But now I’d like to have you meet our guests. Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer is the Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs at the State Department. She oversees and coordinates U.S. interests through international organizations in areas including human rights, peacekeeping, food security, humanitarian relief, and climate change. Thank you for being with us, Assistant Secretary Brimmer.
Ellen Laipson is president and CEO of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to enhancing international peace and security through analysis and outreach. Welcome, Ellen. Thank you so much for joining us.
MS. LAIPSON: Glad to be with you.
MS. BENTON: Thank you. And so I guess I’d like to start this off and launch into my first question, and that’s to Assistant Secretary Brimmer. And I’d like to know what is really the deal with the United States involvement in the United Nations. What is the General Assembly going to be all about?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, this is a very exciting time for the United States. In effect, you could call it the world in a week. In other words, in one week, we will have world leaders coming to New York, to the United Nations, including our President. And this will be an opportunity for the United States to talk about its highest priorities internationally and how we’re advancing America’s role in the world, working at the United Nations. We’ll talk about peace and security issues, we’ll talk about humanitarian issues, we’ll talk about important international health issues, and we’ll also address some of the pressing issues of the day: next steps in Libya, and the response to the humanitarian crisis on the Horn of Africa.
MS. BENTON: Good deal.
Ellen, I know that the Stimson Center is very involved internationally. Give us your views on the General Assembly meeting coming up and what you’re looking to get out of it.
MS. LAIPSON: Well, we really look at UN capabilities overall in which the General Assembly is, in a way, the liveliest theater that represents all the sovereign states coming to talk about the global agenda. But our work has tended to look at how the UN can kind of improve its effectiveness and its capabilities in the field. And the field might be in the area of peacekeeping, it might be in the area of global health, or as you mentioned, global climate change. And I think this is such a unique platform for the very diverse countries of the world to come together and determine where they enjoy consensus on how to solve the big problems of the day, and often where they don’t necessarily have a consensus yet, but at least the UN provides them a forum to talk about these very challenging problems without resorting to conflict.
I think it’s important sometimes to really go back to basics and why was the UN created, and it was to prevent war and to promote cooperation. And I think, on both of those scores, its history has been a largely positive one.
MS. BENTON: I believe the State Department is total alignment with what Ellen just reiterated there.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Indeed. I think you put it extremely well indeed, that the core mission of the United States in working with the United Nations is very, very close, that we’re – we’ve always been strong supporters of the United Nations because we recognize that it does help bring together international cooperation, helps rally support when we’re facing crises, whether they are crises that require peacekeeping because there are challenges to peace and security, or serious humanitarian crises, or cooperation after disasters. This type of forum is invaluable. It couldn’t be created on the spur of the moment when a crisis hits. You need to advance – in advance these structures that help us bring the world together.
MS. LAIPSON: And I think in some ways the UN will become even more important as the United States adjusts its own policies to a world of greater and greater interdependence, and with more countries being able to provide at least some of the leadership that is needed. As some countries become more prosperous, they can contribute more, and maybe at least the financial and leadership burden on the United States will be a little bit less. And this is – this can be very helpful, I think, for how the United States feels that it’s doing its fair share but not doing more than its fair share at the United Nations.
MS. BENTON: One of the questions I wanted to ask you, Assistant Secretary: There are probably going to be hundreds of things going on. What are the U.S. priorities at the United Nations General Assembly this year?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you. Indeed, of course, there will be myriads of meetings across New York and many different events. But particularly the United States is looking at how we can strengthen the mechanisms of peace and security, how we can address the next steps on critical issues such as Libya, the people of Libya looking to the international system for support as they make their transition to a post-Qadhafi era.
We’ll also be looking at how we help support and advance international cooperation on health issues. But this is not something people always think about on the international agenda, but we’ll actually be looking at what we call non-communicable diseases. These are the really difficult, important issues that face so many people in the health area, dealing with cancer, respiratory disease, diabetes. These diseases, unfortunately, kill far too many Americans and kill 35 million people worldwide. We’ll be looking at how we can exchange best practices on addressing these challenges.
