“The United Nations plays an essential role in supporting American foreign policy and national security interests.” – Congressman Howard L. Berman

Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s committee briefing entitled “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action”:

Madam Chairman, the flaws, shortcomings, and outrages of the United Nations both past and present are numerous and sometimes flagrant. These include:

• The Human Rights Council’s obsession with and biased treatment of Israel, along with the “rogue’s gallery” of human rights abusers who have worked to hijack the organization’s agenda.

• The anti-Israel vitriol spewed from innumerable UN platforms, led by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.

• The Oil for Food scandal.

• Sexual violence perpetrated by UN Peacekeepers.

• The unnecessarily high vacancy rates and other problems at the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS)

• The overlapping jurisdiction of agencies, duplication of services, and inefficient procurement practices of the UN as a whole.

Like all Americans, I’m repelled by these examples of corruption, mismanagement, and bias.

But there is another side to the UN ledger, and it is wrong to ignore it.

The United Nations often plays an essential role in supporting American foreign policy and national security interests.

From UNDP’s work organizing the recent referendum in South Sudan, to the wonderful work of UNHCR’s efforts to protect and resettle refugees, to the Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran, the UN acts as force multiplier for U.S. interests.

During the Bush Administration, we saw a significant rise in UN Peacekeeping costs. Why? Because President Bush understood that having blue helmets on the ground reduced or eliminated the need for U.S. troops.

The UN peacekeeping presence in Haiti is perhaps the clearest example of how the UN system advances our own interests at a far lower cost than direct U.S. intervention.

In an analysis of that UN force, the Government Accountability Office concluded that it would cost twice as much for the U.S. to carry out a similar peacekeeping mission using our own troops.

So, what should we do about the many shortcomings we’ve referenced?

I strongly believe that the best way to successfully achieve the improvements that are needed to work with our allies to constructively engage the UN on a reform agenda.

Experience has shown that this strategy is much more effective than withholding our dues.

Not only did previous attempts to force us into arrears at the UN fail to achieve the significant reforms that have taken place in the last few years, but they severely weakened our diplomatic standing.

Had we been in such deep arrears last year, does anyone honestly think we could have gotten an additional round of Iran sanctions through the Security Council?

The many reform efforts currently underway in New York, Geneva and elsewhere in the UN system are a testament to the strategy developed under both the Bush and Obama Administrations to work with the UN to enact common-sense reforms – many of which were laid out in a 2005 report co-authored by former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator George Mitchell.

The fruits of Gingrich/Mitchell were clearly evident with the establishment of the UN Ethics Office four years ago. The same can be said about the creation of the Independent Audit Advisory Committee (IAAC) – a body now headed by former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker -- to review the activities of the Office of International Oversight Services (OIOS) and the UN Board of Auditors.

The recent creation of the “UN Women” organization and the UN’s “Delivering as One” pilot initiative have demonstrated the UN’s determination to remedy the fragmentation and organizational incoherence that has plagued parts of the UN system, and has resulted in overlapping mandates, lack of coordination, and waste of resources.

Much more remains to be done to develop a fully transparent and financially accountable budget process, strengthen program monitoring and evaluation, streamline the UN Secretariat, promote a strong culture of ethics and accountability, and encourage UN agencies to work together to achieve greater costs savings. But make no mistake about it -- there has been progress on the reform front.

I would also like to take a moment to further discuss the issue of the UN Human Rights Council.

As we all know, the Council was created to replace the thoroughly discredited Human Rights Commission.

Unfortunately the previous Administration chose not to constructively engage the Council in its earliest days, thus ceding the organization to the same bloc of nations who take advantage of every opportunity to attack and delegitimize Israel in international fora.

I supported the Obama Administration’s decision to join the Council in the hopes of reforming the organization and transforming it into a serious voice on human rights in the UN system.

In less than two years, progress has been made on the Council. The U.S. has used its voice as the leading global advocate for human rights to push strong Council action on number of significant human rights abuses -- from the ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan to the recent standoff in Ivory Coast.

And the Obama Administration deserves significant credit for its successful diplomatic campaign to deny Iran a seat on the Council.

Notwithstanding these important accomplishments, the anti-Israel vitriol that all too often emanates from the Council and the inclusion of serious human rights violators among the Council’s membership remains a deep stain on the UN’s reputation.

Madam Chairman, in closing, let me just say again that I agree with you that the UN needs significant reforms. Where I think we differ in our approach is the best way to achieve those reforms. Based on our experience in recent years, I would argue that we have a much greater chance of success if we work inside the UN with like-minded nations to achieve the goals that both sides of the committee and in Congress share.