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View All Transcripts: Ask the Ambassador | Ask the State Department

Welcome to "Ask the State Department" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to State Department officials.

John Bolton recently discussed UN Reform and the Human Rights Commission.

John R. Bolton, Permanent Representative to the UN, United Nations
John Bolton, Permanent Representative to the UN, United Nations

March 23, 2006

John Bolton:

Last fall, The UN set goals for reform that were ambitious and would go a long way to righting-the-ship in Turtle Bay.  However, In evaluating the effort to overhaul the structures guiding and managing U.N. agencies and activities, I would have to conclude that the most generous statement we can make is that reform is a work in progress and our efforts are ongoing.  However, it is true that some progress has been made. 

The good news is, we are identifying the problems, and the UN is rife with opportunities to reform.  I believe we are beginning to make some progress in recognizing how deep the structural problems run, which is an important first step.  Whether it is Mr. Volcker citing a "culture of inaction" at the U.N., or OIOS citing a "culture of impunity" in how procurement matters are handled at the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the world is waking up to the glaring inefficiencies within the U.N. system - inefficiencies which provide a target-rich environment for those would abuse the system as we saw in the case of the Oil-for-Food Scandal. 

The UN has played an important role in international conflict for decades, and we hope that it remains an essential forum for international dialog.  The President made clear what our vision of the UN is by saying; "The United Nations must stand for integrity, and live by the high standards it sets for others."  Whether we are discussing the oil for food or the Peacekeeping Procurement scandal, the integrity of this great institution have been compromised.  It's up to the concerned nations of the General Assembly to get the reform movement back on track. 

Julian writes:

Ambassador Bolton, on January 3rd, you asserted that all five permanent UN Security Council members - the U.S. , Russia, China, France, and Britain should have the right to sit on the Human Rights Council.  At the time, you argued that inclusion of the P-5 would make the new Council "more serious and more likely to succeed over the long term in the field of human rights." I'm confused.  Isn't the point of the new council to exclude serial human rights abusers like China ?

John Bolton:

One concern we had, Julian, about the language is the provision for term limits.  I think our experience has been when the United States was voted off the Human Rights Commission in 2001 that the performance of the Commission in 2002 was even worse than normal.  So I think we've got a strong contribution to make.  It was always our view, obviously, that each member of the Permanent 5 had to get elected on its own.  We weren't referring to automatic seats, but referring to the Permanent 5 convention.  My concern now, given the term limits, is that America will go off, and that would be to the detriment of the Council. 

Younghyuun writes:

I hope the next U.N. Secretary-general will be elected from among the neutral states appointed by our global community and people. Could you please deal with my cordial or whole heartfelt request?

John Bolton:

Younghyuun, the campaign for and election of the next Secretary General is underway, and has already produced an interesting pool of candidates. 

Ultimately, the decision will come down to qualifications.  The U.S. will endorse a candidate, not a country.  And, we will look for a person with the leadership and management skills that are critical to success in the position, regardless of where they hail from.  We are original intent people in the Bush Administration, and we look at the UN Charter and it says Chief Administrative Officer.  We need one, and believe that he or she should be chosen by the summer so that the individual can have some time to prepare for their new duties. 

Katana writes:

Don't you think that much of the failure of the UN system is simply because most of its resources are spent the staff of the system and not on achieving its goals, and that too many of the staff members are making things complicated just to keep their jobs. Don't you think that a way out could be to limit the recruitment period, say for example a maximum of 10 years period with terms renewed only based on merit?

John Bolton:

Interesting proposal, Katana, but I would say right up front that many of the UN's employees are hard working civil servants who represent, in parlance of the business community, value-added.  However, some do not, and we have actively advocated for greater latitude to be given to the Secretariat to hire, fire or simply reallocate its workforce.  Bureaucracies, of which it goes without saying that the UN is one, often suffer from their size, inertia and immobility.  I believe that the limits placed on the Secretary General regarding human resources decisions should be loosened and should allow for a more streamlined, and a more responsive operation.

