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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Goals and Priorities for the Upcoming Session of the United Nations General Assembly

Dean Pittman
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs

Washington, DC
September 20, 2013

3:15 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us for this briefing on U.S. Goals and Priorities for the Upcoming Session of the UN General Assembly, with Acting Assistant Secretary Dean Pittman. We are fortunate that he was able to make time to discuss U.S. hopes for this upcoming session. Since the U.N. General Assembly touches on so many different issues, we’re also fortunate today to be joined by U.S. Department of State Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf. You received both of their bios when you came in, so in the interest of time, let me invite Assistant Secretary Pittman to the podium for some remarks, and then we’ll move to your question.

MR. PITTMAN: Thanks very much. It’s great to be here, and sorry for starting a little late. And Marie’s here to keep me in line, so I hope she’ll do that.

Look, the 64th UNGA is underway now. Next week will be the high-level week, but then we’ll continue with the UN work in the coming weeks and days, and we have a lot to do. Primarily, what this allows us to do, this opportunity, is underscore this Administration’s continuing and strong commitment to our multilateral engagement. I think if you – through the UN and its bodies. If you recall the President’s speech in 2009, he laid out a vision of what this Administration was going to do through the UN system and multilateral system and working with other nations. And I think if you look at our record of accomplishment and what’s been done over the past four years, you’ll see that we have made some real strides and had some real success.

I think the bottom line for us is that global challenges require global solutions, and there’s no better place than the UN to work through some of these critical issues facing the globe today. And I think there’s no better opportunity than New York, where you have most of, if not all the world leaders there in one place. And so we look forward to a whole host of meetings, bilateral meetings and regular meetings, that we’ll be doing during the next week and the days to come.

Now, we have some overarching objectives that we’ll be pursuing. Now, these are pretty 30,000-feet-level objectives, but they give you a sense of sort of the areas we’ll be focusing on. And the first is fostering a more peaceful world. That gets into our peacekeeping, obviously what’s happening in Syria and other places. We’ll be looking at promoting sustainable development and human rights, and finally, working towards a more effective and efficient UN system. Because I think if we’re going to look to the UN to help advance our priorities, we have to ensure there’s working – functioning properly, that is accountable, and that it’s – it has the tools it needs.

Now, the President will be in New York along with the Secretary of State and a host of other U.S. Government officials, with a lot of meetings, a lot of work before them. The President, of course, will be speaking on Tuesday. He will also be meeting with Secretary Ban, which he always does, and there’s a luncheon. He will be having three bilaterals, the President. I’ve just gotten his schedule, so I can talk a little bit about it. He’ll be meeting with the Nigerian President, the Lebanese President, and President Abbas, are the three bilaterals he’ll be doing there. And then he and the First Lady will then be hosting Monday night their reception for world leaders there as well.

And in his speech, I think we can look for the President to touch on a lot of the issues that come under these three priorities and objectives. I know he’ll be talking about the Middle East. He’ll be talking about the situation in Syria and North Africa, but also setting our priorities of how we move forward working with our allies and others around the world to advance some of these key priorities.

The Secretary will – his schedule will be released shortly as well, but there’s going to be a lot of opportunities to do some real work. And let me just touch on some of the events that will be going on and that we’ll be participating in at various levels. One of the – I think one of the critical ones will be the Secretary General will be hosting a meeting on the Millennium Development Goals. And this is something that – it really has been not a complete success, but a real success. It’s made real progress. It’s not complete, but there’s more work to do. But if you look at what we’ve been able to do in reducing poverty and reducing infant mortality, it’s been some really significant gains here. And that’s only because we’ve been working through the UN system and working together towards these goals.

We’ll also be looking at a global health event. There will be for the first time an LGBT ministerial level meeting. There will be events on counterterrorism, on disability, and the President specifically will be hosting an event on civil society. And I think this underscores the importance of individuals in nongovernmental organizations in making real change in their individual countries. And I think what we’ll be looking to do is how we can open that space for civil society to have a better voice, because as we’ve seen over the recent years, some of their efforts and abilities to have a voice have been constrained by their governments.

