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An Interview with
Senator Wirth
President United Nations Foundation 

February 26, 2007

 

 

 

 

Introduction

"Timothy Wirth, former US Senator from Colorado, is the President of the United Nations Foundation and Better World Fund. These organizations were founded in 1998 through a major financial commitment from R.E. Turner to support and strengthen the work of the United Nations.

Wirth began his political career as a White House Fellow under President Lyndon Johnson and was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Education in the Nixon Administration. Wirth then returned to his home state and successfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District from 1975-1987. In the House, he concentrated his efforts in the areas of communications technology and budget policy. In 1986, Wirth was elected to the U.S. Senate where he focused on environmental issues, especially global climate change and population stabilization. Wirth chose not to run for re-election.

Following those two decades of elected politics, Wirth served in the U.S. Department of State as the first Undersecretary for Global Affairs from 1993 to 1997. In this position he coordinated U.S. foreign policy in the areas of refugees, population, environment, science, human rights and narcotics.

As President of the UN Foundation since its inception in early 1998, Wirth has organized and led the formulation of the Foundation’s mission and program priorities, which include the environment, women and population, children’s health and peace, security and human rights. The Foundation also engages in extensive public advocacy, resource mobilization, and institutional strengthening efforts on behalf of the UN.

Prior to entering politics, Wirth was in private business in Colorado. He is a graduate of Harvard College and holds a PhD from Stanford University. The recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, he also served as a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers. Wirth is married to Wren Wirth, the President of the Winslow Foundation; they have two grown children and three grandchildren".

- Source: www.unfoundation.org

"We're the longest and most vibrant democracy in the world, but we've really stubbed our toe in Iraq." -Timothy Wirth

Spencer:


In 1997, philanthropist and businessman, Ted Turner pledged a $1 billion gift to support the efforts of the United Nations.  As important as the money involved, the value of this gift symbolized a new approach to solving problems on the world stage through public/private partnerships.  The United Nations Foundation was formed to establish priorities and plans for Mr. Turner’s gift.  Can you explain the priorities of the Foundation and how they have changed over the past decade?


Senator Wirth:


The UN foundation began with a commitment overall to help the UN. So the UN does a huge number of things and we had to narrow our focus, and the board, which is a very distinguished international board, decided to limit its target to three areas: one, children’s health; second, women’s reproductive health and population; and third, the environment and climate change. In all of those the focus was on prevention as much as possible, and in all of these areas after problems become acute they’ve got to be turned over to the government because that’s where the money is and that’s where the palliative solutions are.  The harder thing to do is prevention and often these are very difficult issues politically. So that’s what the UN Foundation decided would be its three areas of subsidy of engagement.  We also spend a lot of time and attention trying to help the UN tell its story to help the UN work on various problem areas that overlap with our priority areas.


Spencer:


The United Nations Foundation partners with the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships, the Better World Fund, and the Better World campaign.  How do these organizations interface?


Senator Wirth:


The United Nations Fund for International Partnerships is our window into the UN, and so we work through UNFIP.  We work through UNFIP in terms of working with UNICEF, WHO, and various UN institutions.  The Better World Fund is our operation.  That’s the same as the United Nations Foundation and the Better World campaign is ours too, so they just have different names and different legal structures.  The difference is UNFIP is a UN operation.  The others are UN Foundation activities.  UNFIP is a public UN funded operation.  The others are privately funded and part of the UN Foundation.


Spencer:


Just two weeks ago you testified before Congress on the need to strengthen the relationship between the United States and the United Nations.  You said every day it becomes more and more apparent that the great global challenges of the 21 st century, from terrorism and nuclear proliferation, to climate change and poverty, require international cooperation.  In your ten-point plan you speak about the importance of rebuilding a spirit, a partnership and trust with the UN.  This is also the priority of the new Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon.  How is this to be accomplished?


Senator Wirth:


Well that’s a big order.  The most important thing that he has to do immediately is to sustain the momentum that the previous Secretary General began in terms of reform of the UN, modernizing the UN, making it a more cost effective institution.  It’s very hard to do.  It’s easier said than done.  The UN is a very political institution.  It’s one in which nations from all over the world have their own stakes and their own perspectives as to what ought to be done and that’s fine, but bringing together 192 nations is extremely difficult to do and often the UN gets lectured by the United States as if somehow we know best when in fact a lot of the things that we do aren’t exemplary by any means and the rest of the world condemns us for those activities. 