We’ll also be looking at how we deal with the challenges of climate change, especially as it relates to the spread of deserts. Because that means there are fewer places that can grow the food that’s vital for human nutrition. And we’ll also have sessions on nutrition, and particularly on food for children as well, because we recognize the intersection between nutrition issues and global political issues. And during this session, we’ll have a special meeting on the Horn of Africa because not only do we have one of the worst humanitarian crises in over 60 years, but it intersects with the spread of deserts, change of climate, but also the terrorism and political issues on that area as well. It’s a complex intersection of issues but this important examination of international security, human well-being, and environment and health issues will be on the U.S. agenda.
MS. BENTON: That’s amazing. I wanted to move to one of our questions because we’ve gotten several. I want to make sure we’re addressing what is coming in. Matt in North Carolina writes, “With the success of the rebels in Libya and the key role played by the U.S. and our NATO allies, do the results of our efforts with U.S. allies in New York and on the ground signal a new turn for U.S. policy, for intervention on behalf of democracy?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you for that question. This highlights a very important development. In recent years, the international community has come together to support the idea of the responsibility to protect. The idea here is that a government has the responsibility for the well-being of its citizens. The vast majority of the time, this is domestic issue and usually can be handled with domestic means and non-military issues. Only in the most extreme situations, when civilians are under direct attack and concern of the trust is they’ve become a level – an issue that rises to the level of international peace and security. Well, we saw that this year in Libya.
And I should note that the United States and many partners, and Libyans themselves, called on the international community through the channels of the United Nations, for help. At the Human Rights Council, we saw the very powerful image of the Libyan ambassador in Geneva appealing for help to his people at a special session on human rights in Libya. The membership of Libya in the Human Rights Council was suspended precisely because the international community was so concerned. And in New York, we saw the passage of resolutions calling on Libya to meet its responsibilities. When they did not, when it was clear that the atrocities would continue and escalate, the international community acted and passed Resolution 1973 to support civilians in Libya. We saw this international support in – as supporting Libyans themselves. They did the hard work on the ground of fighting for their own rights. Now we’re turning to the opportunity to figure out how we, as an international community, can continue to help the Libyans as they go to the next stage and hopefully to a better Libya.
MS. LAIPSON: Yeah. I do think that Libya – I agree with Secretary Brimmer that the Libya case will be studied for quite a while for some of its distinctive attributes. One is that this really was a uprising by the Libyan people themselves and that the role of the international community kind of was adapted to what their needs on the ground were at various times. While the United States was a critical actor, we also saw the leadership of the United Kingdom and France in particular, and so that NATO – the Mediterranean countries that really have the greatest stakes in Libya’s stability took the lead and the United States was able to say we want to be a player but you folks who are closer to Libya can be in the lead. So NATO, with UN endorsement, provided the security support that the rebels needed.
Now we’re at an interesting transition point where I think the UN is developing the guidelines for a new civilian mission in Libya which I – gets to the questioner’s interest in democracy promoting – where I think the UN, rather than the United States alone or any combination of Western countries, will be the partner of the Libyans as they think about the state building that has to be done now. So that the UN with its – the folks that work on – in the UN development program and other experts that are international experts from the – in the UN community will be working with the Libyans on electing a body that can write a constitution, and getting ready for elections, et cetera. And I think it’s really – and it’s possible that NATO will extend its mission for security purposes but that the UN will be picking up this governance and political transition role. And it’s a very good division of labor, I think, and an appropriate role for the UN.
MS. BENTON: I think you made an excellent observation. The United States had a different kind of role in Libya and not one of our American soldiers really were in harm’s way. We did not have the boots on the ground there. So I think the paradigm has shifted in how we are leading in – along – around the globe.
Donna F. writes to us, “What is the most common barrier to the United States’s attempts at mediation and conflict resolution?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, thank you also for that question. And first I should say that a lot of mediation and conflict resolution happens every day out of the limelight. And there’s often successful mediation. And indeed, it’s usually the case of a situation that does not deteriorate, violence that does not break out. So you don’t always hear about the success stories. So we’ll put that in context.
