Remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at a meeting with the AJC National Board of Governors

Susan E. Rice
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York, NY
January 23, 2012

David Harris: Ladies and gentleman, it’s a privilege and a treat to welcome back to AJC U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a member of the Obama Administration cabinet, a recent recipient of the Conference of Presidents honor for her tireless work at the United Nations on behalf of the Obama Administration on issues of importance of both you and to us. Susan, you have before you the National Board of Governors of the AJC, who traveled from across the country, together with those members of our staff who were able to fit in. I’m glad so many are here in order to have this conversation with you. Susan has been here on several occasions before, but as she hinted, smaller, more intimate settings. I want to welcome you back to AJC. You’re very much an old friend.

Ambassador Rice: It’s great to be back. I think this is my third visit in an official capacity to AJC. And it’s an honor every time, so thank you so much for welcoming me. David, I want to personally, I want to thank you, Bob, as well. And to the staff and members of AJC, you all have been principled at every step of the way for so long-- a beacon of what is right, both domestically and internationally. You have understood that despite the United Nations’ many flaws, in particular its unfair treatment of Israel, that in many important respects the work of the United Nations serves the United States’ interests. Whether it’s in bringing together the international community to impose the toughest sanctions ever against Iran and provide a platform on which we on a national basis and our European partners and Arab partners and Asian partners can step up the pressure even more, to intervening to protect civilians in Libya in a moment of crisis, to feeding the hungry, birthing a new nation of South Sudan, hoping and holding the hands of the people in fragile democratic transitions from Haiti to Liberia, the United Nations does important work that serves our interests. And I’ve certainly been proud to have the opportunity to represent the United States and this administration there with your wise counsel and important support.

Stepping back just to say a few words of opening, we face many challenges on the international agenda at this stage. You all know that well. And looking ahead to the course of the next year, it’s very hard to predict, as it was at this time last year, just what might unfold. But I want to say that looking back over the last three years, some very important promises have been kept and progress has been made. As we committed, we have ended our military presence in Iraq and that war has ended. We’ve refocused our efforts and attention on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as a consequence, the Al Qaeda leadership has become decimated, and we have brought to justice Osama bin Laden. I’ve mentioned our pressure—our policy of pressure and isolation against Iran, and in contrast to a few years ago, the international community is united in opposition to Iran’s nuclear program. We are seeing more and more countries step up to take the painful but necessary steps to increase the economic pressure on Iran, and Iran is feeling that pressure now more than ever.

In terms of our relationships around the world, despite what is still a complicated relationship, our relationship is much improved in the reset with Russia. We’ve strengthened our alliances around the world, not least in Asia, where we look to strengthen them further. We have been steadfast in our support of democratic transformations throughout the Arab and Muslim world. And, as I mentioned, we are proud to have been part of an international coalition, not only of NATO partners but of the Arab League, that have brought protection to the people of Libya in their time of need and the prospect of a brighter future. So even as we look forward to what is both a hopeful and uncertain period ahead, we can certainly be confident looking forward, having made some important progress in recent years in difficult times. And all with the wisdom and support of friends like you. Thank you, David.

David Harris: Thank you very much, Susan. The format, ladies and gentlemen, will be that I’ll engage Susan in a bit of conversation and then invite you, to the extent that time permits—that her time permits—to pose questions from the audience.

Susan, on the agenda of AJC as you know, last year we were all occupied with the UDI. And very much to the credit of American diplomacy, you established a blocking group of seven on the UN Security Council that discouraged the Palestinians from pressing their bid. With a new Security Council in place as of January 1st, how do you see the prospects of the Security Council acting? And what do you expect the Palestinian strategy to be at the UN this year.

Ambassador Rice: Let me begin by saying that from the United States’ point of view, the achievement of an independent Palestinian state can only come through direct negotiations and a negotiated two-state solution. We very much want to see that day come, and we very much want to see the outcome of that two-state solution realized. But it’s not going to happen through a shortcut at the United Nations and that’s what we have been arguing. When the Palestinians brought their application in September, the Security Council went through the traditional process of considering that application in the membership committee. We went through a sort of an exhaustive legal discussion, debate, analysis. And once that was completed and the committee’s report was forwarded to the Security Council, as you mentioned, it’s essentially stayed there for the time being. I presume that is because the Palestinians decided that given the voting—likely outcome in the Council, it wasn’t timely to push it to a vote. The fact is, nobody knows for sure what the Palestinians will choose to do, if anything, in the coming weeks or months. I think that predictions are dangerous. But let me just say that we are roughly in the same place now as we were last year. And potentially in a better position. So I don’t want to make any rock solid commitments on that, but I think that if the Palestinians are weighing their choices with respect to the Security Council, they’ll be doing so in a very similar landscape.

