President Trump continued his assault on the United Nations in his speech before the UN General Assembly on Wednesday. Unsurprising, given that a few weeks into his term, he had already drafted an executive order reducing U.S. contributions to the UN, which he described as “wasteful and counter-productive.”
It is par for the course these days to mock and deride the United Nations. More than 70 years into its existence, the “One World” aspiration of its original charter seems idealistic, naïve, and mired with red tape. With a staff of 44,000 (not including scores of consultants), an eye-popping yearly budget of around $5 billion, and its occupation of some coveted New York City real estate, the UN is an easy target.
I am no UN apologist. Having worked for four years as one of these scores of UN consultants, I have plenty to criticize. I spent hours creating strategic plans that disappeared into a void of headquarter review and approvals. My hard-earned legal training was wasted more than once on providing rhetorical and logistical support to government agencies involved in national celebrations: speech, handshake, musical entertainment, repeat. The UN is mammoth, expensive, often inefficient, and has even undermined its goals with negligent interventions.
But criticism of the UN’s implementation is often thinly disguised criticism of its mandate, particularly its mandate to promote international cooperation on humanitarian relief and respect for human rights. In his speech, President Trump repeated the word sovereignty 10 times, but mentioned human rights only once—and then only to criticize the composition of the UN Human Rights Council. He referred to humanitarian aid three times, two of which applauded U.S. and not UN interventions. President Trump made his position clear on the UN’s human rights and humanitarian mandate: The basic welfare of the world’s citizens is solely in the hands of their own governments. That is, of course, unless the government impinges on the security or prosperity of another, such as Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, in which case the liberation of the people becomes relevant.
The UN was meant to be an antidote to exactly this way of thinking. Its mandate to engender global cooperation on promotion of human rights and humanitarian goals was conceived by the global community at a time when the community had seen what could happen when it did not act as a community. This premise, that abuse of human rights by a state government, and the existence of ongoing humanitarian disasters are always a threat to world peace and security. It was meant to move us away from unilateral state action toward a basic recognition of mutual obligation and common vision.
Whether the UN moves us toward these goals effectively is a necessary conversation. However, the vast network of agencies, experts, committees, and bodies have made significant and important strides toward advancement of human rights and humanitarian goals. Having worked in various country offices, I have no doubt the UN’s presence and programming is extremely important on a country level. Country offices are able to engage governments on critical human rights issues in a unique manner because of their inter-governmental status. They are also able to facilitate dialogue between civil society and government officials promoting accountability and sustained efforts. On a global scale, the UN makes possible coordinated responses to natural disasters that destroy villages and cause mass population relocation. Rather than leaving individuals to the whims and chance of their leaders and governments, the UN monitors and promotes state accountability on universal fundamental human rights.
Not all interventions, strategies, and efforts are successful, and the current organizational structure and resource allocation is badly in need of review. As two examples, redirecting resources to the regional and country level operations would undoubtedly increase the UN’s impact. Providing the unpaid experts who are appointed to monitor and investigate particular human rights issues the resources to conduct their investigations would strengthen the enforcement system.
Duplication, inefficiencies, and even corruption within the system are long overdue for reform. But abandoning the task itself, which President Trump seems to be suggesting, is another matter entirely. President Trump may choose to put America first (or at least the America he sees as legitimately American), but let the UN be our common effort to promote peace, stability, dignity, and equality for the world’s people, regardless of who or where they are.
Claudia Flores is director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.