But to say that – particularly some of the challenges faced when working in a complex situation, usually violence has broken out because there is a really difficult situation and that different parties may not – not only can’t agree but may feel that they have continued benefit from continued conflict. There also may be challenges in some situations where you’re able to work with key parties but there may be spoilers who want erode agreements already faced.
I think some of the challenge is that we’re really facing different types of conflicts than we did in years past, that at the time when the United Nations was founded, and Dr. Laipson’s pointed out the important role the UN was founded to prevent conflict, and particularly to prevent the conflict between states, between countries. And the idea was to prevent the types of wars that have plagued the 20th century.
One of the challenges we face now is many of the types of violence we see has to do with internal conflict, many groups within a country that, unfortunately, are still real able to kill too many people. So we’re often trying to look at issues that have complex sources and to try to adapt the tools of interstate conflict to challenge of conflicts within states.
But that’s where it’s often helpful to be able to draw on the expertise, insights, and connections and influence of many different actors, the United States itself but often neighboring countries, maybe nongovernmental organizations. There may be, let’s say people in universities who have links to those who are in conflict who are able to make the case for returning to peace. So it requires a more creative diplomacy, using all the tools in the toolkit, and some of those tools are found in the multilateral arena.
MS. LAIPSON: I do think that sometimes it’s just the intractability of certain conflicts, there’s just a kind of imbalance of power, life isn’t fair, one group gets the resources, the other group doesn’t; history, culture, all these things. So sometimes the international community is very eager to help and tries to talk to the parties, but they’re not – they’re just not ready to settle their disputes. Or sometimes it takes generational change, sometimes it takes some shift in the external environment. And let’s be honest; not all the parties want the U.S. to be the outside mediator. There’s a question of which outside actor can be seen as the most neutral or not on behalf of one party or the other. It’s a very tricky business, how you build the confidence and the trust of a country that, as Esther was describing, has kind of torn itself apart. When are they really ready, that process of reconciliation? And I think that we see that sometimes the mediators are impatient for progress and get discouraged. We also know that in countries that have gone through civil war, they can slip backwards; they can begin a negotiating process and then sometimes they lose that sense of optimism that they can fix whatever’s the structural imbalance of power. So it’s a very tricky business. It doesn’t always produce results as early as one would hope.
MS. BENTON: And as these countries are – these citizens in these countries are pressing to change the leadership, to change the way government is done, it is not always an easy task, whether it’s the Stimson Center, whether it’s the U.S. Government, no matter who. They’re intractable issues that we often don’t understand, and we have to support the aspirations of the people who have fomented that revolution.
So much as been said about the need for United Nations reform, improved transparency, better accounting, et cetera. Is the United Nations reform a priority for the Administration, and what does that reform look like?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you also for that question. Indeed, the United States is second to none on working on helping to improve the United Nations from the management and budget point of view. In order for the UN to do the work that we’ve discussed, it needs to be well run and also well managed. And we’re particularly interested in looking at how we can advance both transparency so we understand the full workings, financial and managerial. We’re interested in promoting ethics, the role of the international civil servant, and the sense of personal ethics, and we’ve encouraged the creation of ethics code, both at the secretary level and in the agencies.
But we think it’s important that we work with the United Nations. The best way to try to advance management reform is through a cooperative process. Those who call for either withholding dues or a punitive approach, I suggest would not be effective. We can get much more done by being able to be inside the organization, working effectively on very specific types of reforms.
The United States is now building on the – what we call the UNTAI 2 – we have lots of acronyms – the idea which looks particularly at transparency and accountability. And we’re building on the work of the previous administration and developing it into a new and expanded effort with specific benchmarks that allow us to talk creatively with the independent agencies within the UN system about how to measure that progress in this area. This is important, but you work much better by helping people become better, not just by trying to punish them.
MS. BENTON: That’s very good.
