, there’s a very heavy political agenda that’s required to lobby countries effectively and make it worth their while to take difficult votes.

Has the Iraq crisis at the Security Council carried over to these negotiations?

I would put it differently. The Iraq crisis created a real opportunity, in my judgment, to fix what was broken. It shook up the secretary-general and I think it also helped spur some real original thinking in the United States among conservatives like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and others, like former Senator George Mitchell (D-ME). And it also awakened a whole interest in conditional sovereignty—the notion of sovereignty’s rights and responsibilities. So there was a real ferment after the Security Council meltdown on Iraq about how to fix what was broken and that was something you really could have built on. But unfortunately, this longstanding pattern—which predated Iraq—of a lack of cooperation between the United States and Europe, primarily, but between the United States and all the other democracies on key issues, allows spoilers in some cases to scale back progress and, in other cases, to kill it.

Is this a problem of U.S. leadership, or just the fact that other countries don’t look to the United States as the leader?

That’s a good question. It’s a structural problem in that the United Nations is a big organization, so it’s very hard to manage. At one time, the majority of members of the United Nations were non-democracies. That is now changing and depending on how you do your bookkeeping—Freedom House [a think tank that publishes annual indices ranking democratic freedoms around the world] would now say most of the member states are electoral democracies. So that creates a real opportunity for real cooperation among countries who arguably share certain basic values and interests. The issue is that U.S. diplomacy has not caught up with this new reality. That’s not specifically a criticism of the Bush administration, but it’s a much more structural criticism of the ways in which the United States has interacted with the United Nations and how it has treated UN diplomacy.

On the whole, how do you regard this document that’s being voted on? Is it just another one that’s destined to languish in the archives?

Let me say two things: If there were a really serious effort by the democracies to push reform, they needed to establish another track. It’s just not conceivable that you could get agreement among 191 countries on a document without competition. What you really needed to do was establish some sort of competitor tract or some sort of group of countries that would either agree on its own on certain principles in order to push the United Nations in their direction, or would just do it anyway. And that was really missing. This is a missed opportunity to take advantage of the ferment that developed after the Iraq rupture to move the United Nations in a better direction.