So we’ll also be listening in addition to speaking. There will be a lot of speeches, as everyone knows, at the high-level event, from the President on down. But I think there will be a great opportunity for President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, who’ll be speaking during the session, to talk about their vision for moving forward with Middle East peace, because Secretary Kerry and others have spent a lot of energy working to advance our efforts there, and I think we’ve made real progress, because the two sides are for the first time – for the first time in a while, sitting down and really having a serious conversation. So I think we’ll be listening to sort of the tone that comes out of those speeches as well.

The big elephant in the room, obviously, will be Syria. We’ve got the Geneva framework that Secretary Kerry and Mr. Lavrov have been able to undertake, and we’ll be looking at how we can move that forward. Discussions in New York are – have been underway, and they continue underway on a resolution. There’s also discussions in The Hague on the OPCW’s efforts and how we sort of move forward with realizing what has been agreed to, and that is a process that will quickly move to eliminate and destroy the chemical weapons in Syria. And this is a really significant and historic feat, so we hope we’ll be able to make progress there. But I can assure you there will be discussions ongoing throughout the week on this very issue.

The one thing I want to just flag if I may is that even though the Security Council has not yet addressed Syria, we don’t see this as necessarily – I mean, this is unfortunate, and it’s a shame, and we’re hoping that that’s going to change soon, but it shouldn’t obscure the work that the UN system and the U.S., though its leadership in the UN system, has been accomplishing in Syria.

If you just – for a couple examples: The World Food Program has been able, through their assistance program and through our contributions and the contributions of other UN members, is able to provide assistance to 4 million people at risk. And they – also that includes 1.3 million children. If you look at what the International Organization for Migration has been able to do, it’s been able to help 1.5 million migrants and internally-displaced and refugees. And if you look at what we’ve been able to do at the Human Rights Council as well, there we’ve been able to establish a commission of inquiry that’s been doing really serious work on exposing some of the atrocities in Syria, and we’ve been able to establish a special rapporteur who’ve been looking at the situation in Syria as well.

So my point is that there’s a lot going on within the UN system to address some of these key challenges, and if one area’s not working well, there’s a lot of other areas where we’re having real success as well. So I just want to leave you with that thought.

So basically, I want to say we’ve got a lot of complex challenges ahead, and we are committed to working and continuing to work multilaterally, and I think our engagement is critical, and I think that’s what you’ll hear from the President and the Secretary during their sessions over the coming days and weeks. And I remind everybody, high-level event is the big event, and that’s certainly what gets all the attention, but after all the leaders leave, we’ll be continuing to work for weeks and months to come to sort of make real some of these visions that we’ll hear laid out next week. So that’s just – want to sort of set the stage a little bit and what I can tell you now. But I’m more than happy to take questions if you have any.

MODERATOR: Okay, so we’ll open it up for questions and ask that you wait for the microphone. For New York, we’ll ask you to step up to the podium. Please state your name and affiliation as well when you ask your question.

Okay, we’ll start here in the front.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this and thanks as always to our friends at the FPC. I have a couple of questions. For both about the big elephant – (laughter) – in the room.

MR. PITTMAN: I shouldn’t have mentioned it.

QUESTION: Right. The General Secretary mentioned a couple of times that there is a trilateral meeting scheduled for the 28th – Secretary Kerry, Minister Lavrov, and the General Secretary. Can you – I can see you nodding. (Laughter.) So can you describe to us the purpose of that meeting?

And also, will you be taking – you, the U.S. Government – taking any efforts this assembly, at this session, to unseat the current Syrian delegation and to replace it with a delegation from the Syrian opposition? Thank you.