Under Secretary General, Chris Burnham, is a strong advocate for accountability and results-based financing, so I am encouraged to see him already taking strides to reign in the fiscal irresponsibility that has been so characteristic of the UN in the past.

John writes:

Ambassador Bolton, thank you for taking the time to take part in this online chat.  My question deals with the recently created UN Human Rights Council.  You have argued that the Human Rights Council, as currently structured, is at best, marginally better than the Human Rights Commission.  But, currently human rights violators can gain membership in the Commission without ever even being elected, they simply have to be selected by regional groupings for acclamation.  Under the guidelines approved for the Human Rights Council, membership will require any candidate to recruit affirmative votes by 96 UN Member states and those members who do not respect human rights can be suspended.  Isn't this a much higher hurdle a significant improvement over the old Human Rights Commission?

John Bolton:

John, the quality of membership of the Human Rights Council is going to go a long way to determining its success.  The Commission on Human Rights was was widely discredited on many fronts, but the most visible sign of the Commission's decay was the inclusion, and in some cases the leadership, of such countries as Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.  We cannot allow that to happen again.

Additionally, the membership of the inaugural Council will be of particular procedural importance.  Many of the processes that will permanently characterize the meeting and the actions of the Council will be decided by the first collection of nations to hold those seats.

So, to suggest that 96 votes is sufficient to produce only nations with commendable Human Rights records is simply not the case.  The world runs the risk of, once again, handing a critically important body over to the most egregious human rights abusers, who will only seek to exploit it.  We need the bar to be set high, and if two thirds of the Member States can't agree on a candidate, then they probably shouldn't sit in judgment of others.

N.V. writes:

One of the main priorities has been to reform the internal structures and culture of the United Nations to make the Organization more useful to its Member States and to the world's peoples. What has been achieved? Do you think that reforms require not only words, but action and a strategic plan?

John Bolton:

I do, and I think we have set some very productive action in motion.  Last fall, the negotiation of the Outcome Document expressed a commitment to reform by the General Assembly, as well as outlined a few good substantive first steps.  The President was right in asserting; "the process of reform begins with members taking our responsibilities seriously."  And, we have.  The strategic plan includes the call by the Volcker Commission for better auditing and management controls, including an independent auditing board, stronger organizational ethics, and more active management of the UN and its programs by the Secretariat.  As well, the Outcome Document calls the Secretary General to put forward specific proposals on reforms, including a UN system-wide code of ethics, stronger whistleblower protection, more extensive financial disclosure for UN officials, the creation of an independent ethics office, a mandate review, and independent oversight of internal UN operations.  To be clear, we are not talking about band-aid solutions applied to particular problems.

The implementation of this ambitious plan has so far fallen short of Secretary Rice vision of a "revolution of reform."  The most generous statement I can make is that reform is a work in progress and, that our efforts are on going.  However, some progress has been made.  The establishment of the independent ethics office and whistleblower protection, as well as the growing role of the Office of Internal Oversight Services is all important first steps.

In the end, we share the view of the Secretary General and applaud his forthright and blunt acknowledgment of the need for a "radical overhaul."  It befalls our allies and us to see these reforms through.

Whitney writes:

Since the global situation has changed a lot since WWII, the Council's current configuration seems like an anachronism that could lead to a loss of legitimacy. How do you think the UNSC can maintain its legitimacy and are there any UNSC reforms that the U.S. will support?

John Bolton:

Whitney, the United States recognizes that the structure of the UN Security Council is outdated and reflects a period of time that is no longer applicable today.  The primary goal of the United States, though, is to make certain that any change to the Council makes it more, not less effective.  We remain strong and enthusiastic supporters of a permanent seat for Japan, a country that incidentally pays roughly 19% of the UN budget.  The problem is that some of the proposals we have seen which include Japan, also include other reforms which would potentially make the Council too large and unwieldy.  We will continue to work with other member states to reform the Council to address the legitimate concern you raise.

