Last week I attended the opening of the 62nd United Nations General Assembly in New York, where I serve as one of two Congressional representatives in the United States delegation.
I met with world leaders and UN officials to discuss several of the major challenges facing the world today: climate change, instability in the Middle East, global security, and humanitarian crises. Each is daunting and extremely complex. And each is exactly the kind of problem that the UN is designed to address — to deal with problems that no single country can resolve. The overwhelming majority of those I met with expressed their willingness to work with the U.S. through the UN to address these issues. Now, the U.S. must demonstrate its willingness and genuine commitment to engage multilaterally — rather than unilaterally — and support the UN’s efforts.
The day before the opening of the General Assembly, I attended UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s High-Level Event on Climate Change. Numerous reports have detailed how climate change is having a significant impact in certain regions — particularly in developing countries — and on critical ecosystems. These reports also demonstrate that the problem can be addressed, in a cost-effective fashion — if action is taken now.
This meeting was crucial to building the political capital necessary to begin successful negotiations in Bali, Indonesia, later this year. The goal is to develop a framework that can be successfully negotiated in Bali this December, presented to member states by 2009, and in force by 2012. I will work with the UN and my colleagues in Congress to ensure that this treaty will be acceptable to the American people and allay their concerns about global warming and potential economic consequences.
Another major issue I raised during my visit is the plight of millions of Iraqis fleeing the violence unleashed by our invasion of that country. Since 2003, over 2 million Iraqis have left, mostly for Jordan and Syria. Syria hosts over 1.2 million refugees, while, in Jordan, the more than 750,000 Iraqi refugees now account for almost 10 percent of the population. Both nations have repeatedly appealed for international financial support, as the refugees are placing an incredible strain on their security, health, and education infrastructures. Another 2 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq as a result of ethnic and sectarian cleansing, making them the third largest displaced population in the world. This refugee problem is on the verge of becoming a full-blown crisis that could significantly destabilize the entire region — with dangerous consequences for the U.S. and its national interests.
Of particular concern to me is the U.S. response to the issue of Iraqi refugees — some of whom have been specifically targeted because of their work for the U.S. government as interpreters, drivers, and guides. While Syria has taken in over a million Iraqis, the US has received over 9,000 Iraqi refugee applications, but has admitted only 1,600 this year. We must do better or our image in the international community will continue to erode. We have a moral obligation to help these people, not just because it was our invasion of Iraq that caused this humanitarian catastrophe in the first place, but because many have placed their lives and those of their families at risk to help us.
The UN has taken the lead in response to this tragedy. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees has worked with regional neighbors and donor countries to provide for education and healthcare for refugees in Syria and Jordan. But the UN cannot handle this alone. While the US has provided some funding to UNHCR, the US must give more support — both political and financial — to the work of the High Commissioner’s office and other UN organizations such as UNICEF (UN International Children’s Emergency Fund) and the World Health Organization.
Another major issue is the expanding need for UN peacekeeping efforts. Almost 100,000 UN peacekeepers work to promote peace and political stability in 20 missions around the world, from Lebanon to Haiti to the Balkans. The UN is unparalleled in its ability to carry out peacekeeping missions and does so at a fraction of what it would cost the U.S. alone. This is not hyperbole. In 2006 the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, reported that it would cost American taxpayers eight times as much to mount a U.S.-only military operation in Haiti as it does to maintain the current UN mission there. In addition, the US has less than 10 soldiers serving as UN peacekeepers — so our troops are free to concentrate on other missions.
It is important to highlight peacekeeping because the UN is about to embark on the largest, most challenging, and most expensive such mission in its history — the operation to stop the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. An estimated 200,000 people have died and 2 million have been displaced since the fighting broke out in 2003. UNAMID, the joint African Union/UN mission in Darfur, will ultimately have over 26,000 peacekeepers. They will face real danger — just this week 10 peacekeepers were killed when their camp was overrun by rebel forces.
While President Bush addressed the urgent need for the UN to deploy to Darfur during his speech to the General Assembly, he did not commit to providing much-need additional U.S. funding to support this mission. The U.S. played a lead role in establishing the Darfur mission, but now we have to back up our words with deeds — and financial support. The U.S. is currently nearly $1 billion in debt to the UN, almost all of it for peacekeeping operations. That debt will increase in 2008 if the Administration does not take corrective steps now — by making up some, if not all, of this shortfall in the President’s supplemental funding request — and as it plans the budget for next year. A billion dollars — about the cost of a week’s operations in Iraq — seems a small price to pay when it means ending genocide.
As the Democratic Congressional representative to the UN for the coming year, I am committed to strengthening and rebuilding our relationship with the UN. The world leaders I met were enthusiastic for U.S. engagement and leadership at the UN, and I am eager and ready to support such an agenda.