Calls for United Nations reform have come thick and fast in the wake of the failure of the Security Council to act swiftly in response to reports of human rights abuse, and of the revelations of the corrupt management practices of UN officials in Iraq's oil-for-food scandal. In June 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives went so far as to pass an act that called for broad reforms at the UN and also allowed the United States to slash funds in half if reform goals are not met by 2008.
On March 28, at the invitation of Columbia University School of Social Work (CUSSW), former UN ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli provided an update on American efforts and priorities regarding the UN's reform program. Click to view the video of this event.
Tahir-Kheli spoke as part of the New Millennium Distinguished Visiting Scholars, a cross-disciplinary series initiated by CUSSW Dean Jeanette Takamura to provide a forum to address topics of interest to the social work profession.
Tahir-Kheli, a Pakistani American known for her expertise on South Asia, currently serves as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's senior advisor on UN reform, acting as Rice's interlocutor with the UN secretary-general and secretariat on institutional reform measures.
Acknowledging that the UN is "currently engaged in one of the most important debates in its history: on how to reform itself, strengthen itself as an institution and ensure that it addresses effectively the threats of the 21st century," Tahir-Kheli said that U.S. priorities include familiar concerns, such as the need for greater organizational efficiency, as well as post-9/11 concerns, the most recent being the desire for the UN to step up its role in promoting democracy through its newly formed Democracy Fund and Peacebuilding Commission.
In addition, Tahir-Kheli said, the United States is interested in expanding the Security Council and in encouraging the UN General Assembly to pass a comprehensive convention against international terrorism.
Much of Tahir-Kheli's talk focused on human rights. In mid-March of this year, the UN General Assembly agreed to replace the discredited UN Human Rights Commission, which in recent years has included as members such perennial rights violators as Sudan, Cuba and Libya, with a new entity, the Human Rights Council (HRC).
But while the United States voted against the HRC (it also recently announced its decision not to seek HRC membership) for not doing enough to prevent abusive countries from becoming members, Tahir-Kheli said that the HRC's success continues to be one of America's highest priorities: "We intend to work to make it as effective as possible."
For instance, she said, the United States has persuaded a number of states to voluntarily enforce the ban on human-rights abusers.
In response to a question about whether such a ban might eventually be invoked against the United States, Tahir-Kheli responded: "When we asked for scrutiny, we did not say, ‘Countries running for membership should be scrutinized, except for the United States.'"
But what if the United States were to be sanctioned for human rights violations? The ambassador was confident: "If countries decide that the HRC is better off without the United States … they will not vote for us. That's the risk we take."