MR. PITTMAN: Well, on your first question, if you recall in Geneva when the Secretary was there with Mr. Lavrov, they met with Mr. Brahimi. Because what we want to underscore is, while we were very pleased that we were able to get this agreement on chemical weapons, there really is a bigger issue here, and that’s a political settlement in Syria. And so what we’d like to see move very quickly, after we get this initial phase of this effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, that we’ll be able to move on the political front, and Geneva 2, and bring the parties together and sit down based on what we’ve already agreed in Geneva 1, to build a process, to put a process in place that will allow us to establish a real political settlement, because that’s ultimately what’s going to resolve this situation in Syria. We don’t think it’s going to be a military solution at the end of the day.

And I have no comment or plans – no comment on the – what the plans are for the Syrian delegation. But --

MS. HARF: And just another one on the schedule. They – as the Secretary said, the three of them will be meeting in New York to discuss Geneva 2, exactly that; also to update on the CW agreement. We don’t have a date set for it yet. We’ll be putting out a fuller schedule later today. That meeting’s still being worked. There are Syrian opposition members coming to New York next week, and we can give a little more information about that.

But yeah, nothing further on the delegation.

QUESTION: Thanks very much.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll move to the second row.

QUESTION: Yesterday, Mr. Kerry said that the Security Council must act next week on the case of Syria.

MODERATOR: Could you identify yourself, please?

QUESTION: Sorry. Claudia Trevisan from the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo. So if you could give us like what is the timetable expected for the Security Council? When the question will be discussed, and when we expect it to be decided?

And also you said, like, before the Syria there was a lot of criticism towards the UN from the UN ambassador at the UN summit of power, from the President, describing the UN as ineffective. And now you are presenting it in a better view. And you also said that your – U.S. will push for a more effective UN system. What do you mean by that?

MR. PITTMAN: Thanks. I think that’s three questions. The first one, let me just say on this timing of the Security Council resolution – look, I don’t want to lay out a timeline because I don’t know what it is. I think everyone’s working very hard now to see if we can come up with a resolution that we can get past the Security Council. Obviously, we want it to happen soon. The Secretary and Mr. Lavrov laid out a way forward, and I think the idea – and at least certainly the objective was to move very quickly, because the sooner we can get rid of the chemical weapons, I think the safer Syria will be and it will allow us to move forward down the path of a political solution.

So look, we’ll be working very carefully – very hard in New York as Ambassador Power and her colleagues to see if we can craft a resolution that will be binding and strong and it will have the impact and help support the work of the OPCW, which is also getting underway at the same time. I hope we move quickly, and certainly that’s our objective.

Now look, as far as criticizing the Security Council, that’s exactly what I wanted to say. We’re disappointed. We’re very disappointed that the Security Council has not been able to act up until now, but they have an opportunity to act now and we hope they seize upon that. And certainly we’ll be pressing them in that direction.

But what I tried to point out, too, is there is so much else going on within the UN system. They are advancing some of these goals and objectives that we shouldn’t lose sight of that. So I hope that’s the point I made.

And as far as the UN – making the UN a more effective place, I think we have to look very carefully at how the money is spent in the UN system. We need to make it more transparent. We need to ensure that there’s accountability, because again, as I said earlier, if we’re not able to give the UN the tools it needs, help it be the kind of organization it needs to be to carry out these priorities, then it’s going – we’re setting it up for failure, and that’s certainly what we don’t want to do.

So we’ll be working very closely with our likeminded allies and others. We have an interest in an effective and efficient UN system, and looking for initiatives in ways that we can, one, hold down cost, but at the same time, increase efficiency. Obrigado.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll take a question from the back. Please wait for the microphone.

QUESTION: Jinsook Lee of MBC TV Korea. Recently we saw friendly gestures from the Iranian Government, from the Iranian President to – toward the United States. And we have seen exchanges of letters between the two government. Will there be any bilaterals between the Iranian President and President Obama next week?

