AMBASSADOR POWER: Okay. Good morning, everybody. It’s great to see you all here and I thank you for coming. I wanted to join you today and to try to reflect a little bit on the last eight years of the Obama Administration at the UN, and in particular the nearly four years I’ve spent here as U.S. Permanent Representative. I want to discuss the progress we’ve made – there are obviously a lot of issues that are outstanding – but also why that progress is so important to the American people and to the broader cause of international stability.
First, I want to start by thanking you, the UN press corps, for your essential work day to day that will go on. So much of what we do here at the UN – the emergency Security Council meetings on critical, urgent matters like the Ebola crisis back in the day, or the siege of Aleppo very recently; the sessions in the General Assembly where the pendulum shifts on issues of true importance like recent votes on LGBT rights and, indeed, on the U.S. policy toward Cuba; the debates between UN Member States about how to address the most grave threats such as North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, or regimes, of whom there are too many, that commit atrocities with impunity – so much of that work is known to people out in the world and well away from these halls because you choose to report it.
You get the facts out there and it is increasingly the case, it seems, where facts are contested propositions and are increasingly in short supply. We are seeing more and more obfuscation, more and more use of the traditional tools of media as platforms for lying, unfortunately. And indeed, when facts and truth can feel like an endangered species, you all are trying to track them down and trying to convey them to our publics; and for our publics to make sensible choices, we need to have the facts before us as citizens. I can say firsthand that we diplomats don’t always like answering your questions, but you hold us accountable for what you perceive to be inconsistencies in our positions, and you force us to get our games up, and I’m really grateful to you. As a former journalist myself, I always feel great sympathy for you as I walk in and when I can’t talk to you, I – my – inside I’m saying, “God, if I were them I’d be so pissed off at her. She should stop.” But – and you are there day in, day out, and what you do really and truly matters.
We’ve tried to speak up on behalf of journalists who are being persecuted around the world through campaigns on their behalf, through individualizing the threat that the press is increasingly facing in so many parts of the world. We’ve taken up cases like Khadija Ismayilova and Gao Yu and, indeed, seen those journalists released, but we know that for every individual that gets released there are so many others who are living behind bars simply for trying to do the jobs that you’re doing every day. And the intimidation, as it increases, will mean there is less reliable information in the public domain and policymakers will have less of a factual predicate before them to make optimal choices. I think you learn a lot about a government by the way it treats its press, and that’s something all of us should bear in mind.
So we think that an additional feature of the UN community that’s very important and that has exploded, really, onto the scene in the last decade and a half is that of NGOs. And yet, as you know, there is more and more of an effort by some very powerful countries as well to shut out NGOs and civil society from deliberations here, even though often governments, depending on the issue before them, are more removed from how citizens are experiencing UN programs or governmental policies and civil society actually brings a voice of knowing what works and what doesn’t on the development side; they are the ones that can hold all of us accountable on the human rights side. But you will see, I think, in the years going forward, again, more, not less of an effort to keep NGOs away, and that’s some tribute to the success of civil society in becoming part of the lifeblood of this organization, and so there’s a bit of a counter-reaction, but it is also the case that some of the systems here are screwy – you know, when you have on an NGO committee deciding on accreditation for NGOs a vast majority of countries who themselves crack down on NGOs, that’s very unlikely to produce fair outcomes, shall we say. And we’ve seen that and we’ve tried to challenge that, including for the Committee to Protect Journalists, as some of you know.
We have passed around two documents that I wanted to just touch upon briefly before I open it up to your questions. The first is the Exit Memo that you may have seen already that President Obama asked each of us in the Cabinet to write. I just want to highlight a few of the elements to that. One of President Obama’s guiding principles has been his belief that the best way to keep America safe and advance our interests and values is to lead the world in building global coalitions to counter threats that by their very nature can’t be tackled by one country alone, transnational threats. He also believes it is essential for us to better share the burden of meeting those threats, so there’s a functional and pragmatic argument because of the nature of the threats but a functional and pragmatic argument also because of the need for America’s contributions to be sustainable over time given all of the other imperatives that we face.
And so we have put a huge amount into our engagement with multilateral institutions, including here at the United Nations, paying our dues, having him personally chair a number of summits that increased UN capability such as that on peacekeeping, but also resettlement slots for refugees. We also, I think, have tried to operate here in pursuit of our national interests but also showing countries respect, listening to them, recognizing our common security and our common humanity, and that we will often have a different take on a particular issue, but trying to hear where people are coming from and trying to make our arguments tailored to where they’re at.
The challenges that we’ve grappled with here are manifold, as you know. You cover them every day. But defeating barbaric terrorist organizations like ISIL or Boko Haram, which we discussed in the Council yesterday; addressing global health crises like we managed to do – I think we would all wish to do Ebola differently and better and sooner in retrospect, but the catastrophe that was averted, in large measure, I think, by President Obama’s leadership and his ability to mobilize the world to chip in a really formidable global coalition, along with, of course, the work of the UN and some heroic NGOs who took great risks on the ground – that was very significant; recognizing that the displacement crisis is not in a good place – as we sit here, 65 million people displaced, the most since the Second World War – mobilizing more funds and extracting from overstretched budgets across the world more contributions to deal with the humanitarian assistance piece of that, the education piece of that, but also using the summit to double the number of resettlement or legal avenues of admission slots available in the world, including, of course, by increasing our own numbers.
