Remarks at the Closing Ceremony for the National Model UN Conference

Ambassador Jonathan Cohen
Acting Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
April 18, 2019


Good afternoon everyone and thank you Michael for that warm introduction. Thanks to all of you for being here. It is a bit surreal to stand before you all today as the Acting U.S. Ambassador to the UN because once upon a time I was sitting out there ­­–not in New York- I was never that lucky, but at Model UNs from Berkley to Boston in the 1970s and 80s. I remember what it was like to sit in your seats and the hard work that goes into preparing for these conferences. I am grateful for the Model UN (MUN) experience that set me on a path that led me here. I also want to acknowledge Secretary General Tsesa Monaghan and the International Model UN Association for its leadership and support of the program.

It is wonderful to see so many of you taking an interest in the United Nations. Regardless of whether you ultimately pursue a career in diplomacy, or something completely unrelated, your initiative and enthusiasm to understand how the world works together at the United Nations (and, sometimes, how it doesn’t) is invaluable.

It has been a great honor for me to represent the U.S. as a Foreign Service Officer over the past 32 years. That means that I joined the State Department when Ronald Reagan was president. He signed my first commission, and I’ve worked for every administration since. Representing the people of the United States in postings from Bangkok to Baghdad, and now as our Acting Permanent Representative here at the United Nations. 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.

Let me tell you a little bit more about myself, I was born in Palo Alto and grew up there and in Laguna Beach, CA, where my journey to this stage began as a 14-year-old participant in the Laguna Beach High School Model UN. Do we have anyone here today from California? Welcome to New York. At that first MUN, I represented the UAE, about which I knew very little. At my last high school MUN at UC Riverside, I was the head of the US delegation playing Ambassador in the UN Security Council. And here I am today, 38 years later actually representing the US in that Council every day. It was a dream that became my reality and I hope that might be an inspiration to some of you.

I’ve been working here at the UN since June last year, when I was sworn in as an Ambassador and began my assignment as the deputy to Nikki Haley. 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 – set forth by the President, including trying to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the UN, 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 and 10 elected members who serve two-year terms – and the Presidency of the Council rotates every month. It just so happened that in 2018 –– the U.S. held the presidency in September, which coincides with the annual General Assembly high level week when all eyes are on the UN and leaders from all around the world come to this stage.

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 but 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 a solution 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 that it too can be a fundamental cause of conflict that 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, seven 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 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. As you may know, last week Vice President Pence briefed the Security Council on the crisis in Venezuela and called on member states to recognize the government of Juan Guaido. While noting, the United States’ support for a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela.

In the Security Council and the General Assembly, 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 by bringing them to the UN Security Council.

Last year, we also introduced a landmark new resolution in the General Assembly on the promotion of the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association. With our resolution, the United States showed its willingness to stand behind those exercising their rights, particularly human rights defenders, journalists, and youth, but most importantly the rights of everyday men and women to protest when they disagree with their government.

In my ten months here at the UN, the Security Council has dealt with situations in, among other places, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Horn of Africa, Mali, South Sudan, Burundi, Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, the West Bank, 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. Just as each of you have been speaking out at MUNs to reflect the interests of the countries that you represent.

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 of 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.

My team here also remains seized with Yemen. Where the humanitarian situation continues to be dire. Prices of basic commodities –including food and petrol – are up 137 percent and 261 percent, respectively. Humanitarian shipments of food and aid have also been caught in a wide range of bureaucratic obstacles that stand in the way of delivering crucial, lifesaving assistance. We have been working within the Council and with the parties on the ground to ensure that food aid gets to those who need it most. The United States will continue to do its utmost to ensure that all UN efforts, including those to oversee the ceasefire, are successful and contribute to a peaceful solution so long overdue.

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. On September 21, 2018, 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. For example, when UN peacekeepers fail to protect civilians, there should be and now will be 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 that they have the best possible guidance and support. There are about 100,000 UN peacekeepers from dozens of countries and 15 UN Peacekeeping Missions around the world, and it’s a great privilege to be here to support them as well.

In all of our work at the UN, from humanitarian assistance, to peacekeeping, to Security Council work in defense of human rights, there are several unifying themes: protecting lives, advancing human dignity, maintaining international peace and security. These are founding principles of the UN. These are also U.S. values, and they require U.S. leadership and U.S. engagement with and within 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 – the U.S. is as you know 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, to improve efficiency 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 and agencies, and on UN issues in the field 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 working with UNHCR, to coordinating aid programs in the West Bank working with UNRWA, to working with the UN Peacekeeping Forces in Cyprus. In my most recent overseas tour in Iraq, where I worked with the UN to develop a stabilization program that got over two million internally displaced Iraqis home safely at very low cost after their towns were liberated from ISIS.

I’ve seen the UN rise to challenges and exceed expectations, delivering peace, security, and relief, almost always with strong U.S. leadership and strong U.S. involvement, so I know what this institution can do when it’s at its best. 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.

During his address to the UN General Assembly 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. 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: To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in human rights and the worth and dignity of the human person, to promote better standards of life in larger freedom, to unite our strength, to maintain international peace and security, and to promote the economic and social advancement of all peoples. It will also be a UN that will do more to secure not only U.S. interests, but those of all its 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 for those of the rest of the world. The UN is playing a vital role, and we are committed to making it an even better institution as it fulfills that role. I hope that someday, some of you will join me on the real UN stage either as US diplomats or as diplomats from your home country if you are not American – or as UN officials. Take what you are learning and practicing to help us maintain and promote international peace and security. What could matter more? I thank you for your attention.