And secondly, over the months and years, I think the U.S. Government has made it clear that it will set its goals, policies regarding North Korea not based on words but based on actions. So can you say that, about Iran, the United States has changed its principle?

MR. PITTMAN: Thanks very much. I know Marie spoke to that at the session just now. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? I’m happy to --

MS. HARF: Sure. I’ll take this one a little bit, and then we can tag team this one.

I think the White House has spoken to the President’s plans for next week. We would obviously defer any questions about his potential meetings or lack thereof to them. But generally speaking, the President and the Secretary have both seen the comments coming out, the positive comments, from the new administration in Iran, from President Rouhani, and we’re encouraged by them. We do think there’s an opportunity for diplomacy, and we hope that the new Iranian administration will take advantage of that opportunity.

I’m sure we all saw the op-ed today that President Rouhani wrote, again encouraging open dialogue with the West on these issues. But it’s absolutely the case, we’ve said from the beginning, that what we’re looking for aren’t words, they’re actions. That’s what really matters – that we are open to talking directly with the Iranians if and when they’re willing to do so, but we need to see a substantive response to our proposals on their nuclear program as well.

So our policy is certainly the same, that Iran needs to live up to its international obligations, but we do think there is a unique moment right now for diplomacy, and that we hope the Iranians take advantage of that opportunity.

MR. PITTMAN: Thanks very much. And just to follow up on the second part of your question, I think Marie is exactly right. There’s always been a diplomatic path there for the Iranians. They just need to take it. And I think the actions piece of it is the critical point. And you mentioned that about North Korea. That’s what we want to see from North Korea, actions, because really, at the end of the day, they know what they need to do, and so we want to see them do exactly that. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll take a question here from the front, lady in the middle here. There’s a mike coming.

Please keep your questions brief.

QUESTION: Thank you. Irinia Gelevska, Macedonian TV. Mr. Pittman, you said the big elephants are Iran, Palestine, Syria, obviously. But what about the small elephants like Macedonia and Greek name dispute? It seems to me that this General Assembly to put aside.

MR. PITTMAN: I wouldn’t say that. I mean, I don’t know exactly – I mean, if you look at who’s going to be in New York, and this is what I said at the outset, this is an opportunity to address all those smaller issues as well as the bigger issues, because here you’ll have delegations from every country in the world, and quite frankly, most of the State Department up in New York. And I think my colleague, my – the other assistant secretaries, the under secretaries – I think they’ll be looking at opportunities as well to take advantage of that to address many of these smaller issues. And I know they’re not that small for – they’re big issues. I wish they were small, or we would’ve solved them by now. But I think there’ll be an opportunity to address many of these issues across the week and weeks ahead.

MODERATOR: Another question here from the front.

QUESTION: Thank you. Tolgo Tanis for Hurriyet. Will there be any bilateral meeting with the Turks? Will President Gul will be meeting with Vice President Biden, or can you give a few details about the – if there will be a meeting?

MR. PITTMAN: I think – as I said at the outset, I think the President so far has three bilaterals, which I mentioned. I’m not sure what the Vice President’s schedule – you’ll have to ask the White House of that, to be honest with you. And then we’ll get out very soon the Secretary’s schedule and the number of bilaterals. He’ll have quite a number of bilaterals, I have to say, but we’ll get those out as soon as we get them nailed down.

MODERATOR: Take a question second row there.

QUESTION: Flavia Babosa, Brazilian newspaper O Globo. Before President Obama’s speech is President Rousseff’s speech, and she will focus her speech on the monitoring activities of the NSA. Will the – will President Obama be addressing this somehow in his speech? And is the U.S. willing to discuss this issue and new rules or agreements within the multilateral system within the UN?

MR. PITTMAN: I don’t really want to get into that, except that the President and the White House has talked to the Brazilian President recently, and I think they’re more than willing to have a conversation and continue to discuss these issues.

