Understanding Washington’s rocky relationship with the UN

UN General Assembly

Understanding Washington's rocky relationship with the UN

U.S. President Donald Trump is among the first leaders scheduled to kick off debates at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting next Tuesday. He will face increased push back and skepticism after a year of action that includes withdrawal from U.N. bodies and agreements, and funding cuts.

CGTN U.N. correspondent Liling Tan looks at the potential fallout ahead of his address.

In Arlington, Virginia, Palestinian Mohammed Eid prepares for his internship with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency known as UNRWA, while pursuing a graduate degree in the area. For the 28-year-old, this is a far cry from home.

“I grew up in Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza strip. My family came from the north and were displaced in 1948 and displaced to the south and that’s where they grew up and where I was born,” Eid said. “Everything I have now is because of this aid I have received at this very critical period of my life, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it so far.”

Eid is a recipient of the UNRWA program that has supported generations of Palestinians living in refugee camps in the Middle East. This assistance is now in jeopardy, as the U.S. ends its funding.

“If you look at the question of children staying in school, people feeling that they have hope in the future and the ability to give them dignity and to give them basic services maintains a quality of life that are important to these people,” said Peter Mulrean, Director of UNRWA New York. “You start cutting UNRWA services, in things like education, healthcare and food, it’s very hard to see how these people can go on.”

“We are not cutting aid to the Palestinians, we are cutting aid to UNRWA. And there is a big difference,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said. “UNRWA is a concern because UNRWA is not serving Palestinians. UNRWA is a political arm that claims to serve Palestinians.”

 The U.S. cut to UNRWA is not the first U.N. program targeted by Washington, but one in a series of U.S. pullbacks that have roiled U.N. officials and worried diplomats.

“Relations between the Trump administration and the U.N. are pretty poor,” said Richard Gowan, a senior fellow for the Center for Policy Research at United Nations University. “We’ve seen Trump pulling back from a growing number of multilateral agreements, most notable the Iran Nuclear Deal, and also pulling out of the Human Rights Council. So the U.S. is disconnecting itself from the U.N. on many significant issues.”

The U.S. also has pushed for cuts to U.N. and peacekeeping budgets, exited UNESCO, withdrawn from the Paris Climate Deal and the Global Compact on Migration. The U.S. also went against the wishes of a majority of nations by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and moved its embassy there.

The U.N. and many countries may disagree with these U.S. decisions, but the Trump administration’s defense of America’s interests and its criticism of the U.N. are not entirely unfounded. Other experts have long bemoaned excesses and abuses within U.N. agencies and called for reforms. But in taking these drastic steps, has Washington gone too far?

Gowan says the changes may come with a cost down the road, for both the U.N. and the people it serves.

“I think that the U.N. is holding together reasonably well and you actually see European powers and countries like China stepping up to fill some of the leadership void that the U.S. is creating,” Gowan explained. “But if the U.S. continues to cut its funding to the U.N., if the U.S. undermines the political credibility of the U.N. on big issues like peace in the Middle East, then the organization will struggle.”

The fear is that a retreating U.S. and a struggling U.N. could cause irreparable damage, especially on the ground. That’s where the United Nations’ work is needed most.

Abdelhamid Siyam explains the importance of the US role in the UN

The U.S. leaving a number of U.N. bodies could have a big impact on other member states. That’s what Abdelhamid Sayim said when he spoke to CGTN’s Mike Walter. Sayim is a Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University and a former U.N. Spokesman.