The UN is overall best when the UN tries to set norms, when the UN tries to set the best level for the behavior of nations and tries to define the bar as high as possible.  How do you act related to human rights?  How do you react related to democracy and citizen participation?  How do you act related to the environment?  Those are norms.  How do you get countries to agree to set very high norms?  That’s the UN at its best, and nations all say that they want to do these things but when you get right down to it, a lot of them, including the United States, don’t really want to.  They’re not as eager to do so, so it’s very difficult to get the UN to agree to all of the norms and all of the best behavior that is part of what the UN ought to do but that’s what political leadership from the Secretary General is all about.  None of this will work unless the U.S. and the UN are working closely together.  The U.S. is the indispensable partner to the United Nations, it’s the host to the United Nations, we were the driving force behind the creation of the United Nations, we’re it’s largest funder, so we have to make it work.


Spencer:


The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change was established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme to advance the understanding of global warming and options for adaptation and mitigation. The panel’s fourth assessment report was released on February 2nd.  Can you review for me the new findings and tell me what the UN is planning to do?


Senator Wirth:


This is the most important scientific assessment probably ever done in the history of the world.  It’s the most far-reaching group of people and it’s the biggest scientific agreement and scientific assessment ever pulled together, the best scientists from all over the world.  They have been studying climate change and the potential of understanding man’s impact on the climate now for almost 20 years, looking in great detail at the data, and their findings become clearer and clearer and the results more and more alarming.  What the panel has determined is the changes in the weather, changes in the climate, changes in the greenhouse that surrounds the earth have been caused by man’s activities by the burning of fossil fuels, by the development of various technologies that release methane into the atmosphere.  We are changing the nature of the atmosphere and the atmosphere is becoming more like a greenhouse, so the heat of the sun and the ultraviolet rays can’t escape back into space as easily. Earth is getting warmer, and that is the very striking finding of the IPCC this time around and the report that came out this February says that man has been the cause of this. 


Spencer:


There will be two other big reports coming out this year from the IPCC.  The second report will talk about what the impacts of these climate changes are likely to be and there will be therefore a large catalogue of examination of what’s the best scientific evidence on sea level rise, on hurricanes, on drought, and so on, and then the third report will be recommendations as to what ought to be done.  So there will be three major reports this year. The first is what do we know about this?  Did man induce this?  The answer is yes.  The second, what will the impacts of this be?  And the third is what are recommendations for what we do about it?


Senator Wirth:


The UN and the World Food Program have aided millions displaced by the conflict in Darfur, yet the conflict in Darfur appears difficult to resolve.  How does the UN implement the concept of the “responsibility to protect,” and why won’t the Chinese get on board?


Spencer:


Well the idea of this “responsibility to protect” was something that came out of and was agreed to in principal by the UN and the member states of the UN  in the summit of  2000 called the Millennium Summit.  They agreed to the idea of the “responsibility to protect” and then reaffirmed that agreement in 2005.   However, the UN has not yet decided what that exactly means.  You’ve got to take these things one step at a time.  First of all is the idea, which is a major idea, which is that even though something like Darfur is occurring within the sovereign boundaries of a nation, the rest of the world has a responsibility to protect people there who may be being destroyed by genocide or other activities going on within that country, and this is a very complicated thing to do. 


Senator Wirth:


The UN was originally set up to try to mitigate and to try to respond to conflicts between nations.  It was not established to look at conflicts within a nation, and what’s going on in Darfur is the latter.  It’s a conflict within a nation, so the first thing that has to be done is agreement that even though this is occurring within a nation the rest of the world community has a responsibility to try to protect those people within that nation, and that is a very noble idea but very hard to implement.  So that’s what the problem is in Darfur.  There’s “the responsibility to protect”,  but the government of Sudan is saying, “Don’t come into our country” so the government of Sudan is exercising its own sovereignty.  The UN doesn’t yet have any rules about the responsibility to protect, so consequently the UN has not yet gone into Darfur except on a minor basis, which was agreed to by the government of Sudan. 