Nonproliferation – I think we’ve seen the leadership that the United States has shown on this issue, on the Prague Agenda, with all that the president has done outside the UN, but also in his decision in his first General Assembly to chair the summit on nonproliferation, the work that we’ve been able to do unanimously on the Council on the issue of North Korea, which, of course, the bite of those sanctions, the most intense and aggressive set of sanctions that we’ve seen at the Security Council in a generation. The effect of those sanctions will – it will take time to kick in in full and have the desired effects, but we’re already seeing significant reductions in the acquisition of hard currency by the North Korean regime, and that hard currency, of course, is not hard currency that’s being used to pay for food to deal with the stunting of young people in North Korea, but instead, of course, was getting channeled into the ballistic missile and the nuclear programs. And so those resolutions are extremely important, the two that we secured working in close partnership with China last year, but as I’ve long said and as you all know, implementation and enforcement are everything. And so it will be incumbent on the Security Council to stay extremely vigilant on all dimensions of those two resolutions.
Bottom line, I think when you look at the difficult challenges, the UN community, including many of you, look to the United States to know what policy or what direction we are going to pursue, and they look to the United States for leadership, and on a whole host of indispensable issues we have led.
The second document I circulated is just my remarks from last week at what will be my last Security Council ministerial debate, and there I just touched upon some of my frustrations about some of the dynamics here at the UN that I think would not actually take much to fix, but somehow don’t get fixed and won’t fix themselves. And you’ve heard it, those of you who still watch Security Council sessions in the open chamber, hearing the same rote positions, the obfuscations, the euphemisms. I understand particularly why smaller countries feel reticent to come out and be seen to be picking fights with bigger countries, and so, again, it’s important to see things as they see things. But by the same token, smaller countries and big countries alike have an interest in a rules-based international order, and when people defy those rules, and particularly if they are permanent members of the Security Council, have the ability to impede enforcement action or a meaningful Council response, then if words are what we have, we have to use our words more precisely and pinpoint responsibility. In some cases, that can be the only form of accountability – political pressure, public pressure. But when euphemisms are brought to bear, that can really diminish the cost that a country or an actor pays for violating international norms on which all of us depend.
I think that we need real vision and real leadership of the UN, both from Member States and from the institution. I think we’re very encouraged by the energetic first – I guess we’re now almost two weeks of the new Secretary-General Guterres, including his reform efforts within the structure of the secretariat, and especially his dedication to conflict resolution and also to sustaining peace, to not taking our eye off the ball and to seeing conflict on a continuum. We think that plays to his background, to his strengths, but we also think it is very, very well tailored to the moment that we’re in where there is, of course, too much conflict, too many weak states, too many non-state actors taking advantage of vacuums and institutional weaknesses, too many state actors compounding the instability in their countries while arguing that they are shoring it up by being overbroad in who they target, claiming that political opponents are, in fact, terrorists, those who criticize them are, in fact, those plotting violence against them. One has to be very, very careful to discern between the genuine threats and then the self-fulfilling prophecies when you alienate large swaths of your population, which is happening in too many parts of the world.
We did note the importance of Secretary-General Guterres using Article 99 of the UN Charter and being prepared to come forward, as is appropriate, particularly if the Council is divided or passive, which can happen, to come forward and to put issues on the agenda. And we think that independent-mindedness, in the long run, is going to be beneficial for global stability, and what is beneficial for global stability and for the cause of peace and human rights is going to be beneficial for the United States.
Finally, just given that we are in a transition and about to wind down a transition and hand over to a group of other administration officials and a new president, I just would make a last pitch, which I think is reflected in the paper you have before you, both of them, that the UN system is flawed. It’s 193 Member States, more than half of whom are not democracies. It is a bloated bureaucracy that has accreted bad habits over 71 years. All of us have bad habits; imagine accreting them over 71 years. We have permanent members of the Security Council, Russia, and at times China, blocking meaningful action in response to some of the gravest threats to peace and security of our lifetimes – indeed, the gravest threats in the history of the UN. So one has to be very clear-eyed about some of the structural deficiencies in this landscape.
However, the United States needs the UN. If the UN didn’t exist, we would be building a global organization with an independent secretariat. We would be trying to metabolize troops from lots of different countries to go to dangerous places to protect civilians. We would be figuring out how to create an international legal mechanism that would make judgments about the use of force and economic sanctions and that would exercise vocal leadership when elections are stolen, when coups are staged. We would build some version of what we have.