David Harris: Susan, as you know better than anyone in this room, the UN Charter speaks about the equal rights of all member states, big and small. One of the concerns of our government, one of the concerns of AJC for many years, has been the systemic and systematic discrimination against Israel in terms of its equal status at the United Nations. Can you speak to that issue today on the progress that’s been made and the impediments to normalize, if you will, Israel’s place at the UN?

Ambassador Rice: This is an issue of utmost and daily concern for the United States. We spend an enormous amount of time defending Israel’s right to defend itself and defending Israel’s legitimacy throughout the United Nations system. It’s a shame that we have to do so. It reflects badly on many member states who continue to view the United Nations as a venue in which they can attack and harass Israel. That is a small portion of what happens at the United Nations. But it is a portion, and we deal with it. And so whether it’s the Goldstone report or the flotilla or the Board of Inquiry report, whether it’s the Durban conference and its successors, we have been very clear in our opposition to all forms of unfair attacks on Israel, to any manifestation of anti-Semitism and to stand up for Israel’s right to be a full and equal member of the United Nations system.

Within the United Nations we have supported Israel as it’s taken on leadership positions within the organization, for example leading the Kimberly Group, which is a group that works to prevent conflict guns and other minerals from feeding conflict processes around the world. We have supported Israel and been quite successful, as you know, in running particular resolutions, in particular related to agricultural technologies. We have pushed for Israel’s inclusion in particular regional or sub-regional groupings, such as the JUSCANZ group—that’s the crazy acronym for Japan, Australia, New Zealand—like-minded countries from different parts of the world. Here in New York we’ve succeeded in garnering their membership in the group that relates to the 5th Committee. That’s the budgeting, financial part of the system. We have succeeded in pushing for their inclusion in Geneva, in the Human Rights committee structure in that like-minded body. And we continue to do the same here in New York for the human rights architecture. So, we are about this business every day, either in principle because its right and because we share critical values and interests with our partner and ally Israel.

David Harris: I know that I speak for everyone in this room—all those efforts are greatly appreciated. In the early part of the Obama administration in 2009, you had a real lot of success in the Security Council, passing the fourth sanctions resolution on Iran.

Ambassador Rice: 2010, June.

David Harris: 2010. Excuse me. That’s what happens when I don’t have my notes in front of me. [Laughter]. And what was most striking perhaps was the inclusion of Russia and China in support of that resolution. We haven’t had a fifth such resolution since. Can you talk to us about the politics of the Security Council vis-à-vis Iran today and further, not simply rhetorical, but actual action with respect to additional sanctions?

Ambassador Rice: Well, the sanctions that were imposed in June of 2010, in Resolution 1929, were by far the toughest that have ever been levied against Iran and the toughest sanctions on the books today against any member state. They were comprehensive, dealing with Iran’s ability to acquire the financing and materials and the other support necessary for this nuclear program. It indicated that oil was one of the factors fueling Iran’s nuclear program, and it was very powerful in its own right, those sanctions, which are of course binding on all member states. And it was very significant that we had the support of Russia and China and the entire P5—in addition to those sanctions, that now the entire world is obliged to implement. You just have seen recent examples of some of the neighbors in the region catching Iran in the act of trying to ship some materials to Syria and intercepting those. That was Turkey, by the way. But at the same time we—

David Harris: That was one of the countries that voted against 1929 .

Ambassador Rice: Exactly. But the point is, whether or not countries like the sanctions, they have been pretty uniform in fulfilling their obligations to implement them. And that’s important. That’s where we get the multilateral level with 1929. On top of that, as you well know, the United States Congress, with the Administration’s support, has adopted strong legislation that ups our national sanctions even more. And there are some very powerful measures that were passed soon after in July of 2010. And indeed, you’re well aware of the legislation that was passed in December, which implicates the central bank of Iran and Iran’s oil trade. The European Union followed our national action in 2010 with their own much toughened sanctions, as did Canada, Japan, South Korea, and some of the countries in the Arab world. And today, we’re seeing commensurate ratcheting up as we strengthen our national sanctions. We’re seeing our European partners, hopefully, as soon as today—

David Harris: They’ve done so.

