America’s way back into the UN

How can the new Biden-Harris Administration bring the US back onto the multilateral stage?

Photo by jlhervàs. License: CC BY 2.0

Author: Stéphanie Fillion

Joe Biden’s recently announced top foreign policy team is good news for global cooperation and the UN. With Antony Blinken as Secretary of State, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the UN he chose three of his closest allies, all of which are known to be committed multilateralists. They certainly have their work cut out: The to-do list of bodies and agreements the US isgoing to have to rejoin in order to be fully reengaged with the international organization is long.

But what exactly are the steps required to rejoin the Paris Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran (Iran nuclear deal), the Human Rights Council,Unesco, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO)? For most of these institutions and agreements, the answer is complicated.


The Paris Agreement

“The first thing I would do, on the first day,” President-elect Joe Biden said in June as a presidential candidate, “would be to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement,” a vow he has repeated many times since then.

The US officially withdrew from the 2015 agreement on Nov. 4. It would be straightforward for the US to re-enter the agreement, as any party which is not a party to the Paris Agreement, once it is in force, can join — simply by notifying the UN of ratification acceptance and waiting 30 days.

Many participating countries have revised their 2030 emissions targets, and the Biden administration would have to establish its own target, or carbon emission reduction, as well. If the US had not quit the Paris agreement, it would have had to revise that target now and set a target for 2030, and that would be one of the first steps for the US to do so in order to recommit to the Paris Agreement.

“I think it’s fair to say that the international community remains committed to [the agreement], despite the decision of the US to leave,” Paul Watkinson, a member of France’s negotiation team in 2015, said. But while other countries have been preparing rules to implement the Agreement, “to some extent the full implementation is only just about to start. So the key question is what happens now.”


Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

The US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran in 2018, though the Trump administration recently argued that it was still a party to it and thus could trigger the reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran, having deemed it is in noncompliance with the deal. That action was rebutted by most of the other members of the UN Security Council, which authorized the Iran deal through a resolution in 2015. (The other parties to the deal are Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.)

“All it takes from the US, from a legal point of view, is to return to compliance, revoke what the Trump administration has done in terms of reimposing sanctions and just return to the letter of the agreement,” Larry Johnson, a former assistant UN secretary-general for legal affairs and an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, said.

The US claim that it could trigger the snapback element to reinvoke UN sanctions was hotly debated in August in the Council through letters sent by most of its members to the Council president that month, Dian Triansyah Djani of Indonesia. Many of the letters argued that the US was no longer a legal participant to the deal, so US actions — which included submitting a draft resolution to trigger the snapback mechanism — were considered null and void. Ambassador Djani decided not to take any action on the US effort. Instead, he said, “Given the lack of consensus among Council members the presidency could not take further action on this issue.”

Since the president of the Council at the time did not conclude whether the US was a member of the JCPOA, Johnson believes the US does not even need the Council’s approval to still be considered part of the agreement.

Biden’s decision is thus likely to be more of a political than a legal one: The Washington Post has reported that Biden intends to return to the Iran nuclear deal only if Iran returns to compliance. On Nov. 11, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed that Iran continues to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and is currently at 12 times the limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal, proving noncompliance.


Human Rights Council (HRC)

The US left the Human Rights Council in 2018 amid its three-year term, citing the body’s alleged bias against Israel and other issues. The Council is an intergovernmental body composed of 47 members elected in rotation every three years, based on the UN’s five regional groups.

Becoming a member of the Council again would mean getting elected, but it’s not a goal the US could take for granted. In May 2001, the US lost an election to the Human Rights Council’s predecessor, the Human Rights Commission.

Therefore, the question of whether to run for election is going to have to be thought through carefully by the Biden administration: whether Biden wants to send a strong signal for international human rights and run for a seat next year, or do some backroom work and wait out to be sure to get a seat.



The US also left the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, on the grounds of bias against Israel in 2018. In 2011, after UNESCO admitted Palestine as a member, the US stopped funding the organization, as the US is legally required to do so with any UN entity that formally recognizes Palestine, or “accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states.”

The US remains an observer member in order to “contribute US views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.”

While Biden has not announced a US plan for UNESCO, Jordie Hannum, executive director of the Better World Campaign, a nonpartisan organization focused on the relationship between the US and the UN, said: “I can certainly see the administration rejoining as the first step. In terms of funding the organization, it would require either repealing the two 1990s lawsor amending them.”


WorldHealth Organization

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been under fire by President Trump for its alleged bias toward China and its role in the coronavirus pandemic. In July, the US formally started the process of withdrawing from the organization, but since the withdrawal takes effect a year later, the US only has to cancel its notice of withdrawal to remain a full-fledged member.

Because withdrawal takes a year, the US can change its mind and withdraw that withdrawal before it becomes effective on July 6, 2021.  However, according to Hannum, “funding is the next step. . . . Right now, there’s a $300-to-$400 million hole in the [WHO] budget for money we promised in the middle of a pandemic. So these contributions are critical. They were serving American interests, and it’s essential that not only do we rejoin, but we make sure that we refund because right now the WHO is in desperate straits.”



The US could also re-engage with the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, but that would require financing the organizations again. The decision to fund them is mostly a matter of political will.

Vice-President-elect Harris pledged to reverse Trump’s decision to defund organizations providing aid to the Palestinians. “Will take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem and work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington,” she is quoted as saying in an article in Middle East Monitor.



Rebuilding relationships with America’s oldest allies could be the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the incoming president. But since the UN wasn’t even mentioned in Biden’s foreign policy plan, how much will the UN be prioritized by the new people in the White House?  For one thing, if Biden indeed appoints Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a lifelong State Department employee and diplomat, Biden's team signals a likely return to professionalism and expertise at the UN.

“The reality is that China is playing chess on the world stage right now while we play checkers,” Hannum said. “They are ramping up their efforts at the UN in multilateral forums as well as bilaterally with economic initiatives like [the] Belt and Road [infrastructure investments], while we have withdrawn from the world stage, hollowed out the State Department and USAID.


About the author: Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights. She is the co-producer of UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University.

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