MS. LAIPSON: I think these reform issues are discussed on a number of different levels, and I think thatEsther’s just talked about all the very serious work that’s done for institutional reform, processes from the kind of the way the organization is run. And one of the barriers to really get into the finish line on some of these issues is that the UN is structured around sovereign states, and sovereign states want to get their fair share of the jobs at the UN. And so the UN can still make more progress in becoming more of a merit-based organization rather than a truly representative organization of all of the sovereign countries. So they have to get that balance right.
But I think a lot of Americans think of UN reform as reform at the top, which would be, would you redistribute the original kind of power structure of the UN? There’s a lot of attention given to the permanent five, the folks who won World War II, basically setting up the UN, and a demand, I think, from some in the world to say maybe we – after all these decades, let’s rethink whether the UN actually does reflect the kind of changing power balances in the world.
So I’ve always – when I worked at the UN in the mid ’90s, then they were still – they were talking probably for the umpteenth time about what would a different Security Council look like, how might you – how many extra seats would you add, who would get the seats, who has the veto, who doesn’t have the veto? And interestingly, the United States isn’t the primary driver of that conversation. That conversation is about kind of the changing geopolitics in other parts of the world. The Asians have to figure out is it Japan, is it India, is it both?
The different regions of the world – and the United States has been able to kind of take a principled position. In theory, Security Council reform could be helpful, but you don’t want a Security Council that’s so big that it loses its ability to make decisions. But the actual jockeying over which countries would then be entitled to a permanent seat is not something that the United States has had to take a fixed position on, and we’ve tried to let that be a conversation of the other interested parties. I don't know if you would agree with that, but –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: So there’s the top end reform, and then there’s institutional reform. I appreciate very much the way you’ve framed the situation. I would just say that we tend to think of reform in terms of the management reform, we would often look at the idea of UN Security Council expansion, because in fact you’re looking at having additional members to the Council. And the President has been quite clear, the United States does support the expansion of the Council because we want it to include states that want to take a larger role on international affairs and want to be responsible actors, that countries that realize that they can play a positive role internationally.
However, as you’ve already said, the Council needs be – remain an effective body for international peace and security. It can’t be so large that everybody’s on it and we’re not able actually to come to decisions. It’s important that states that truly want to make a contribution on it, and so we support what we call a modest expansion, so that in a limited number of permanent and non-permanent seats, so that states that want and will make a long-term contribution – this isn’t just one or two years, this isn’t three or four years, this is a long-term commitment to international peace and security. It often means having to be in the chair to make difficult decisions. But the United States does support a modest expansion of the Security Council, but no change to the status of the veto.
MS. BENTON: But progress is being made.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has been the subject of some criticism for its direction and its conduct. Has the United States engagement on the Council made a difference? And I want to kind of switch this up a little bit, and from your perspective as head of nonpartisan organization, and then I’d like to follow it up with Assistant Secretary –
MS. LAIPSON: I think the U.S. can be partially satisfied that the Council – that getting back on the Council was able to shift the agenda of the Council a bit. I think there’ll always be kind of perception problems with this Council, because the UN is a club of all sovereign nation states, we can’t assume that they agree on what appropriate human rights standards and values are. So we’re – I don’t feel that we’ve completely solved the problem of what do you do with countries that have a very poor record on human rights still having a right to be on the Human Rights Council. And we can – and we work the politics of that as well as we can.
But there are still some anomalies that at least part of the American public says this doesn’t make sense. So I don’t think always sits well of whether there’s a kind of contradiction here, that countries that are not strong defenders of human rights get to make judgments about other countries. But we – I think there’s been some progress made. They’ve now named a human rights coordinator for Iran, where I think we’re increasingly worried, since the 2009 elections, that the standards for human rights compliance in Iran have gotten worse –
MS. BENTON: Right.
MS. LAIPSON: -- in recent years. So that’s, I think, an important step. It doesn’t mean that that person will have access and be allowed to do his job in the fullest, but I think that we’ve been working hard to try to make the council a more credible and legitimate organ of the UN system.
MS. BENTON: And from the U.S. perspective, Assistant Secretary, what would you say about that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: I would also say that since 2009, there have been important changes in the Human Rights Council. As you know, the United States ran for a seat on the council in 2009 and took its seat in September of that year. And we think there have been some important changes, but there still are some problems.