And we should not forget that we are ourselves – all of us in our respective countries – affected by global threats, and we need a stronger global institution – a stronger UN – to be able to respond more nimbly, with more capable individuals who are recruited into the system. There are some incredibly talented people who are part of the UN. But there are people who are sent to the UN because their governments want to get rid of them and put them somewhere. And it’s a mix. And the more talented people, the more public servants in the world who dedicate themselves either to causes within their own country, to serving in their own governments, but also throw serving in the UN into the mix of the ways that you can serve, I think the better off all of us will be.
The UN goes to places that the United States will not go. And even on something like peacekeeping, where we pay such a large share of the budget, it is worth pointing out that nearly 72 percent of the budget is paid for by other countries, and virtually all of the troops and police come from other countries. But they deploy to places that we really care about seeing stabilized, either places like Mali, that have a terrorist threat within their borders, or places like South Sudan, where sexual violence is rampant and we all want to be part of averting a genocide.
So regardless of the occasions where the UN – either as the Council or Secretariat or any one of the UN agencies or institutions – has fallen short, the world is always going to find itself turning to the UN, whether it’s for the next terrorist threat, the next rogue nation intent on proliferating, pursuing nuclear weapons, the next Ebola crisis or other epidemic or pandemic, the next tsunami, we know where they’re going to turn. So it is in our interest to make this a more capable organization, and that will never happen if the United States isn’t here in the organization, leading from a position of engagement, respect, and an embrace of the concept of common security and common humanity.
So with that, I’m happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Thank you, Madam Ambassador. On behalf of the UN Correspondent Association, thank you for this farewell briefing and for all your press conferences in the last four years and briefings. My name is Nabil Abi Saab, and I am Al Hurra TV station correspondent.
I would like to ask you about this international – or what we see in the United States and in Europe and in different parts of the world – the anti-establishment atmosphere or wave. Are you worried that this will affect the UN, or what do you think the impact on the UN will be, with new leaders coming to power in different parts of the world? And what do you have to say to your successor in this regard?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thanks, Nabil. And I will have a lot more time to reflect on the solution side of the equation when I’m living a more quiet life. But I think that, clearly, there is concern around the world, and it’s quite extraordinary, actually, the diversity of countries that are experiencing this phenomenon of concern, but concern that institutions, public servants, are not serving those who rely on them. And in many ways, the wakeup call that we received on this was not – over the course of 2016, it was the Arab Spring, where people risked their lives against governments that they never would have thought to challenge. But just their sense of despair and alienation and their sense that institutions could not serve them led them to lose their fear and to take extraordinary risks. And obviously, the responses were very varied in the different countries.
But even in a place like Tunisia – which we all collectively, I think, root for so fervently and which has come so far and done so much – you still see that, first of all, institutions that have grown sclerotic under a dictatorship, that have not enjoyed checks and balances for a long time, it’s very hard to fix quickly. But it’s also very hard to retain the trust of one’s public. And I think the more that a government like that in Tunisia – that tries to be responsive and tries to keep an ear on the street and tries to be inclusive and to compromise – the better off it will be. But people are still impatient for change. And that’s the best example of the best-managed transition that we saw out of the Arab Spring.
I think, then, across as well the democratic world, you see people more drawn to arguments that stoke fear and a sense of – a closing of one’s identity, where you may be a mother, a Catholic, to take myself as it happens, a Caucasian. You may be a lot of different things. But your identity can come to shrink to just one thing. And one part of your identity becomes so much more salient and you see commonality with people with the same identity, political party, perhaps, and then people who don’t share that salient quality become “the other.” But that is a symptom, I think, again, that we’ve seen through history, of course, of just feeling like people are not looking out for you, people in institutions, people in power.
And we who have the privilege to serve in these institutions have to be alert to that sense of alienation, have to try to meet people where they are. President Obama has commented on some of the irony of recent events in that so many of the programs that were blocked in Congress were meant to get at inequality and were meant to address those who are being left behind by virtue of the effects of globalization. And yet, arguably, the beneficiaries of the blockage have been people who haven’t been that inclined to embrace those programs.
So we hope that changes, and we hope that the mandate that people have taken from our election – that there needs to be more done to look out for people who feel like they are getting left behind – that that mandate would be one that would be embraced by the next president and by the Congress.
The last thing I’d say just is about the UN, which was your specific question. The UN is always going to be two things. It is going to be a place where what is happening in the world is reflected. It is the sum of its parts, by and large. And so as governments move in an undemocratic direction around the world, that will have an effect on what the UN as an institution will be able to do because people will start to vote differently. We saw – even in the wake of the Arab Spring – countries that had never, ever been inclined to vote on country-specific human rights resolutions – because they themselves were going through democratic transformations or were themselves speaking out on behalf of human rights – they became totally different players within the UN system. They actually became, potentially, agents of speaking up for the human rights of others. And we’ve seen those shifts across the board.
