Remarks at the 2019 UNA-USA Global Engagement Summit

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
February 22, 2019


Good morning, everyone, and thank you, Peter. Thanks to Chris and Kathie for having me here today. Thank you all for taking the time from your busy schedules to come here and explore the important work of the United Nations.

Very tough to follow two extremely gifted politicians at the podium. I’m not a politician. I’m a diplomat, so bear with me as I go through my remarks. I’ll tell you a little bit about my own background and then focus on the work that we’re doing at the US Mission to the United Nations.

First, I want to thank Congressman Engel for the strong words on anti-Israel bias, with which I wholeheartedly agree, and it’s something that the administration is also working very hard on here at the UN. I also want to thank the Secretary-General for his very inspiring remarks. He is a tremendous leader for this institution.

As the Acting Permanent Representative of the United States at the UN, it’s very encouraging to see so many Americans – from so many walks of life – engaging in the work of the world’s premiere multilateral institution. This is where more than anywhere else the United States is partnering with other countries everyday on virtually every issue on the global agenda.

And it’s been a great honor to represent the U.S. as a Foreign Service Officer over the past 32 years. That means that I came in when Ronald Reagan was president. He signed my first commission, and I’ve worked for every administration since. And it’s been a great honor to represent the people of the United States in postings from Bangkok to Baghdad, and now as our Acting Permanent Representative here at the United Nations. And I’m extremely humbled to lead our Mission’s team of around 115 talented and devoted public servants who strive every day to deliver for the American people here at the UN.

To tell you a little bit about myself, I was born in Palo Alto and grew up in Laguna Beach, CA, where my journey to this stage began as a 14-year-old participant in the Laguna Beach High School Model United Nations. Anyone here from California? [Cheers.] Welcome to New York, and anyone here involved in Model United Nations? [Cheers.] For those of you who aren’t, consider getting involved. It was my greatest dream someday as a student at Model UN to end up in a place like this. I never imagined it would be at this podium in front of an audience like you all, but what a great journey it’s been. And I really encourage you all who are pursuing this to keep at it. As Congressman Engel said, spend time with the committees in Washington who work on foreign relations. Spend time here in New York. Stay involved. It’s really great to see you all here and see the support for America’s work in this institution.

My journey to American diplomacy isn’t just because of Model United Nations. I was also a foreign exchange student in France and in university studied international politics, as I’m sure many of you do, and Near Eastern studies. I joined the diplomatic corps at the age of 22 right out of graduate school and spent most of my career, representing the US overseas at postings in Europe and the Middle East.

Here at the UN, I’ve been working since June last year, principally as the deputy to Nikki Haley, and then when she left on January 1st, I became the acting permanent representative. And every day, I’ve been working on a wide range of U.S. foreign policy objectives – as Peter described in the beginning – set forth by the President, including trying to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the UN, all while promoting international peace and security, and defending human rights and human dignity around the world. In our Mission to the UN, we strive to ensure that the U.S. remains a leader on issues that matter most to the American citizens and that we harness the UN’s potential as a force multiplier on issues from peacekeeping to humanitarian assistance, to human rights.

Let me spend a few minutes talking about our work in the Security Council. As you all know, there are 15 members of the Council – five permanent members, 10 non-permanent members who are elected to two-year terms – and the Presidency of the Council rotates every month. It just so happened that in 2018 – my first year here at the UN – the U.S. held the presidency during September, which coincides with the annual General Assembly high level week when all eyes are on the UN as we welcome the leaders from every corner of the world to discuss the most pressing challenges on the international agenda.

Having the presidency of the Council provides an opportunity to help frame the global security agenda for that month, so during our month as President, we held the Security Council’s first-ever meeting on the situation in Nicaragua, in response to a wave of government repression, intimidation, and indiscriminate violence, which left hundreds dead and thousands wounded. It’s not easy to add a new subject to the Security Council’s agenda. There are Council members who are fundamentally opposed to discussing, for example, human rights issues there. We disagree with that, and in the case of Nicaragua, we knew how important it was for the Security Council to be briefed on the situation on the ground; to understand how protests, initially against pension reform, met government repression which grew to threaten regional security; and to learn how the Organization of American States was working to find solutions to the serious crisis in our hemisphere.

We also held the first-ever Security Council briefing focused on how corruption affects global conflicts, both as a driver of conflict and an obstacle to conflict resolution. Although we often treat corruption as an afterthought when it comes to peace and security, we believe it also, in cases, is a fundamental cause of conflict that we think the Security Council should address.

