Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield on the Future of the United Nations

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
San Francisco, California
September 8, 2022


Thank you so much, Peter. And let me thank all of you. I really deeply appreciate the UN Foundation’s support in putting this event together, but all of you here present in this room is what really makes my job so, so interesting. And we’re assembling here today at the historic Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to talk about the UN Charter, this little book here. I had asked my staff like get me a UN Charter. I thought I was going to get a book that looked like the Bible, leatherbound with signatures. This was the best we could do. But the words are the most important thing in this Charter. And so, I want to talk to you about the UN Charter and the future of the United Nations.

So I ask you to give me your attention for about 20 minutes or so. I’ll try to be brief, but as I was told when I came into the Foreign Services, the weapon of choice of a diplomat is a microphone.  So if I can keep you here longer, I will.

On April 25th, 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organizations convened here in San Francisco. Delegates from 50 nations assembled, right here at the Fairmont. 2500 radio commentators, photographers, newspaper reporters, and observers from think tanks, academia, NGOs, philanthropic organizations descended on this very spot.

One thing they didn’t have in 1945? A livestream. So I thank all of you who are joining us virtually as well.

So this city was buzzing, as was the world. The course of history was about to be changed forever.

The first speaker of the day was President Harry Truman, who cabled in from the White House. With the world reeling from the horrors of Second World War, President Truman opened by telling the delegates that, and I quote – let me make sure I can see it – “At no time in history has there been a more important conference, a more necessary meeting, than this one in San Francisco.”

He then outlined their collective goal. “This conference,” he said, “will devote its energies and its labors exclusively to the single problem of setting up the essential organization to keep the peace. You are to write the fundamental Charter.”

And so they did.

The delegates wrote. They negotiated. Drafts were torn up, literally. Sounds like what we do every day in the UN. And at several points, it looked like the UN was going to fail before it even existed. But knowing the alternative – the destruction and horrors of aggression and war – the delegates came together and agreed on the Charter of the United Nations.

The Charter that they devised made its purposes and principles clear in its first chapter. The fundamental purpose was to maintain international peace and security, forge international cooperation on humanitarian, economic, and social issues, and advance human rights. And its fundamental principles were, and remain, sovereign equality, settling international disputes by peaceful means, refraining from the threat of the use of force, and respecting equal rights and self-determination of peoples.

The Charter and the institutions it set into motion have brought on an extraordinary amount of peace, security, and prosperity for the world. They have not been perfect, of course. Wars have still started. And at times, deadlock has prevented progress, and human suffering persisted. And the United Nations as an institution has struggled with management, weaknesses, and bias.

But at the same time, the UN has had enormous success in realizing the vision of its Charter. Together, we adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Together, we have curtailed nuclear proliferation. Together, we have sent UN peacekeepers to protect civilians and stop mass atrocities in some of the world’s deadliest conflicts. Together, we have forged peace through negotiation and mediation.

Together, we have lifted over a billion people out of poverty. And together, we provided humanitarian aid to those in need on a scale no single country could come close to doing alone. And perhaps most importantly, while the UN has failed to prevent every war, it has succeeded in preventing world wars. It has been able to. [Applause.] Thank you. It has been able to, in Truman’s words, “provide sensible machinery for the settlement of disputes among nations.”

And in a few days, leaders from 193 countries – 143 more than that first time – will gather in New York to engage with that machinery, to do the hard work of diplomacy and to advance international peace and security. But they will do so at a moment when the UN itself faces a crisis of confidence.

Even as the world was facing the threat of climate change, a pandemic, and a global food crisis, one of the permanent members of the Security Council invaded its neighbor. Russia violated national sovereignty and territorial integrity. It violated human rights, and pursued outright war instead of negotiated peace. A permanent member of the Security Council struck at the heart of the UN Charter.

Security Council Members, and especially permanent members, have what President Truman called a “special responsibility.” In that same speech to the San Francisco delegates, President Truman argued that, and I quote, “The responsibility of the great states is to serve, and not dominate, the peoples of the world.”

To serve, not dominate. [Applause.]

Russia’s war against Ukraine is an attempt at domination in its purest forms. This war tests the fundamental principles the UN was founded on, forged here at the Fairmont – that outright aggression is never, never acceptable.

And so, our answer to the crisis of confidence has been to defend the Charter and hold Russia accountable. We have done this in the Security Council by continuing to shine a spotlight on Russia’s actions. We brought evidence to the Security Council that Russia would invade. And since the invasion, we have brought attention to Russia’s human rights violations and war crimes.

And just yesterday, we highlighted the so-called “filtration operations” in the Security Council and outlined in explicit terms how these operations are horrific and could constitute war crimes. In the General Assembly, we held Russia accountable to the international community. We held a vote where 141 countries condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Outside of the UN, we have built a broad coalition to impose severe costs on Russia for all of its actions, and taken extraordinary steps to help a fellow Member State defend itself – as outlined in the Charter – and rallied many others to do the same.

Some say this is a cold war. That they don’t want to take sides. That this is between Ukraine and Russia, or the United States and Russia. That is simply not right. This is not a new cold war. This is not about a few countries. This involves all of us.

This is about defending the UN Charter. This is about peace for the next generation. This is about protecting the UN’s principles. It is about serving, not dominating, the peoples of the world. [Applause.]

Some have asked if we are committed to these principles. Will we use the UN Charter when it serves us, and then abandon it when it does not? To answer this question, and to demonstrate our own sincerity and ironclad commitment to the UN Charter, today I am proud to announce that the United States will subscribe to six clear principles for responsible behavior for Security Council Members.

These are standards that we are setting for ourselves – and that we welcome all to hold us to.

We have not always lived up to them in the past – but we are committing to them going forward. We also believe these would be the right standards for all other Security Council members to commit to – especially the Permanent Members.