S.D. writes:

As you know, the General Assembly in late 2005 adopted a resolution to create a Peace Building Commission--an entity that would assist countries emerging from conflict to consolidate progress in the areas of rule of law, democratic processes and development.  Could you comment on progress to date on getting the Commission up and running?  Can we expect to see a

functioning Peace building Commission supported by a small support staff and fund in the very near future?  Have there been any significant challenges in getting this entity off the ground?  Many thanks.

John Bolton:

S.D., the Peacebuilding Commission, or PBC as we call it, is still in its infancy, having only been created last December.  Several of the questions related to its exact size and membership are still being worked out.  So I hope to see it up and running in the near future to address the exact concern you raise about consolidation of progress. 

Stephen writes:

Mr. Ambassador, thanks for your leadership at the United Nations.  Are there any plans to reduce the amount of money the United States contributes annually to the U.N.? Keep up the great work looking out for our interests.

John Bolton:

Stephen, thanks for your question.  The United States is firm that we should keep the existing cap in place of no country contributing more than 22% of the U.N. budget, which is roughly what we pay now.  We pay even more, roughly 27% of the financial costs to run peacekeeping operations.  We are certainly of the view that other countries should take on greater responsibility and that ours should go down in response.  This is part of the reason we take the recent financial scandals, such as the Oil-for-Food scandal so seriously.  If other countries were paying more, we believe their legislatures would require them to scrutinize U.N. activities like our Congress does, and that would certainly be a welcome change.

Mani writes:

Sir, what leverage can the United States use to convince UN members to agree to a more accountable Human Rights Commission when it benefits corrupt members to resist reform?  How does the U.S. show our sincerity in "doing the right thing" globally when many of our efforts, both diplomatic and military, are easily propagandized in the media as unilateral, not multilateral? 

John Bolton:

Mani, being sincere and "doing the right thing" means you will sometimes be criticized by others who have a different agenda.  As you correctly allude to in your question there were several delegations whose primary goal in the negotiations on establishing a human rights council was precisely to weaken it or water it down.  They wanted to be able to serve on the new Council in order to deflect criticism of their own systems.  Similarly, criticisms that the U.S. only operates unilaterally ignores, for example, our extensive efforts to work to achieve a peaceful, multilateral solution to threats to international peace and security like Iran and North Korea's nuclear weapons program.  And it is the international community, not just the United States, that is working together to help create the foundations for a lasting democracy in both Afghanistan and Iran.  Often times, people will use catch buzzwords like "unilateral", though, because they are trying to undermine the policy, even though it is false.  Our job is not just to stick to our policy, but to engage in a vigorous public diplomacy campaign to counter these criticisms.  It's a struggle to be sure, but you can't let public opinion or propaganda from critics determine your policy.  You try to counter it of course, but you still stick to the policies which advance U.S. national interests.

Wang writes:

What's the relationship like between China and the U.S. at the UN?

John Bolton:

Wang, we have an excellent working relationship with the Chinese Mission to the United Nations.  I have known China's permanent representative, Mr. Wang Guangya, for several years, going back to the Administration of George H.W. Bush.  We both represent our countries national interests here at the U.N. and in the Security Council in particular, since we are both permanent members.  We don't always agree on everything but that is only natural.  But we work out our differences with China just like we do with any other country.

John Bolton:

Well, thank you for your questions.  I have enjoyed the exchange, and will continue to push for the policies and reforms I have mentioned as Ambassador here in New York.  It's clear, though, that there is work to be done.

The reduction of the outrageous gift limit, whistleblower protection, and the increased role of the OIOS are all incremental steps in the right direction.  But, more is still needed.  
For instance, we need mechanisms to prevent the Oil for Food and the Procurement scandals.  Mandate Review, as I mentioned, is a great opportunity for a "scrub" of the existing systems and programs at the UN.  It will not be enough to take a glance at this program or that resolution and stamp it approved.

It is going to befall the American, European and other allied delegations to push the reform agenda if we're going to get things done.  The process must be thorough and transparent because, as the Secretary said; "For the United Nations to champion democracy more legitimately, we must increase the transparency and accountability of this institution." 

Thank you again.

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