And to highlight, first off, there have been important steps to draw attention to some of the most critical human rights issues. Indeed, you’ve already talked about the situation in Iran, an effort to look at that. I also note the – there were not one, but two sessions on Syria this year to call attention to human rights abuses in that country, and to create a commission of inquiry to examine the situation up close.
I would also note that many states around the world, perhaps because countries such as the United States are taking the Human Rights Council more seriously, that other countries are also trying to use the Council more effectively. So last year, after the election in Cote d’Ivoire, also known as Ivory Coast, where there was an election but the president was prevented from taking his seat, it’s the African states who went to the Human Rights Council and said the rights of people in this country in Africa are being violated; the world needs to pay attention. So there was a special session on Cote d’Ivoire. There was also, of course, a special session on Libya, as we’ve discussed earlier.
So the Council is being used to respond to more critical situations. It’s also being used to advance key values that are really dear to Americans and very much part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For example, we’ve had a resolution talking about fighting discrimination against women which will actually – has now launched a working group to do a worldwide study on discrimination. That’ll be an important examination of the status of women in many parts of the world.
We also had the first-ever measure within a UN body to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. That was an important stand of the international community. We think these advances are important, but we still must acknowledge a serious flaw. There is still something known as Item 7. There is still a special agenda item on Israel, separate from every other country. That’s not fair. Israel, just like every other member of the United Nations, should be treated together in the agenda item that looks at situations in countries. That should be changed, and the United States will continue to speak out on that point.
So there are still fundamental flaws, but we think by trying to take the council seriously, we’ve been trying to make it better. And indeed, you raised a point of the nature of the countries that sit on the council. It is a body – there are 47 seats on the council. We encourage states to talk about their own human rights records. And we encourage countries that vote for members of the Human Rights Council to take into account the human rights records of those countries for which they vote.
MS. BENTON: That’s a strong statement. But Secretary Clinton – and you just brought this up – has repeatedly said women’s rights are human rights. Women’s issues are obviously critical to addressing many of our global challenges. Assistant Secretary Brimmer, could you tell us about UN women, and if you think it is the answer to making progress on women’s empowerment?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you. Indeed, this is actually a really exciting development within the UN community. Just to recap, that there were four separate smaller entities dealing with different aspects of advancement of women, women’s rights, and other issues. Those were consolidated into one new organization known as UN Women. And we are all thrilled that Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, herself a noted human rights campaigner, a symbol of overcoming oppression and going to leadership herself, a woman of international stature, has taken the leadership of UN Women. And she’s brought real attention to the importance of advancing not only women’s rights but gender issues that are beneficial for men and women. So we think this is an important development internationally. And UN Women is able to help convene and call attention to key issues.
In particular, I note now we’ve been talking about the important changes across North Africa and the Middle East. Well, one of the key issues is women’s political participation, making sure the women who were out there in Tahrir Square, out there also fighting for their rights shoulder-to-shoulder with the men in their communities, remain involved in the process of transition. And we’re working with UN Women on this area. Indeed, UN Women will have an event during the General Assembly next week highlighting women’s political participation.
They’ve also been active in promoting economic participation and helping women entrepreneurs promoting women-owned businesses. These are the sorts of things we think will make a difference in women’s lives around the world.
MS. LAIPSON: I agree that the consolidation of these offices makes a lot of sense, and I think having someone of the stature of Michelle Bachelet is great. But the alternative approach to gender issues is what they call mainstreaming, which is to make any entity, any functional part of the UN, take the responsibility to factor in gender issues. And philosophically, I’m more on the mainstreaming side than – my only worry would be creating an office that becomes kind of a special interest. I think women are more fundamental than that; they’re not just a special interest, they’re pretty essential to our basic realities, and so you’d want to see women’s issues addressed by men and not just by advocates for women’s issues.