As a case study for the nexus between corruption and peace and security, we followed up with a public event on Venezuela. Mind you this was back in September, five months ago. That event highlighted how pervasive corruption in Venezuela had led to the worst man-made humanitarian crises in the history of this hemisphere, and one of the worst global humanitarian crises in a generation, with millions of Venezuelans forced to flee to neighboring countries. We highlighted the responsibility of Maduro and his cronies for the deepening crisis, and the need for the international community to do more. The situation in Venezuela, of course, has come to the forefront in recent weeks, and as you may know, last month we convened the Security Council for a debate on Venezuela with the Secretary of State Pompeo in the chair for the United States. And we’re continuing to look for ways we can work with and within the UN system to help the plight of the Venezuelan people. My team here remains seized with and working hard on Venezuela every day.

In the Security Council, we’ve regularly raised the topic of human rights violations, even when it is uncomfortable for some of the other members for us to do so – whether in Iran, Burma, North Korea, Syria, or elsewhere. Some Security Council members want to avoid engaging on these topics for a variety of reasons, but we’re determined and unflinching in our commitment to shed light on the worst abuses in the world, including in the UN Security Council.

In my eight months at the UN, the Security Council has dealt with situations in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Horn of Africa, Mali, South Sudan, Burundi, Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, the West Bank in Gaza, Western Sahara, Lebanon, Yemen, Haiti, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Cyprus, Ukraine, and on and on and on. In each case, we spoke out strongly for US interests and strove to ensure that they were reflected in Security Council decisions and statements.

In our work at the UN, we’re also focused intensely on humanitarian crises and humanitarian response. For far too long, the conflict in Syria has caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with millions displaced and hundreds of thousands civilians killed. We consistently call for accountability for the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, including its use of chemical weapons against its own people.

We’re also engaged here in a determined effort to make UN peacekeeping missions more effective, efficient and accountable, with a specific focus on improving peacekeeper performance, including eliminating sexual exploitation and abuse, and on September 21, when we were President of the Security Council, we oversaw the adoption of a groundbreaking UN resolution establishing a transparent reporting process for performance failures, real accountability measures for those failures, and objective criteria to match the right police and troops with the right peacekeeping roles. UN peacekeepers are doing great and important work around the world, and we’re trying to ensure they have the best possible guidance and support. There are about 100,000 UN peacekeepers from dozens of countries and 15 Missions around the world, and it’s a great privilege to be here to support them as well.

In our work at the UN, we’re also focusing intensely, as I mentioned, on the humanitarian crisis and response. In all of this, from humanitarian work to peacekeeping to Security Council work to human rights, there are several unifying themes: protecting lives, advancing human dignity, maintaining international peace and security. These are the founding principles of the UN. They’re also U.S. values, and they require U.S. leadership and U.S. engagement with the UN to advance them.

Because we have an obligation to ensure that the generous contributions of U.S. taxpayers to the UN budget are spent responsibly, – as the Secretary-General mentioned, the U.S. is the largest financial contributor to the UN, contributing 22 percent of the regular budget and 25 percent to the peacekeeping budget – we are committed to pressing the UN to reduce waste and to avoid mission creep wherever we can.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen many ways the UN can contribute to international peace and security. I have worked with UN representatives, agencies, and on UN issues at just about every foreign service posting I’ve had, from my first assignment in Thailand as a refugee protection officer visiting refugee camps along the Lao and Cambodian borders, to coordinating aid programs in the West Bank, to working with the UN Peace Forces in Cyprus to my most recent overseas tour in Iraq where I worked with the UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande – who, as Congressman Engel mentioned, is now in Yemen – to develop a stabilization program that got over two million internally displaced Iraqis home safely at very low cost.

In the field, I’ve seen the UN rise to challenges and exceed expectations, delivering peace, security, and relief with strong U.S. leadership and strong U.S. involvement, so I know what this institution can do when it’s at its best and when we support it. The UN could be an even more effective, efficient tool in the service of its goals. That’s why we’re strongly supporting the UN Secretary-General’s reform agenda, but unfortunately, that is not always the case. So we’re committed to working harder to making the UN a more effective, more efficient, more results-oriented body.

Our constructive engagement with the United Nations can strengthen UN security and prosperity, while also strengthening that of all other nations. During his address to the UN General Assembly at this stage in September, President Trump noted that the United Nations has unlimited potential, and made clear the U.S. is committed to making the UN more effective and accountable. Ultimately, a UN that’s more efficient, accountable, results-oriented, and transparent is one that’ll better live up to the promise and the vision of its Charter, and one that will do more to secure not only U.S. interests, but also those of its other Member States.

From peacekeeping to caring for refugees and others in desperate humanitarian need, to serving as a platform to shine a bright light on human rights abuses and threats to international peace and security, including trying to end wars and keep the peace, it’s hard and important work for US interests and those for the rest of the world. The UN is playing a vital role, and we’re committed to making it an even better institution as it fulfills that role.

With that, let me once again thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to come here today and support the important work of the United Nations. It is, indeed, a great honor to represent all of you here at the UN, and I thank you for your attention.