So what happens in the world is going to be reflected here. And if what happens in the world is that you start to see people who don’t believe in checks and balances or inclusive governance increasingly cohabitating and building little coalitions of the willing, that is going to make advancing democratic values and peace and stability here much more difficult. But it is incumbent on those who believe in democratic values and also, critically, who believe that you don’t get more stability purchased – you don’t purchase more stability by abusing human rights. When you abuse human rights, when you carpet bomb civilians, you are sowing the seeds for more instability. It is, in the short-term, maybe something that looks like you can have a victory parade over, but that will be very short-lived.
And this is a contested space right now, and it is extremely important that those of us who have spent the last – since 9/11, in the case of the United States – fighting terrorism and been involved in dealing with insurgencies around the world, specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve learned some of these lessons the hard way. And it’s only a question of time as to how long it takes other countries to come to the same conclusions.
But is also incumbent on the Secretary-General to be the voice of the Charter. And whatever the Member States, powerful or not, are doing, that Charter and the UN human rights instruments and the UN conventions and, indeed, the proliferation regime on chemical weapons, and – I mean, there is a lot that will need to come, I think, from the voice of the Charter in this period.
MODERATOR: Edie, go ahead.
AMBASSADOR POWER: I will make my answers also more concise.
QUESTION: Thank you. Madam Ambassador, I think on behalf of all of us, we would like to wish you very good luck and success in wherever the next years take you.
What could be the impact of the United States attempting to change the six-party nuclear agreement with Iran? And how do you see Iran’s actions in the one and a half years since the signing? Any suggestions to the Trump Administration?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Well, I think with regard to your first question, let me just say about the agreement why it should be preserved rather than deal with a hypothetical scenario. We need to live in a world in which a country that continues to issue threats to Israel, to us, that continues to support non-state terrorist groups like Hezbollah and others, that continues to destabilize its neighbors with its actions as in Yemen, as in Syria – it is extremely important to the United States that such a country not have nuclear weapons. So let us stipulate.
And we were able to bring Iran to the negotiating table because we joined with the world here in New York, building on what our predecessors in the Bush Administration had done to impose very strong sanctions on Iran. We also did bilateral sanctions as well ourselves, as you know, but the foundation, the international legal framework, was one established here in the UN Security Council, complemented by what we and the Europeans and others did in addition.
And with the world united against the proliferation and united around the enforcement of these sanctions, by and large, there was no daylight that the Iranian regime could take advantage of. They couldn’t forum-shop. We were united. But what being united means and taking advantage of multilateralism means is that there were other countries at the table, including Iran, of course, but also our European friends, Russia, China.
So we have succeeded in ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, cutting off its pathways. The IAEA reporting on this, the Joint Commission process – it’s working. And anybody – well, we who see the threat that Iran poses through its destabilizing actions in the region and through its support for terrorism – would be very wise to preserve an agreement that denies it a weapon of mass destruction.
And then the last thing I’d say, because I’ve answered your second question in that response, I think, about what we think of Iran since the agreement, but it is important also – one of the collateral effects of the agreement is that while we continue to take actions and condemn, again, the support for terrorism, the destabilizing actions, out of the JCPOA process, it is important that we have a channel as well. We don’t have diplomatic relations, but when our sailors ended up in a very difficult situation in Iranian custody, it was important that we were able to defuse that and get our young men and women home.
And so I think that we need to be very strong on enforcing the JCPOA in the next administration. We need to be very strong calling out the violations of international norms that occur outside the four corners of the agreement, certainly condemn anything that would happen within the agreement, but also, that is not the sum total of our view of Iran’s threat to peace and security. These other issues are absolutely mission-critical. At the same time, whether it’s on Syria or whether it’s on ensuring or seeking to ensure that we avoid an escalatory cycle, I think it’s important that the communication, at least, continue.
QUESTION: Ambassador, the Obama Administration has been criticized by many, and especially Arab nations, about not stepping up in Syria, especially when it came to the red line. Now, what do you think about such criticism?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you. Look. I think, if you look at Syria today, almost six years from the beginning of the revolution there, you know, it’s not at all surprising that the decisions of every country who is powerful in the international community should be scrutinized and – you just look at the results. Half the population has been displaced. The country became a place where foreign terrorist fighters gravitated to and now are in a position – or seek to go back to their countries, although we’ve built, I think, some strong infrastructure to prevent that through the Security Council. But the pain and suffering and the consequences for the neighbors – I mean, you look at Syria, you cannot feel satisfied by any means, despite all of our efforts, with what we’ve achieved as we leave.
In terms of the red line specifically, which was your question, I think what I would say is that we, through the credible threat of force in August and September 2013, were in a position to work with Russia and other countries, not only on the Security Council but also in Europe, to dismantle the Syrian government’s chemical weapons program. By the way, since the question of who gassed those people in August 2013 is still contested by some in fringe circles and by Russia, and Syria, of course, the fact that we took the Syrian government’s chemical weapons away in the wake of that attack, I believe, is quite a clear illustration of the international community’s de facto consensus of who had actually used the chemical weapons. It would have been a strange thing to do to take the Syrian government’s chemical weapons away if one of the other actors on the ground had been responsible for killing more than a thousand people in the suburbs of Damascus.