Ambassador Rice: Ok.

David Harris: We actually issued a statement acknowledging the EU action.

Ambassador Rice: While I was on the plane…I see. [laughter] So stepping up their sanctions quite dramatically, and I think we’ll see similar actions to follow by other important partners. And, if not, coordinated action in the Security Council, which I do think is not likely in the immediate term. The sanctions that we are imposing nationally will, I think, quietly compel even some who might be reluctant to embrace further multilateral action to adjust their purchasing decisions.

David Harris: Ok, read between the lines. Speaking of the complex policies in the Security Council, I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been somewhat frustrated by the Security Council’s inability to move forward on Syria quite as assertively as you would like. And you even had some—how shall I say—interesting exchange of words with the Russian Ambassador to the UN, which made it out into the public sphere.

Ambassador Rice: Many were in public.

David Harris: Many have asked: What’s the difference between Libya and Syria? Can you talk to us about that?

Ambassador Rice: There are many differences between each of these countries as we witnessed remarkable transformations that are occurring throughout the Arab world. But I think what you’re asking, David, is what’s different with respect to the Security Council? And I think the first and foremost difference was that early in the process in Libya, the Arab League took a decision, which was to ask the Security Council on a unanimous basis for action to impose a no-fly zone and protect civilians. And, when that occurred, relatively early in the course of the revolution and precisely at the time when Gaddafi, who had a horrific track record as you all recall, of killing tens of thousands of his people in one day, was moving quickly and was on the doorsteps of Benghazi and threatening to wipe out the entire population of Benghazi as if they were rats.

That combination of factors focused the attention of the Security Council in a very unusual, and—as I said at the time—potentially unprecedented way. The Council knew exactly what it was authorizing when it passed Resolution 1973, not least because we, the United States, outlined with great specificity inside the Council what we envisioned we would do with NATO and our Arab partners, were we given such an authority, in terms of air strikes, in terms of action on the ground. It was very important, from the U.S. point-of-view, that this not simply be a no-fly zone with planes hovering overhead and not in a position to do what is necessary to protect the people on the ground. That authority was provided by the Council. Not a single country voted against.

But as the NATO mission continued, there were those who tried to allege, I think unfairly and falsely, that NATO had overstepped its bounds—NATO and its partners—that they had gone beyond the authority of 1973. That is not the case. But they wanted to try to rewrite the history of what indeed they themselves had either voted for or acquiesced in. But it has created a dynamic subsequently, and not least, I think, frankly the success of NATO and its Arab partners in protecting civilians and the transformation that has occurred inland, has led some to use that, in my view, as an excuse, to avoid contemplating serious action in the Security Council with respect to Syria.

It’s important to note that no member of the Security Council is advocating for military intervention in Syria, as the Arabs did when they initiated the action for Libya. We’re simply saying that the Council needs to speak urgently and with credibility and pass a tough resolution that entails pressure, sanctions, on the Assad regime. There is not unanimity on that point, and indeed, a couple of very powerful nations have made it their business to block that and made already one such attempt. Now, let’s come to where we are today because yesterday, the Arab League, which has taken some quite unusual and unprecedented steps again on Syria which are different from Libya, decided to extend their monitoring mission for a monthbut also to extend a plan whereby they had said that Assad should hand over power and responsibility to his vice president in a short period of time, that there should be a transitional arrangement and democratic elections in Syria. This is, itself, quite a remarkable and important statement. And now, Assad is entirely isolated on all sides. Its only friend left is Iran in the region. And the rest of the region is saying, as we have said for quite some time, that it is time for Assad to step down and hand over power.

They have also suggested that perhaps now it is also time for the Security Council to back that up with minimally a statement of support. So we’re going to be again consulting with partners on the Council and beyond in the coming days to see precisely what is desired and what is achievable.

David Harris: Thank you, Susan. I’d like to open to questions from our audience. Alan. We have a microphone here. Please, Alan. Would you introduce yourself to the ambassador?

Question: I am a member of the executive council. I’ll defer to your statement about not making predictions and just ask if you could give us your assessment of the relationship between Turkey and Israel.

Ambassador Rice: Strained. [laughter]

David Harris: Next Question. Marty, please.

