I immigrated to the United States from Iran in September of 1999 because of opportunity, freedom of speech and separation of church and state. Despite having attended Iranian schools and subjected to anti-American propaganda for ten years, I had come to love the United States for it stood for. However shortly after I arrived, President Bush was elected, and for the past eight years, he has single-handedly undermined America's promise in more ways than any other president in the history of this country.
Squandering a unique opportunity to unite the world after 9/11 to address the challenges of the twenty-first century that drive many to engage in terrorism out of despair, he waged a false "war on terror" with religious overtones and without specifically defining "terrorism" and its causes. He violated some of the most fundamental principles at the core of the United States' global image.
Nine years after arriving in the United States, I have been left with a country that is fundamentally different than the one to which I immigrated by myself at a young age. But I believe I represent a microcosm of a global phenomenon; Hundreds of millions of people from every corner of this world, from Havana and Pyongyang to Harare and Tehran, have been left disillusioned with the single source of inspiration that motivated them to fight for a better future for themselves and their children.
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama made history by becoming elected President of the United States after running, in part, on the promise of restoring this country's image on the world stage. But in the long run, his personal story alone is not going to have any real impact because most of the world's misgivings about America are not related so much to its internal racial tensions or even history, but to the United States' unilateralism and sometimes hypocritical foreign policies.
On January 20, 2009, President Obama has a unique opportunity to renew America's promise around the world by implementing a number of specific recommendations. This post is the first of the blog series "Restoring America's Global Image," to explore these recommendations.
Strengthen the United Nations:
The legacy of resentment toward the United Nations in America dates back to the Treaty of Versailles when the conservative Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge led the opposition the United States' membership to the League of Nations and President Wilson's Fourteen Points. Even though the United States grew to see the potential of such a supranational organization to prevent conflict and spark cooperation after World War II, American presidents have continuously treated the United Nations--the body that was created after the war to take the place of the League--as a symbolic institution rather than one that possessed real authority over any American actions.
The anti-UN movement gained new momentum after the attacks of September 11 among conservatives and even some centrists when on September 13, 2001, Hillary Clinton--who has been nominated to be the next Secretary of State--said, "Every nation has to be either with us or against us" and in an address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, President Bush declared the terms on which America was to deal with the world: "You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists." However, while American Presidents--including President-Elect Obama--have correctly noted that the United Nations is not a perfect institution and needs "reform," that does not justify the double-standard with which America has treated the organization.
For example in the case of Iran, the United States has continuously referred to the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency and its reports about Iran's nuclear program to make the case that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and demanded that Iran respect the U.N. Security Council resolutions. However, the U.S. has shown little respect for those very same institutions when their decisions have not favored its agenda. Since World War II, as one of the five permanent members of the organization, the United States has used its veto power in the UN Security Council over 80 times, more than any other permanent SC member with the exception of the former Soviet Union. These vetoes have included those of the International Court of Justice's judgment on the United States' "activities" (i.e. mining harbors and killing of "soft targets") in Nicaragua. And when the United States vetoes resolutions condemning Israel's occupation and settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, it does not help in making the case that Iran needs to respect any resolutions that is passed against it. If Martin Indyk, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, is correct in his newly reported assertion that "the era of the blank cheque [for Israel] is over" under the Obama administration, it is a great step in the right direction.
Permanent membership of nondemocratic countries like Russia and China to the UN Security Council has also allowed them to use their veto power to limit the expansion of democracy and respect for human rights in other countries, as they did by vetoing S/PV. 5619 resolution on the situation in Burma last year.
The United States cannot at once demand some nations to follow UNSC and IAEA resolutions and veto other resolutions that it does not favor. These double-standards may go without notice in Western Media, but they will not go unnoticed in the classrooms in Iran and many other corners of the world where America hopes and needs to win hearts and minds.
President Obama needs to explicitly define the aspects of the United Nations that need reform, rather than only making general statements for need of reform simply to create a cloud of illegitimacy over the organization and justify unapologetic American vetoes of UNSC resolutions.
The reform to the UN Charter must be comprehensive. Here is a suggested blueprint for reform that tries to address the issues with the current system:
1. United Nations must make new commitment to define and address the challenges of the twenty-first century, including human rights violations, global warming, poverty, nuclear weapons production and possession, military conflicts genocide and disease.
2. Permanent memberships to the United Nations Security Council need to be phased out in favor of rotational memberships and temporary special-status memberships with more limited powers than the current permanent members.
3. No single country should any longer have the power to unilaterally veto any UN Security Council resolutions. If veto mechanism is to remain within the UNSC in the short run, no single country should have the power to unilaterally veto any resolutions.
4. A Global Responsibilities Index (or one with a different name) must be created to rank every member's commitment to democracy and human rights, as well as their contributions to addressing other global challenges.
5. Numbers on The Global Responsibilities Index must be determined by independent surveys of citizens within every country for the human rights component, and also by members of the UN General Assembly to represent each country's record of addressing its global responsibilities.
6. All countries should have an equal opportunity to be considered for temporary special membership status that would allow them to participate in multi-country vetoes of UNSC resolutions and obtain other prerogatives. The decision for granting such a status should be based on the countries' ranking in the Global Responsibilities Index. Countries can remain special status members as long as they maintain their GRI ranking.
7. The organization needs to promote peace, but not at the expense of protecting people from their repressive governments. UN member states need to make the commitment to help intervene in a global hot spot in any way that the General Assembly deems necessary to prevent violence.
8. There has to be the mechanism to temporarily eliminate countries that engage in genocide, unprovoked war or other crimes against humanity from consideration for special status membership.
9. All members must renew their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and be held accountable in meeting the components of the Declaration;
The U.N. is like the Titanic, and just as one cannot turn around the Titanic quickly, reforming the United Nations will also not be easy. It will require the most powerful nations to give up a lot of their powers, which they will not do for the sake of equity or good will. But they may if they are convinced that a more equitable UN will directly help their long-term image and security. But the important point to keep in mind is that change at an organization is made multiple times easier and faster if the campaign for change is led by its most powerful member.
The United Nations is an imperfect institution, but it is the best available avenue through which the world can address global challenges. But the institution has been rendered ineffective in part because its most powerful member--the United States--has repeatedly undermined its legitimacy and applied a double-standard when it comes to the organization's level of authority.
One of the first things that President Obama must do to restore America's global image is to make a new and serious commitment on behalf of the United States to help strengthen the United Nations through reform so that it can become more effective in addressing the new century's challenges.
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