So we rid the government of its declared chemical weapons program, and we would not have been able to do that had we used military force in the sense that we in fact had to choose targets that were not near any of the chemical weapons facilities. So I think there’s some revisionism or misunderstanding about what we would have been able to do using force. We were able to hit targets and, through threatening to hit a series of targets, we were able to dismantle the program. But it is not necessarily the case that in hitting targets, we would have prevented the further use of chemical weapons because they would still have retained a store.
And in the end, and I was in these discussions with my president and with Secretary Kerry and others, because we were not going to be eliminating the chemical weapons program with air strikes that would have caused huge collateral harm to civilians, and God only knows what it would have unleashed, we needed to be in a position to be able to sustain a campaign in order to ensure that they didn’t use chemical weapons again. And that requires going to Congress in order to have the ability to do something in a sustained manner.
So I think it’s important also, since a lot of the critics of this moment in the Administration’s history look also to where Congress was on this matter, and it was very disappointing and very surprising that in light of the threat that chemical weapons posed not only to the people of Syria but to our closest allies in the region and to us – what it would mean if chemical weapons became a conventional weapon of war – it was disappointing that we did not have more support domestically to sustain a campaign.
QUESTION: Ambassador, my question is about South Sudan, an issue that you spent a lot of time on. We heard the Secretary-General warn of a risk of genocide in South Sudan. And I’m wondering at this point, given that we’re told that the country is on the verge of abyss, whether you think President Salva Kiir still has the legitimacy to lead that country. And similarly, Riek Machar – the U.S. has proposed sanctions against him for which you did not get support in the Security Council. What future does he have in that country?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you. Well, let me say how much I appreciate the new Secretary-General’s energy and initiative on this matter. Since July 2013, when – excuse me, July 2016 – when violence erupted in Juba after Riek and his forces had returned and were attempting to implement a peace agreement that neither the opposition nor the government was very enthused about, the political track, the question of Riek’s future and what the operative political objective is on a given day, has been in complete limbo.
And the Secretary-General, to his credit, has recognized the leading role that IGAD plays, specifically Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and I think has had the leadership of those countries on speed dial basically since he’s been in office, and recognizes the importance of IGAD, the AU, and the UN as a kind of triad, not least to prevent the parties on the ground from forum-shopping and from taking advantage of divisions. He’s really trying to get everybody latched up, and he’s trying to, as are leaders in the region, trying to re-energize the political track to come to some shared conclusion about how one should treat particularly Riek Machar, who did comply with the terms of the agreement, did return to Juba. But of course since everything went down the way it did and when the world has been saying, “No violence, let’s work things through politically,” has been very open about his intentions to get back into South Sudan by force of arms.
So I would reserve on the question of what it should look like and just say what needs to happen is that these three actors, backed by the Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council as well, need to develop an amended framework, a framework which may be an amendment to the prior one, maybe a refresh of the prior one or a re-embrace of the prior one. But there needs to be a framework because in a political vacuum, the thugs and the militia and, frankly, the lawlessness is just getting worse and worse every day and taking on an increasing ethnic dimension.
The last thing I’d say was your first question on President Kiir’s legitimacy. Look, he was the elected leader of the country. He had broad support, and he’s very proud of this, from all the ethnic groups, I think, in the country, including some that he had fought against 20 years before in the bush and who he’s in great tension with right now. But he prides himself and says that he’s the leader of all of South Sudan. I think he has got to make choices that reflect that talking point. And that means making a choice to marginalize or even hold accountable hard-liners within his inner circle who are pursuing a Dinka agenda and are ethnicizing the conflict and who are not taking control of forces who are raping South Sudanese civilians.
So again, his rhetoric, his desire, he says, to be what he was at the time of independence, which was the kind of father of the country after John Garang – but he’s got to operationalize that by making people who feel completely excluded and indeed targeted by the government feel as if he is their president.
MODERATOR: Michelle, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ambassador. Actually, a follow-up to Carole’s question. The U.S. has been heavily involved, obviously, in the birth of South Sudan, and yet during the Senate confirmation hearing the other day for the next Secretary of State, it didn’t come up at all. How concerned are you that U.S. attention on South Sudan amid warnings of a possible genocide might be dimmed with the coming administration? And also, looking back on your actions here at the UN, do you think there was an opportunity missed? Should you have acted earlier on an arms embargo? Has years of threatening and not acting on it and ultimately failing to get the votes for it only emboldened the leaders of South Sudan?
AMBASSADOR POWER: On the new administration, I believe that in our country we have such deep ties to the South Sudanese people. We each have Lost Boy friends in our neighborhoods, in our communities. There is strong Hill interest, and has been over many generations. Granted, maybe today probably fewer people associated with the dark years of the war with Sudan and so forth, but still, I think there’s a core constituency. There’s a very active church and NGO set of actors who I think will continue to put this on the map.
