UNA Makes its Voice Heard

September 30, 2013| by Chris Whatley, UNA-USA Executive Director

As President Obama addressed the General Assembly last week, his words were received by a world more focused on the role of the United Nations than at any other time in recent memory.   Syria was at the forefront of that discussion, and offered a reminder of the enduring importance of the UN as a peace builder, watchdog, and humanitarian.  As the nation has turned its watchful eye to this crisis and the role of the UN, UNA-USA crafted a strong national response. Our Chapters from across the nation, as well as our Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force, came together to speak with a clear, united voce and at the same time affirmed the value of our strategic alliance with the United Nations Foundation.     

The horror of the August 21 chemical attack both shocked the world and starkly highlighted a tension that has been present within the UN since its founding.    Born in the rubble of World War II, and challenged by its Charter to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” military restraint has always underpinned the UN system.  The signatories saw the importance of the Charter just weeks later as the Nurnberg trials laid bare the horror of a nation subjecting its own people to unspeakable atrocities.  

This tension between restraint and protection of citizens rippled through the recent Syria debate that unfolded among UNA leaders and members as our nation and the world contemplated the response to the chemical attack.  President Obama announced on Saturday, August 31 that he would seek Congressional approval for the possible use of force in Syria.  Within an hour, UNA’s list serve lit up with appeals for a national response to the crisis. 

Through a rapid series of nationwide conference calls, informed by key input on breaking events from Peter Yeo and Jordie Hannum of the Better World Campaign, UNA’s Steering Committee and individual Chapter leaders were able to craft and approve a national position on “Potential Action in Syria.”  Released on September 6, less than a week after the President’s address to the nation, the document affirmed UNA’s commitment to the UN Charter, calling for “caution and restraint” with regard to potential US military action, challenging “all parties to the conflict, and in particular the Syrian government, to recognize the primary responsibility of governments to protect all populations within their boundaries,” and outlining a series of diplomatic options for addressing the crisis.  The position was sent to every member of Congress with assistance from the Better World Campaign and disseminated to the press with assistance of the UN Foundation public affairs team.   

The encouraging diplomatic events that have unfolded in the weeks since are a testament to the wisdom of the ideas outlined by UNA’s leaders in this bold statement.  On September 27, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2118 endorsing a framework agreement for Syria to eliminate its chemical arsenal.  The UN chemical weapons inspection team released a scathing and detailed report on the August 21 attack and has now returned to Syria for further investigation and monitoring.  Proposals are also being considered for a possible peace conference in Geneva to attempt to resolve the civil war that has claimed over 100,000 lives.

Concerned that Resolution 2118 would speak only to the threat of chemical weapons and not broader human rights abuses, UNA’s Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force, an advisory body including some of the top human rights experts in the nation, sent a letter to President Obama just hours before the Security Council vote asking for the Administration to seek an International Criminal Court referral and additional human rights protections for the Syrian people.  This rapid response complimented the earlier effort by UNA’s chapters and demonstrated our association’s continued capacity to advance its policy agenda at the highest level.

From the moment of its founding, UNA has been a grassroots movement committed to weaving together citizens from across the country to promote the value of the UN to our country and to the world.  By working rapidly to mobilize a grassroots response, and utilizing the skills and resources of the Better World Campaign and the United Nations Foundation to inform and amplify its voice, UNA has lived up to the vision and wisdom of its founders.