So the UN tries to do both. I mean, it’s definitely mainstreaming. And what is interesting about the gender agenda, if you will, at the UN is we’re interested in both women as victims of conflict, et cetera, but also promoting women leaders. And in this month of September as people think about the UN more, I notice that one of the UN organizations is saying, “Thank a female peacekeeper this week,” that there’s also a recognition that women, whether it’s police officers or career military officers, are participating in greater numbers in UN peacekeeping, including in leadership positions. And this sends such a powerful signal to the countries in which they are deployed, where – perhaps countries in conflict where women’s rights may not be as protected as we know.
The other issue that relates to women that I think – and particularly in the peacekeeping arena is this notion of let’s be careful that when we try to make the peace after a conflict we don’t just talk to the combatants but we talk to the parts of society that weren’t doing the fighting, and guess what, women are going to be disproportionately represented in that part of society. So getting women who tried to hold a society together while either as mothers or as community leaders, perhaps as single household leaders, get those people involved in the peace building part that the UN does so well.
And so I think there’s a very rich agenda of issues that relate to women’s status. I like that there’s a kind of holistic approach, but I also want to make sure that that gender issue doesn’t just reside in this new office but is a responsibility of all the parts of the UN.
MS. BENTON: So then it’s integrated –
MS. LAIPSON: -- across every aspect.
MS. BENTON: Several of today’s DipNote questions are – were focused on the issue of Palestinian statehood at the upcoming General Assembly. Matthew K. in Indiana writes, “How will the U.S. balance regional relationships in the Middle East with the prospects of Palestinian statehood?”
So, Assistant Secretary, maybe you can address that and then we’ll ask Ellen to chime in.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you very much for that question. The United States is deeply committed to peace in the region and understands that the most important thing is to return to direct negotiations between the parties. That is the path forward, and we look forward to all of our diplomatic efforts to try to return to direct negotiations between the parties to achieve the ultimate goal of two states side by side living in peace and security.
MS. LAIPSON: I think the United States has come quite a long way in acknowledging that there will be a Palestinian state, and I can somewhat appreciate the Palestinians’ frustration that things take longer than necessary. I wouldn’t want to get in the way of the very delicate work that the diplomats are doing this week to try to come with an outcome that may be partially symbolic that would at least address the very – the deep sensitivities that both Israelis and Palestinians have. And so I’m wishing both the American diplomats and the UN diplomats that are involved in this good success.
MS. BENTON: Right, right.
MS. LAIPSON: And I hope that there’ll be an outcome that is – that at least doesn’t make things worse and possibly contributes to the long-term solution to this longstanding problem.
MS. BENTON: Very good. One of the things that we try to accomplish with conversation is to inform the American public, and I believe that yes, we’re at the 66th anniversary annual meeting, but this conversation, I think, will spark more interest in what is going on with the United Nations, with our involvement with NATO, and with our foreign policy priorities all across the world.
It’s time to conclude. And I first of all want to thank those who have sent in questions, and sorry we weren’t able to get to all of them. I wanted to thank Assistant Secretary Brimmer and ask her if she has any final thoughts she would like to leave us with.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you again for the opportunity to be part of Conversations with America to speak to you (inaudible) and very much appreciated, because really working through multilateral organizations or working at the UN is part of our work on behalf of the American people, and it’s great to have an opportunity to talk about it.
MS. BENTON: Great. Thank you. Dr. Laipson, thank you so much for joining us, and would like to have you have final comments.
MS. LAIPSON: Well, thank you. I’m just so grateful as someone who is outside of government now, although I had earlier worked in government, to participate in this conversation. And I do think that the partnerships that we form between civil society organizations and government officials are really, I hope, very helpful to you all. They’re certainly helpful to us. And I think these exchanges of information and allowing NGOs to be participants or contributors to public policy is something that the UN is working on quite a lot, and I’m delighted to see it happening here in Washington. So thanks for letting me participate.
MS. BENTON: Well, thank you very much. I’d like to thank both of our guests and to remind you out there that our next Conversation with America will be on October the 4th and we will be looking at issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. And we hope that you will join us and we would like to note that the video and the transcript of today’s conversation will be available on state.gov very shortly. We hope you have enjoyed this, and we want to continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again very, very soon. Thank you so much.