So I wouldn’t read too much into the issues that came up at the hearing, not least because the world is a messy place and there were a lot of topics to get through. But I think this is why it’s important that Secretary-General Guterres and the leaders in the region are moving forward. And I don’t know if the next administration is going to name an envoy like we have done, but hopefully there will be an active process for whoever the U.S. leader on this file is to plug into. So the timing could actually work out well. But I would not be worried about it dropping off the radar.
In terms of, I think, your very fair question about the arms embargo, I think we recognize that the Government of South Sudan is a critical piece of the puzzle here, the critical piece in many ways. The opposition is as well. But when we talk about UNMISS, the UN force there, being able to move properly, I mean, again, the untold story of the disaster of South Sudan is that UN peacekeepers, in order to go and rescue civilians, have to request permission in order to move. I mean, it is unbelievable. It’s the worst situation for a peacekeeping mission that I’ve ever encountered with my own eyes. The peacekeepers are also doing a huge amount of good at the static protection of civilian sites that grow up in an emergency. But when you seek to liberate the UN peacekeeping mission, when you seek to ensure that that ridiculous permission structure goes away, the place you go is the Government of South Sudan, is to convince them that this is inhuman and that the mandate is unfulfillable if the peacekeepers have to ask permission of the same people who are doing the raping and the killing to be able to move. That’s nonsensical.
And so we, the United States, for a long time invested in that dialogue and that conversation, recognizing that if we imposed an arms embargo it would be taken as a very hostile act by the government and that in the wake of that, our ability to free up these peacekeepers or to convince the government to be more responsive to the Council’s demands was going to be lower. And so that was the judgment we made, and then – and you saw, we – as you say, we attached the annex of the arms embargo in order to get the regional protection force in in order to free up the movement. When the 30-day report came back negative, we waited for – we saw little hopes and glimmers here, but it was all paper progress, not real progress. But we wanted very much to see the results on the ground, and it was only having given up that any dialogue with the government was going to produce the results that we went to the arms embargo. But I think, to be honest, a lot of countries were also – I think what became clear as – when we actually came forward with a resolution was not that facts on the ground had changed and their calculus had changed, but that they had never meant it in the first place because there was nothing different about when they had – before an arms embargo than after. The situation was only worse and the arms flow was only greater. So I think it shows a certain hypocrisy and a desire to look tough without actually being prepared to follow through on your commitments. It was very disappointing.
QUESTION: Thanks, Kurtis. Ambassador, staying in the region – Sudan. The Obama Administration announced yesterday that they’re going to ease sanctions on Sudan. What is the logic that went into that at this point? I mean, we haven’t seen really any public thawing of relations between the two countries, and we see here at the UN constant problems for UNAMID being blocked by the government. So why now?
AMBASSADOR POWER: It’s a great question. We, behind the scenes, have been engaged with the Government of Sudan in a discreet way laying out the kind of steps that we would need to see in a number of areas in order for them to see sanctions relief. That included progress – probably the most difficult area was progress on Darfur and the two areas where you’ve seen, again, ceasefires. It’s challenging because there were also rebellions, and so it’s – we’re not seeing suddenly the dawn of peace in our time in those areas, but a very significant improvement over that six months.
Counterterrorism – much more cooperation, which, of course, benefits both countries. The LRA, while we haven’t apprehended Joseph Kony, the Sudanese government has turned itself from a harborer of the LRA into a country that is partnering with us to try to bring about the permanent end of a monstrous movement that, as you know, abducts kids.
And then finally, and the one that probably is sort of – is the one that lives here the most – humanitarian access – where the government has just been horrific and obstructionist and in some ways pioneering some of the tactics that the Syrian government has used in terms of denying food and access. And yet the aid groups on the ground that we partner with have described just a sea change. We have, I think, used this incentive of some sanctions relief – again, state sponsor or terror designation remains in place; the Darfur designations remain in place – but using the incentive to try to ensure progress on the ground. That progress will need to be sustained, and there are a set of reporting requirements that the next administration will need to do and make public. And again, for the same reason I mentioned on South Sudan, there’s a big constituency in this country that cares passionately about the people in Sudan, as do we, and who will hold accountable our successors to ensure that that progress is sustained, that this wasn’t just, okay, let’s get in here and get some sanctions relief before the buzzer sounds and then go back to business as usual – then go back to business as usual both in the Congress and in the NGO community, and hopefully in the next administration, once they get their team in place, that this is a lever. It is certainly not a free pass. That progress will need to be sustained, and there are a set of reporting requirements that the next administration will need to do and make public. And again, for the same reason I mentioned on South Sudan, there’s a big constituency in this country that cares passionately about the people in Sudan, as do we, and who will hold accountable our successors to ensure that that progress is sustained, that this wasn’t just, okay, let’s get in here and get some sanctions relief before the buzzer sounds and then go back to business as usual – then go back to business as usual both in the Congress and in the NGO community, and hopefully in the next administration, once they get their team in place. This is a lever, it is certainly not a free pass. This progress has to be sustained.
QUESTION: What about the indictment of Ban Ki-moon’s brother and nephew recently? What do you think of UN corruption and sort of how – I haven’t seen any comment from you on it.
