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Robert Skinner's Keynote Remarks at 2017 UNA-NCA Annual Meeting
Thanks Don, and thanks to you, Steve and Paula for having me.  And congratulations to Don, Patrick, Edison and Global Classrooms on their awards tonight.   All very well deserved; your work and dedication on behalf of the UN and UN causes is highly appreciated and we thank you for your commitment.  

And thanks to each and every one of you for being here tonight at this critical time for the United Nations.  With the theme of the evening the importance of U.S. leadership at the UN, I feel I have as much to hear from all of you as you do in hearing from me.  You all are the true experts in advocating for U.S. leadership and engagement, and nobody does it better.  This is why it’s been such a pleasure working with all of you since I arrived in my role at the UN Information Center just over a year and a half ago.

There can be no doubt that there are significant challenges for the UN in the current political climate here in Washington.  The headlines scream about the bigger ones – the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement; the proposed huge budget cuts to UN peacekeeping, humanitarian, and development work – really, to everything the UN does; and the questions on whether the U.S. will remain a member of the UN Human Rights Council.  

Any one of these alone would be a blow to U.S. leadership at the UN, and let’s face it, to the UN.  Taken together, if all three were to happen, they would be hugely significant to the direction of the UN’s work, as well as the U.S.-UN relationship.

So, there is cause for concern.  From the drafting of the Charter, through the growth of the UN from 51 members to 193, with the expansion and changes in UN Peacekeeping, to the scientific certainty of climate change and the need for a universal response to tackle the challenge, U.S leadership at the UN has always been relied upon, and in the end, has delivered.  So, the question becomes would the U.S., or could the U.S., maintain its crucial leadership role in this circumstance?  I won’t speculate, but the answer is likely rather messy.   

But, even with this concern, I see hope and opportunity.  Some of that comes from just being here with you and knowing that there is strong citizen support for the UN.  This matters - and I have seen it from Washington to Honolulu and from Los Angeles to Milwaukee - all places where I have had the pleasure to speak and meet UNA members over the last few months.  Americans are waking up to the importance of the UN’s work and are coming out to demonstrate their support.  These voices will be heard, and next week’s UNA Lobby Day will be a critical moment to make the most of this.  

Another part of my hope comes from what I am seeing and hearing in response to some of the completed and proposed actions that could threaten or diminish U.S. leadership in the specific areas I’ve mentioned.  

Starting with the one that has already happened through executive announcement – the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.  The response to that disappointing decision - after U.S. leadership had played such a significant role in reaching the agreement - has been overwhelming.  The world has come together to say that regardless of the U.S. administration’s position, we are going to continue the fight.  Now, if this were just the other governments of the world saying this, with the U.S completely on the outside, this would be problematic.  

But it is the commitment of organizations and citizens in the U.S. that makes me believe that Paris can -  and will - succeed.  Who could have ever imagined such a groundswell of support, from all sectors and corners of the U.S., for a United Nations agreement?  

However, a changing UN brought people into the Paris negotiating process, and now the people of the United States are saying We are Still in, or more precisely, #wearestillin – a coalition of over 1,000 governors, mayors, businesses, university and college presidents, and investors.  Paris will succeed because Americans will join with the rest of the world to lead on actions and solutions to this real global threat.

On the budget proposal and its potential impact on the UN, yes, again. as I said a couple of minutes ago, there is reason to worry.  

Cutting the UN’s peacekeeping budget by 50 percent from 2016 levels; completely eliminating funding for voluntary contributions to the UN’s humanitarian and development agencies, funds, and programs; and an almost 30 percent cut to the UN’s regular budget would, as Secretary-General Guterres’s Spokesman said, “simply make it impossible for the UN to continue all of its essential work advancing peace, development, human rights and humanitarian assistance.”  

But the Secretary-General has also said on numerous occasions that he is “totally committed to reforming the United Nations and ensuring that it is fit for purpose and delivers results in the most efficient and cost-effective manner”, and that he “stands ready to discuss with the United States and any other Member State how best we can create a more cost-effective organization to pursue our shared goals and values.”

 

 

Secretary-General Guterres’s real commitment to making the UN work better, his long-standing relationships here with key members of Congress, and his ongoing efforts to work with senior U.S. administration officials in New York and in Washington provide reason to believe that he, and his team of senior officials, can make a strong case for continued U.S contributions to the UN - at appropriate funding levels.

The UN’s work matters to U.S. security and other interests, and we need to demonstrate that to the new U.S. decision makers, as well as to old friends on the Hill.

Which is why all of you here tonight are so important.  Without UNA, our colleagues in this building at the UN Foundation and the Better World Campaign, civil society organizations, and citizens that care about the U.S. position in the world and at the UN, we can’t get the word out far and wide.  You can, and we know all of you will be doing just that next week with Congress.

And, of course, we also hope you will raise the importance of the U.S remaining engaged at the Human Rights Council.  U.S. leadership has had a real impact on the work of the Council, and leaving it could open the playing field to those countries on the Council about which the U.S. is unhappy.  Which could lead to more anti-Israel resolutions and move the Council to become imbalanced in its work.  

My hope is that key administration officials will see the value of working within the diplomacy of the council, and also recognize the strong and eloquent partner and global champion of human rights that it has in High Commissioner Zeid – a frequent visitor to Washington.

 

It goes without saying that the Human Rights machinery of the United Nations would not exist without the work of the great American, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Council, even if imperfect, remains the best forum for the U.S. to continue its tradition of standing up for fundamental freedoms around the world.  

So, yes, I do lose some sleep over the U.S.-UN relationship these days.  

But I also believe that when we consider the history of the U.S. in the UN; when we see the strong and dedicated leadership we have at the UN today; when we see the number of problems and issues that can only be solved through international cooperation; when we look at the numbers and see the value for dollar that the UN delivers for U.S national security interests;  and, finally, when we see the number of civil society groups, organizations, and individual voters that support U.S. engagement with the UN, this administration and congress will recognize that the U.S.-UN partnership must remain a key component of its foreign policy work.  

Because only the UN can field multinational peacekeeping forces in all corners of the globe to create stability out of conflict; only the UN can respond to humanitarian crises no matter in what region or country they occur; only the UN can monitor elections worldwide and be seen as a trusted and neutral arbiter; and, only the UN can bring the peoples of the world together to take on the great challenges, like climate change, that we must face as a global community.

And I emphasize that word PEOPLES, as the preamble of the UN Charter begins not with “we the governments” or “we the nations” but meaningfully with WE the PEOPLES.  And, if there was ever a time for the voices of the people to be heard – all of our voices – it is now.

Thanks to all of you for recognizing this, and for being so committed to the work of the United Nations.  I look forward to working with you in the critical months to come.  

I’d be happy to take a few questions if there is time.   

 

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