So first and foremost, we pledge to defend and act strictly in accordance with the UN Charter. No Council Member can claim a perfect record on this over the last eight decades, but this exceptional moment calls for renewed leadership in the Charter’s defense. We will aim to strengthen the UN Membership’s faith and adherence to the UN Charter – not only in the Security Council, but throughout our actions in the UN, and even in our national policies.

Second, we will engage pragmatically with all Council members to address threats to international peace and security. Bilateral disputes must never be an excuse for obstructing the Council’s mandate or forgoing one’s responsibilities. For example, as much as we disagree with China on a host of issues, we still need to work together to make progress on climate change.

Third, we will refrain from the use of the veto except in rare, extraordinary situations. [Applause]. In particular, any Permanent Member that exercises the veto to defend its own acts of aggression loses moral authority and should be held accountable. And I will note that since 2009, Russia has cast 26 vetoes, 12 of which were joined by China – while the U.S. has only used the veto four times.

Fourth, we will demonstrate leadership in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. As defenders of the Charter and international law, Security Council Members ought to be global leaders in upholding human rights, both at home and abroad. And we should use our positions in the Security Council, within the scope of its mandate, to do the same.

The UN High Commission for Human Rights’ report on Xinjiang offers a clear example of a permanent member of the Security Council egregiously violating human rights in its domestic policies – exactly the kind of behavior that undermines the Council and the Charter, and we have to call it out.

Fifth, we will enhance cooperation, inclusivity, and transparency. The mandate of the Security Council was bestowed upon its members by the full UN membership. The Council carries out that mandate on its behalf. So Council Members should engage frequently and substantively with the General Assembly, with UN bodies, with relevant regional groups, and with a cross-section of UN Member States. [Applause.]

And sixth and finally, we will advance efforts to reform the UN Security Council. That includes efforts like our co-sponsorship of the veto resolution that asks permanent members to explain their vetoes to the General Assembly. The Security Council should also better reflect the current global realities and incorporate more geographically diverse perspectives.

We should not defend an unsustainable and outdated status quo. Instead, we must demonstrate flexibility and willingness to compromise in the name of greater credibility and legitimacy. We should forge consensus around sensible and credible proposals to expand the Security Council’s membership.

During this month’s General Assembly, President Biden, Secretary Blinken, and I plan to consult broadly on our individual and collective responsibilities under the UN Charter, including critical questions around reform of the Security Council and other UN organs. You can expect to hear more from us on this issue.

Of course, committing to the UN Charter goes beyond our Permanent Member status, and even beyond the Security Council. From humanitarian aid, to human development, to nuclear non-proliferation, to counterterrorism, to conflict prevention, the core work of the United Nations is needed as much now as ever.

That is why we are the world’s largest contributor to the UN system. In 2020 we contributed $11.6 billion – compared to only $2 billion from China and a little over half a billion from Russia.

We also strongly support and encourage the Secretary-General to use his good offices for much-needed conflict mediation and preventative diplomacy.

And in all of this work, we must put human rights at the core. One of the greatest successes of the United Nations is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – forged, in those earlier days, in part by the leadership of no other than Eleanor Roosevelt. But as the former First Lady argued, it isn’t enough that they put it down on paper. They must exist in the world, to the level of the individual person.

As she said, “Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

We must work to ensure universal human rights have meaning everywhere, in every country and context – including online.

Which brings me to my final point. We will seek to bolster what the UN does best already. But we must also work to prepare the UN to take on the 21st century. The UN Secretary-General has proposed a Summit of the Future. He has outlined aspirations for that future in “Our Common Agenda” report. In preparation for that summit and that future, now is the time to align with a broad, diverse coalition of countries on a shared vision for taking on the challenges of tomorrow – a vision in line with the UN Charter’s core principles.

We have some tough choices to make – choices that will define the next eight decades. For example, how do we ensure the UN has the most up-to-date digital tools to tackle global crises, like food insecurity? And of course, this goes far beyond technology. The global food insecurity crisis represents a threat today. But it also represents a threat to our collective tomorrow. Deep vulnerabilities in our food systems have been revealed by this crisis – and climate change is going to cause more shocks to the food system, as we’re seeing in Pakistan right now.

The COVID-19 pandemic did the same, exposing serious vulnerabilities in our global health system and our emergency response capacity. And so our priorities for the 77th UN General Assembly reflect that forward-leaning agenda.

First, we will combat global food insecurity – an issue we have been laser focused on since my arrival at the UN. President Biden will co-host a heads-of-state-level Food Security Summit on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, to advance the Roadmap that over 103 countries have signed onto since May.

Second, we will advance global health and global health security. President Biden will host the Seventh Replenishment Conference for the Global Fund, which focuses on stamping out persistent threats like AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria and preparing for future pandemics.

And finally, as I am doing today, we will recommit to upholding the UN Charter and seek to shape the future of the UN. Our response to Russia’s flagrant violations cannot be to abandon those founding principles. Instead, we must double down – we must double down on our commitment to a peaceful world and hold even closer our deeply held principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and peace and security.

Fortunately, we are not alone in this. Far from it. For us, this is the start of a dialogue – one that President Biden, Secretary Blinken and I, and so many others will pick up and take into our conversations during High-Level Week and the weeks ahead. Our hope is to rally the world behind the Charter that we all committed to, right here, 77 years ago. And together, we will work to shape and reform it, and the system it has created, for the future.

As Truman told the San Francisco delegates on that very first day, “In order to have good neighbors, we must also be good neighbors.”

To have a good neighbor, be one.

That is our goal at this upcoming UN General Assembly. And that is what we are committed to as an inclusive process. So let us come together. Let us build that peaceful, neighborly future for all.

Thank you.