AMBASSADOR POWER: I don’t have any comment. It’s not something that involves the UN.
QUESTION: What about Haiti cholera?
MODERATOR: Jonathan, go ahead.
QUESTION: Jonathan Wachtel with Fox News. Hello, Ambassador. I want to talk about Resolution 2334 and the firestorm that that has caused in this building and beyond. First of all, there have been conflicting reports about what sort of role the Obama Administration played in terms of bringing the text together and actually bringing it to a vote. If you could please clarify that question – and where is the truth? Because we’re hearing all sorts of things.
Number two, in the wake of the resolution there’s been – we heard the pro-Palestinian camp all happy about it and celebrating and the Israeli camp, or pro-Israeli camp, was quite upset and condemned it. And in the wake of this we’re hearing that the core issue of East Jerusalem, specifically the area that Jews and Christians revere as the Temple Mount and the Western Wall holy sites, and Muslims revere as the al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Buraq Wall, it seems as though the sides have hardened as opposed to what everybody was saying would be – those supporters of the resolution – would be some sort of movement forward in the peace process. I want you to comment on that.
And also, there’s been quite an outcry in Congress over the resolution and even calls for and legislation pushing for cutting funding to the United Nations. Could you please comment on that? And I guess that’s enough for now. (Laughter.)
AMBASSADOR POWER: Okay, let me take each of those, or try to take them in turn. So it is just absolutely false that the United States was the driving force behind this resolution. We didn’t draft the resolution, we didn’t put it forward. You all have been here all year, you know as well as I do that the Palestinians, for the entire year, were saying that they were going to bring a resolution forward of some kind by the end of the year or – one heard it in different terms – by the end of the Obama Administration. Sometimes we would hear it that way. So I think that in the end, President Obama made a judgment on the basis of the text that came before him. There were a lot of texts, and still are a lot of texts, as I understand it, floating around. The Palestinians at one point had said that, again through the Arab group, that they would – that they may move something forward that was on unilateral recognition, something that in order to become a state you have to get recognized by the Security Council. And every time this subject came up we would say that the president would need to make a decision on when – if and when there was a text.
And so it was the final text on which the president made what was a very difficult decision, less because of the content of the resolution, which is not a resolution we would have written but which enshrines our deep concerns about the two-state solution, our opposition to incitement, to violence, to terrorism, and, of course, our deep, deep concerns about and opposition to the settlement building. But as I said in my explanation of vote at the time, the venue here is a flawed venue because of the overwhelming disproportionate and, indeed, biased focus on Israel across the system. And it just – there’s no logic in the world, with as many nefarious actors doing dastardly things as today, that you would have 18 resolutions on Israel in the General Assembly and one on North Korea, and one on Syria, notwithstanding that Aleppo now looks like Grozny and the amount of human carnage inflicted.
And so I think there’s an ambivalence because of the venue. But there is also a recognition that if things keep going on this in this way, and if the building continues and the incitement continues, and people keep saying the two-state solution is dead, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And as a country that is deeply committed to the stability of the region and such a close friend and partner of Israel, to watch that happen and to not be able to understand how this building can continue and Israel can remain at the same time a Jewish state and a democratic state, I think the president felt that it was important to send a signal of just how important this issue and the other issues in the resolution are.
And a veto, by contrast, given the content of the resolution, I think his judgment was that that would have been seen to be inconsistent with what we had articulated just publicly and privately for so long over the eight years of the Administration.
In terms of your very fair question about what has the effect been, I mean, this is – the effects of the resolution itself, of course, are quite modest. It is a resolution that reaffirms prior resolutions, condemns a set of actions, and calls for urgent progress toward a two-state solution. And yes, there is a reporting requirement, but as you know, there’s a reporting requirement as there is with our monthly Middle East sessions.
So I think what it has done, along with Secretary Kerry’s speech, is generated a conversation about both the two-state solution and settlements and the other dimensions of why negotiations have not progressed that was not happening. And whether that conversation proves productive or whether, as you say, the sides harden and people are driven to their corners, I think it’s too soon to tell. But the debate is happening, and I think the question that Secretary Kerry posed in his speech, as a lifelong friend of Israel, is really an important one for us to also debate in this country, which is, how is this going to work? When you have 590,000 people living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, if that continues, how is that going to get us closer or get us back to being in a position to negotiate the really hard issues?