MODERATOR: Another question in the front.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Haykaram Nahapetyan with the Armenian TV. One of the challenges that exists in the Cold War are the frozen conflicts and what happened in 2008 in the new – the war in the Caucasus between Georgia, Ossetia, and Russia show that frozen conflicts can be unfrozen also at certain point. So one of the unfrozen conflicts is in – again in the Caucasus, the Nagorno-Karabakh. I was wondering if this conflict will be a matter of discussion either between Lavrov and Kerry or Russian and American delegations, the co-chairmens of the OSCE Minsk Group, or on a regional level between Armenia-U.S. or Azerbaijan-U.S. level.

MR. PITTMAN: Thanks very much. Look, I’ll answer that question the way I answered your colleagues’ questions. You’ll have all the right people in New York who can discuss these issues, and I think if there are opportunities they will be discussed. I don’t know what’s on the agenda between – and of the various bilaterals that the Secretary will be discussing at this point, and I don’t have more to tell you than that right now, to be honest with you.

QUESTION: If I could briefly follow up, the Azerbaijan President, Ms. Harf, last week again threatened to take over not just Nagorno-Karabakh but also Republic of Armenia, just basically threatening to wipe out the state of Armenia. How this type of threats fit in the context of challenges, and what’s your comment? Thank you.

MS. HARF: Well, I actually haven’t seen those comments, so I wouldn’t want to venture to guess – to comment on comments that I haven’t seen. But the Assistant Secretary is certainly right that there are a number of issues, important issues that are going to be on the table next week, and this is the forum to discuss all of them. So we’ll have the right people there to talk about a host of issues on the table going forward. And I guess I just don’t have anything more specific for you on that specific situation.

MODERATOR: I think we have time just for two more. We’ll take one right in the back here.

QUESTION: This is Thomas Gorguissian with Al Tahrir, Egyptian daily newspaper. I hope I will get some answer details, not in general. So the question is regarding the Arab Spring or Arab Awakening, whatever you can call it, last year maybe and the year before that it was a big issue discussed way because it’s not just one country, it’s Egypt, it’s Tunisia, in Yemen and Libya, and somehow Syria now is something in that line or not line. Is there anything going beside this Syrian opposition or Lebanese and Palestinian president, any meetings or any discussion what are the main topics?

The second part of – is the issue of the Sudanese President solved, or not yet?

MR. PITTMAN: On the first part, yes, there will be discussions on the Northern African situation, sort of the – what you call the Arab Spring. Obviously, there will be discussions in bilateral meetings and across the board. But I think what’s more importantly, I think you’ll hear the President address this issue in his speech. I think he will talk a little bit about where we’ve come, where we’re heading and the challenges ahead, and sort of our vision – his vision – for addressing these challenges, because they’re still there, obviously. They have not been resolved.

And as far as the last question on the Sudanese President, I have nothing further on that at this point.

MS. HARF: I addressed it at length again in the briefing today, the daily briefing. As we’ve said repeatedly, he submitted a visa application and we’re taking a host of factors into consideration and looking at that application.


MS. HARF: No update for you.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Is there – sorry. Is there a date to decide what’s going – I mean, to say no or yes?

MS. HARF: I don’t have any more details for you on the application. That obviously falls under confidentiality requirements. But we are looking at it, and whenever we have something to let folks know, we’re happy to do so.

And again, I would reiterate on the Middle East or in North Africa, you’re right that the President’s speech will very much focus on the challenges but also the opportunities in the region. We’ve talked a lot about that over this last year. But I think this is a good opportunity to take a step back and look at where we’ve come and what we have to do and how to best promote U.S. policies and values and principles as we do that over the coming months, and again, in the coming year.

MODERATOR: I just want to make sure there are no questions from New York. I don’t see anybody stepping up to the podium. No? Last chance for anyone here in Washington. All right. Well, thank you very much for coming today.

MR. PITTMAN: Thank you very much.


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