Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at a Security Council Debate on the Purposes and Principles

Thank you, Minister Wang, Minister Lavrov, Minister Rodriguez, Minister McCully, Minister Aman, Minister Linkevičius, Minister Wali. Thank you all for participating in today’s debate. And Minister Wang, thank you, above all, for coming to the UN to chair this important discussion.

The drafters of the UN Charter viewed the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations as a “test for the effectiveness of the organization.” It is a testament to their enduring relevance that, as we gather here nearly 70 years later, the same Purposes and Principles continue to guide the organization and provide that crucial measure of our collective effectiveness.

As many of you know, the very first words of the UN Charter are, “We the peoples of the United Nations.” It is all too easy in our debates in this Council, and across the UN, to lose sight of the people whose rights and welfare are dramatically affected by the degree to which we fulfill the Charter’s ambitious mandate. To recommit ourselves to the Purposes and Principles is to recommit ourselves to these people – individuals in every one of our states whose basic dignity the Charter is meant to defend and uphold. I would like to highlight three ways the United Nations and its Member States can and must improve our effectiveness in working together toward this noble and necessary aspiration.

First, the Security Council must play the robust role set out for it by the Charter “to maintain or restore international peace and security,” and it must take actions when circumstances demand it. Yet too often this Council has not lived up to this primary responsibility. Consider Syria. When the Assad regime launches deadly attacks on peaceful protestors, when it tortures tens of thousands of detainees in its prisons, when it employs – openly – starve or surrender tactics, inflicting a devastating toll on civilians. Amid all of this, divisions among Member States continue to prevent the Council from taking action to stop the regime from attacking civilians, or even speaking in one voice to condemn the violence and call for meaningful accountability. As a result, we’ve let down the people at the heart of the Charter.

Second, Member States must “fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the Charter” — that’s a quote — including the obligation to accept and carry out the decisions of the Council, and must “give the United Nations every assistance in any action it takes” in accordance with the Charter. We’ve shown the ability to leverage these obligations to good effect, as arms embargoes in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo are making it harder for armed actors to get the weapons that they have used to commit atrocities, with other measures, like the ban on trade in illicit charcoal from Somalia, which is limiting the funds that violent extremist groups like al-Shabaab are using to fuel their campaigns of terror.

But it is not enough for us to adopt mandates and resolutions. We must be willing to exercise the political will and take the action needed to actually preserve international peace and security. Today, we empower UN peacekeeping missions with more robust mandates than ever before to protect civilians and monitor human rights; when those mandates are contested, though, we must take appropriate action to defend them. Unfortunately, the Council was silent when the Sudanese government denied UN peacekeepers unhindered access to the town of Thabit, in Darfur, preventing the UN from properly investigating possible human rights violations following allegations that Sudanese soldiers had raped more than 200 women and girls last October. Instead, the only time the peacekeepers were permitted to reach Thabit, Sudanese military and intelligence officials refused to let them interview alleged rape victims in private, and in some cases recorded the interviews.

Ensuring respect for the work of the United Nations entails acting in good faith in accordance with the Principles of the Charter. Yet notwithstanding the foundational obligations of Member States to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity, Russia today is training, arming, supporting, and fighting alongside separatists who have brutally seized Ukrainian territory – a blatant violation of the UN Charter and an assault on its neighbor’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, one that has already cost some 5,700 lives and forced the displacement of more than 1.7 million Ukrainians.

This brings me to my third point. In dealing with states that flout the UN’s Principles and their international obligations more generally, the United Nations must come up with more effective ways to pressure them. That includes states that brutally repress their own people – behavior that, in and of itself, can threaten international peace and security.

Consider the UN’s recent actions with respect to North Korea. In March 2013, the UN Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, which not only thoroughly documented the regime’s horrors, but also brought them into public view by holding open hearings with victims and experts. Based on the commission’s findings, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution roundly condemning the regime’s systematic abuses, and encouraging the Security Council to consider “appropriate action to ensure accountability.” When the Security Council met in December to discuss North Korea’s human rights crisis for the very first time, many members, including the United States, echoed the General Assembly’s call. It is true that the regime’s prison camps continue to hold between 80 and 120 thousand people in ghastly conditions. Nonetheless, by shining a light on the unspeakable violations being perpetrated every day in the DPRK, UN action is helping to galvanize broader pressure on the regime to end abuses that were ignored for far too long.

The situation in North Korea reveals a fundamental lesson learned many times over since the Charter was adopted – widespread human rights violations can themselves pose a threat to international peace and security. We must not ignore connections between the way governments treat their own citizens and the way they interact with other states and the norms of our shared international system. North Korea, for example, has repeatedly threatened nuclear attacks against states that criticize the way it treats its own people. In Syria, violations perpetrated by the Assad regime were instrumental in the dramatic rise of ISIL and other terrorist groups, which are now wreaking havoc far beyond the country’s borders. And the violence in Syria has led nearly four million people to take refuge in neighboring countries – placing a massive and destabilizing strain on their governments.

And whether in Syria or elsewhere in the world, when a country locks up its political opponents instead of resolving differences through dialogue; when it attempts to silence its critics, as some Council Members are doing, it both violates the Charter’s commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, and it will not bring about the stability that is so important to the lasting economic and social progress we all wish to see. Rather than locking up one’s opponents or making ridiculous allegations in pointing fingers at foreign powers, respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, as the Charter provides, is the foundation for peace, security, and prosperity.

As we strive to enhance the effectiveness of the United Nations, we must guard against attempts to manipulate the Purposes and Principles in an effort to prevent the UN from tackling the global challenges it was designed to confront and defending the rights of individuals it was meant to champion. Yet some seek to distort the Purposes and Principles, asserting for instance that human rights violations have no relation to international peace and security or that the sovereignty of nations precludes the UN’s engagement on these issues. But as President Obama said in the UN General Assembly a few years ago, “sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye.” Sovereignty did not give the Nazis license to massacre Jews 75 years ago; it did not give a Hutu extremist regime license to slaughter Tutsi two decades ago; and it does not and cannot be allowed to shield governments that commit atrocities today.

If “We the people of the United Nations” are to recommit ourselves to the Purposes and Principles of the Charter, we must see them as the drafters intended them: as a blueprint to unite us in advancing the safety, security, and human rights of people across the world, and not as an instrument to divide us and obstruct this crucial effort. People — people like Syrians in East Ghouta, more than 200 of whom have been killed in the last two weeks by bombs dropped by the Assad regime; people like the democracy and human rights activists, whose effort to promote freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly — have been stifled by the growing global civil society crackdown, with over 50 countries proposing restrictive measures on civil society efforts in just the last two years. And people like the Ukrainian children and elderly who were trapped in Debaltseve, left to cower in basements while separatists – with Russia’s weapons, training, and blessing – pummeled the city with rockets and mortars after agreeing to a ceasefire. If we keep such people at the heart of our efforts, we will more effectively live up to our shared responsibilities and the shared vision that the drafters embodied in the Charter’s Purposes and Principles.

Thank you, Mr. President.