Question: Ambassador, I’m Marty Krall from the Palm Beach, Florida area, and I’m on the executive council also. When AJC was doing its diplomacy on the UDI, we had the occasion to meet with the Canadian foreign minister, who was very supportive, of course, of the United States’ position and the Israeli position, and he said that the only thing that they really cared about in their relationship with the United States—not the only thing, but what they were very concerned about at this point—was the approval of the pipeline, and I wonder whether the recent disapproval of the pipeline is going to complicate your diplomatic efforts with Canada.

Ambassador Rice: Well, I’m not the expert on pipeline issues, but I think I can talk about our relationship with Canada and our diplomacy at the United Nations, which is based on shared values and principles. I don’t have any real concern that our principled support for a negotiated solution and a two-state solution, which can only come through direct dialogue, will change in any way. I believe that Canada’s position on this and so many other issues—related not only to Israel but to human rights and democracy—are based on Canada’s values and interests. And the reason why our alliance with Canada is so strong is because we not only share a border, we not only have the strongest of economic ties, but we are bound together by our values and principles. And I’m confident that that will endure.

David Harris: Thank you, Marty. Harold.

Question: Good to see you here.

Ambassador Rice: Good to see you.

Question: We are in the middle of a prolonged and bitter presidential campaign. How will the events of this campaign affect your work at the Security Council and how much attention are your [inaudible] in the Security Council paying to this campaign?

Ambassador Rice: Well, I think most UN member states and certainly my colleagues at the United Nations pay close attention not only to our domestic politics but to virtually everything that happens here at the United States, and being here, they are well equipped and plugged in so it’s definitely something that they observe and watch. But from my point of view, representing the United States, I’m representing the United States of America—all of us—on a national basis. And I, as my colleagues in the Administration who work on foreign policy and national security, are not at all involved in politics. We will pursue the best interest of the United States as we have for the last three years, and we will not involve ourselves in political activity.

David Harris: Henry.

Question: I’m Henry Dubinski from St. Louis. If by some remote chance the Iranian navy would attack US naval vessels in the gulf or the Straits, is there any likelihood of a Security Council reaction?

Ambassador Rice: I don’t want to get into hypotheticals and speculation, but let me say this: First of all, from the United States’ point of view, we have been exceedingly clear in public and private that we will do what is necessary to protect the freedom of navigation, the freedom of commerce in international waterways everywhere, including the Straits of Hormuz, and that is a shared interest of the United States and the entire international community. It is not just us that has a stake in the free flow of commerce through that critical waterway, and so I think the United States has been joined by a wide range of countries and partners to underscore that freedom of navigation is a broad international concern. It’s not a concern of any single nation, and I think that Iran has undoubtedly heard that message and would be well advised to heed it.

David Harris: Bob, did you have your hand up? We have a microphone coming.

Question: Thank you very much for being here and expressing yourself so well.

David Harris: And again you are?

Question: I am Bob Goodkind.

David Harris: Honorary National President of the AJC.

Question: I wonder whether you would comment about the situation with regard to Gaza and Israel. There are repeated missile attacks going on. They don’t seem to get the publicity I, for one, would like to see. From the U.S. point of view, as a member of the Security Council, do you see anything on the Security Council that the US should be doing to try to stop those attacks on Israel to preclude any further action by Israel to stop them from a military point of view?

Ambassador Rice: Well, President Obama has been very, very clear in our condemnation of rocket attacks out of Gaza into Israel. I was with him in Sderot when we toured houses that had been hit directly by rockets out of Gaza. I’ll never forget the image of the scores—I mean, tens-of-thousands of empty rocket casings piled up in a police station in Sderot. So the United States is acutely aware of the terror and the mortal danger that these rockets pose. And even though it may not be the topic that is most frequently raised in the Security Council, you can be certain that the United States is raising it. And just last week, in the discussion inside the Security Council, I raised again, as I do every time, that very real risk and threat to the people of Israel. And so this remains very much prominent on our radar screen on our agenda. And while others in the Security Council may choose to emphasize other issues, we continue to make that point very clearly in the first place.

David Harris: Time is becoming a factor, so we can take two last questions. Dov, I saw your hand and is there another hand.

Ambassador Rice: I don’t get to ask him a question later. Go ahead, Dov. This is my buddy.

Question: You ask me who’s going to get our nomination. Come on.

David Harris: At the end of the year, he’ll be sitting here, and you’ll be sitting there.

Ambassador Rice: We’ll see about that. Anyway, I don’t think Dov wants to be UN ambassador.