And then lastly, on Congress, I would say that we’ve seen – there’s a number of bills pending, including some that would defund the UN. And let me just say that we lead the world in part by leading at the UN, and if we were to tie our hands behind our back or to strip this organization of programming that’s used to support mediation for conflict out in the world, or support humanitarian work, or even support the new Secretary-General, who’s making a major effort at conflict resolution on South Sudan, Cyprus – this would be extremely detrimental to U.S. interests. And it would penalize those actors who are – again, it’s not a perfect system, it’s a flawed system, but nonetheless who are by and large trying to advance the causes of international peace and security, development, human rights, dignity – for there to be less of that work done in the world is going to make for a messier world. And the only beneficiaries of our pullback of funding from the UN would be countries like China and Russia, who, depending on the day, certainly, in some debates would greatly prefer that the United States was fighting and advocating here and pushing policies with less standing. I mean, that will be – if there’s less U.S. leadership at the UN, it will be other countries that step in to fill the void. And I can think of, again, at least a couple countries who do not share our approach to fighting terrorism, to promoting human rights, to respect for international borders. And so I don’t think that’s something the American people would benefit from and it certainly isn’t something either that the Government of Israel would benefit from because we would find ourselves, instead of being inside the room able to work with our Israeli partners to ensure more integration of the Israel mission, as we have here, with Yom Kippur recognized as a UN holiday, with the Israeli ambassador now chairing a committee for the first time, doing a big conference on anti-Semitism. I mean, the string of changes that we have been able to secure comes in part because we are in the room and we are in the room as a credible leader within the UN, which would become extremely hard to do if we were not contributing our share of funding.
QUESTION: May I ask a follow-up, a direct follow-up on this, please?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Joseph Klein, Canada Free Press. First of all, is there any notion that at the United Nations Security Council there would be a follow-up to the Paris conference, any outcome from the Paris conference to be taken up at the Security Council either Tuesday or at least before your term is up? And in reviewing the text of Resolution 2334 to make sure that, in your words, it was, “balanced,” to what extend did you reach out to the Israeli ambassador to get his input and to try to get more specific language calling out Hamas and the PA by name for incitement to violence, designating terrorists as martyrs – into the resolution, not just engaging in the kind of euphemisms about terrorism that you have criticized in other contexts?
AMBASSADOR POWER: This was not our resolution, so I think you can probably pose those questions to the people who were negotiating the text. And then on your first question, I’m not aware of anything coming out of Paris, and was in close touch with my Israeli counterpart this morning on this matter, and I don’t think anything is pending.
MODERATOR: We have time for one more question. We’re already 15 minutes into the UN spokesperson’s briefing. Kahraman, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Kurtis. Madam Ambassador, as you said, many in this organization look up to the U.S. for leadership, but that comes with benefits, also with blame. Now many are blaming the U.S. for the outstanding issues that this world is facing today, like Syria, DPRK, Iran, South Sudan. Was there any moment in your term that you thought a more robust action would prevent some of these crises to get worse? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR POWER: I think that your core point is spot on, that because we are the United States, really people do look to us to lead – when there’s a tsunami or a natural disaster, when there’s a massacre, when there’s a conflict to be addressed. But it is just not the case that any single country can – had it only deployed this specific tool, that that would have, like fairy dust, made all the underlying, depending on the conflict, ethnic or sectarian tensions vanish. And so I’m in the camp who believes that the United States has a huge amount of leverage and that we should always prepare for what we do, but err on the side of getting caught trying, and employing the tools in our toolbox as best we can. And so I, for instance, would never apologize for the efforts that Secretary Kerry made either on Middle East peace or with the Russian Federation on Syria over so many months because when people are dying, it is worth seeing whether there is a path forward. I think any of us can say, oh, you could have done it tactically this way or the other way. But this relentless pursuit of peace – including on Yemen, by the way, which we haven’t talked about here today which Secretary Kerry has worked for months to try to get the conflict in a better place or get a roadmap for a way forward – that’s what the United States does. And I sometimes joke with U.S. diplomats that when we go and visit other missions, it’s a nightmare for those other missions. We come, we have a list of like 10 things we want, whether it’s on the LGBT special rapporteur or a vote on a country-specific resolution or something we’re going to do in a Fifth Committee budget negotiation alongside support for an arms embargo on South Sudan. I mean, we are getting caught trying on just virtually every conflict in the world where we feel that we have leverage and scope to make a difference, and that is a lot.
When I leave at noon on Friday next week, I will have time to reflect a little more precisely about my own views. I mean, we have very – on all the major issues that you all have been grilling me about not just today but throughout my time here – I mean, part of the wonderful thing about living in America and being part of the cabinet of this president is the debates we have had about where to land and about what the right tool is and whether it is sufficient or whether it is excessive or whether it is likely to inflame other dynamics that we always have imperfect information and an imperfect ability to anticipate.
But I’ve had that privilege of being able to leave it, as they say, on the floor. I’ve had the chance to make my views known to the president, and he’s taken some counsel from me, and sometimes has gone in another direction. And probably when I look back I will think that he was right not to listen to me in certain cases and I will wish that we had tried a different path in other cases. But I could not be more proud to be affiliated with a president who has invested so much in the cause of peace, who cares so passionately about preserving our planet for the next generation, and who believes fundamentally that strengthening the international system is in our interests and is in the interests of peoples who don’t have the luxury of having the world’s largest military or an economy of our magnitude. What they have are just the rules of the international order, and that’s not a lot, and particularly when those are under threat.
So I feel I will have time to reflect later, but I right now just feel blessed to have been a part of this ride.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thanks.