Question: Are you kidding? It’s the best job in government. Susan, just let me ask you this: The President has already taken a position on India joining the Security Council, as I recall. The Japanese want in, the Brazilians want in, there are a lot of countries—

Ambassador Rice: He’s taken a position on Japan as well.

Question: And Japan as well. There are a lot of countries that want in. As you know, I sit on the executive council of AJC. We really are a worldwide organization. We deal with all these countries. Could you give us a sense if anything is moving on this, where it might be headed, what to expect? This whole question about getting on the Security Council.

Ambassador Rice: It’s not my phone. Dov, to answer your question about where the Security Council reform stands, is there much movement? The short answer is there’s not much movement, which has been the case for quite some while in all candor. We’ve been clear from the U.S. point of view, that we’re open to a modest expansion of both permanent and non-permanent seats. We’re not prepared to accept any change to the status of the veto. We have indicated that those countries that aspire to permanent membership ought to be those in our judgment that clearly and consistently uphold the principles and purposes of the charter, i.e. respect for human rights, contributors to the maintenance of peace and security, etc.

But the fact is, this issue remains pretty much frozen inside the General Assembly. We debate it. We discuss it. We all give speeches on it. And there are many countries that rightfully perceive a real sense of urgency about this, but the way that the membership is split and the lines along which they are divided have been pretty much static, certainly during the course of my tenure and I think going back some ways. And while we certainly believe that the Council out to be updated to reflect the realities of the 21st Century as opposed to 1945, I don’t see the unbreaking of that logjam as necessarily imminent.

David Harris: Well, I’m going to make a lot of enemies here because we only have time a last question. Okay—

Question: Ambassador, thank you very much. I just wanted to—I’m Ken Makovsky—from New York. I wanted to go back to the Turkey-Israel comment that you made and the fact that you termed it “strained.” I wonder if you could comment on whether you believe the United States could play a role in reducing tensions there, and, if so, what actions do you think that they should take?

Ambassador Rice: First of all, the United States has been very committed to trying to assist Israel and Turkey to see that in many respects they are better served, to the extent that they can, by trying to repair and rebuild their relationship, but that is obviously up to them. But I think there shouldn’t be any doubt that this is an issue of interest and importance to the United States and to the Administration, and it is not one in which we have been idle by any stretch. I don’t want to get into more detail than that, but suffice it to say that we certainly hope that what has been a strained and difficult patch in that relationship for a wide variety of reasons will be a temporary phenomenon rather than a lasting one.

David Harris: Before the Ambassador leaves I want to acknowledge, not just the presence, but the role of, Felice Gaer sitting right here. Among many other things, when the Obama administration took office in January of 2009, one of the first issues they had to contend with was the U.S. position on the Durban Renew Conference, the second Durban conference, and a group of five, including Felice, were asked to go to Geneva in order to explore the issues and come back with a set of recommendations. And of course, ultimately, the decision of the Obama administration was not to participate either in the second or more recently in the third. And this is one of many examples in which AJC has participated and cooperated with governments of both parties over many years in an effort to try and help inform U.S. policy. So in that spirit, Susan, as a closing thought, any requests of us?

Ambassador Rice: Thank you for that. First and foremost, as I said at the outset, not a request but a thank you for your principled and consistent leadership on a wide range of critical issues, and we notice it, we welcome it, and we appreciate it. And I want to thank you. I think the request I would make is this: AJC understands, I think, better than many institutions and organizations, both the flaws and the importance of the United Nations to our interests. And there may well be, in the coming weeks and months—perhaps because of what transpires with the Palestinian membership issues or any range of other issues—an effort to conflate the failings of the United Nations and it shortcomings with the institution as a whole, and that’s a mistake.

The failings of the institution are not the failings of the institution; they’re the failings of member states. And one of my predecessors, Richard Holbrooke, used to say that blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play bad. It’s my favorite Holbrooke quote. And there’s truth to that. We can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to understand that there will always be member states whose interests and values diverge from our own, and they will, regardless of whether we sit with them in the United Nations or we don’t. But there’s no substitute for the live-saving work that the United Nations does, for the burden sharing that it allows us to achieve with respect to peacekeeping and the maintenance of peace and security. There’s no substitute for the legitimacy and the potency of sanctions such as those on Iran and North Korea that every member state is obliged to uphold. And so, I would just ask all of you to continue to be clear in making these distinctions and continue to be strong and principled supporters of the interests and values we share.

Thank you.

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