Spencer:


So how do you get the Sudanese government to agree?  Well you try to put pressure on them.  That’s what the Security Council has done, try to put pressure on Sudan to allow the Darfur crisis to be solved.  The Security Council operates through the agreement of its five permanent members and they all have to agree, and the five permanent members in this case don’t agree. The Chinese don’t agree, and they threaten to veto any action related to the UN going into Darfur violating the “sovereignty” of Darfur.  So why are the Chinese threatening to veto it?  Well Sudan produces a lot of oil and guess who the number one oil consumer from Sudan is?  It’s China, so China has very significant economic issues in Sudan, doesn’t want to make the Sudanese government angry at them the Chinese, wants to make the Sudanese government friendly to them the Chinese so that the Chinese can get lots of oil, preferably at a lower price.  So it appears to me that probably what’s going on here are the politics of oil, which can be very nasty all around the world.


Senator Wirth:


Nuclear proliferation poses a serious threat to the world.  Last year the UN Security Council approved sanctions against North Korea and Iran.  Can you explain the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which is chaired by Ted Turner and former senator, Sam Nunn?


Spencer:


The second major philanthropy, which Ted Turner has set up in addition to the UN Foundation was the Nuclear Threat Initiative.  Mr. Turner was concerned that the greatest threat in the world is our ability to blow each other up, and we can do that with nuclear weapons and that major steps ought to be undertaken to see what we could do to mitigate that threat.  How do we soften that threat and how might we eliminate that threat?  So that was the purpose of setting up the Nuclear Threat Initiative.  To direct it he retained former Senator Sam Nunn, probably one of the best chairs of the Senate Armed Services Committee has ever had and respected former United States Senator from Georgia.  So Sam Nunn is the co-chair with Mr. Turner and really the subsidized driving force behind the Nuclear Threat Initiative.


Senator Wirth:


The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment looks at the relationship between ecosystem health and human health and survival.  We know our natural ecosystems and great wonders of the world are under tremendous strain. What is the UN Foundation doing to preserve the endangered natural and cultural wonders of the world?


Spencer:


Well we debated this for a long time as to what could we do as one small foundation in the face of all of the pressures on natural systems around the world, and we concluded that we would try to operate through what is called the World Heritage Program.  The UN has established under the agency of UNESCO a program to try to protect both manmade and natural heritage around the world, manmade heritage being for example Venice or Anchor Watt, the greater Machu Picchu, the great monuments, the great facilities built by man, and then there are the natural heritage sites like the Galapagos or the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, and so we were concerned about the natural heritage sites.  So what we’ve done is to help the UN build its capability in supporting natural heritage protection and that’s the angle that we have taken to try to wedge into and be of assistance to the UN as the UN attempts to protect these natural areas.


Senator Wirth:


The US chose not to participate in the Human Rights Council.  How can this initiative be effective without the United States, and why does the U.S. not want to participate?


Spencer:


I think this was all wound up in politics among the very hardcore conservatives.  Some of the so-called neo-conservatives led by probably people in the White House and reflected by the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, did not want the U.S. to become any more engaged in international treaties around the world.  Along came this new human rights council and so they said, “We’re not gonna join this because we really don’t believe in these things.”  They used the excuse that this was not gonna be an effective organization and they threw a lot of smoke up in the air in my opinion; tried to throw a lot of dust in people’s eyes to convince them that the Human Rights Council wasn’t going to be effective so that’s why the U.S. wasn’t joining.  Well it’s not going to be effective if the U.S. doesn’t join it, as your question correctly points out. 


Senator Wirth:


These things don’t work unless the U.S. gets really involved with them and in this case it had a very small chance of succeeding without the U.S. being involved.  So the U.S. doesn’t join and these people pressure for the U.S. not to join.  The Council doesn’t succeed and these people then turn around and say, “See, it didn’t work.”  Well it didn’t work because we didn’t join, so what was their rational for doing it?  I think it was an ideological reason for not doing it and that’s that they just don’t like international treaties and international engagement around the world.


Spencer:


The UN is the world’s first responder to humanitarian tragedies.  Can you explain your partnership with the Vodafone Group Foundation and the ways in which technology can benefit global health and humanitarian response?


Senator Wirth:


Well we have been very worried about the collapse of the public health system around the world and public health is the preventive medicine around the world. How do you get people to keep themselves well?  How do you keep people safe from spreading disease?  Issues that we’ve worked on are polio and malaria and measles.  Most kids today are vaccinated against various diseases and you want to drink clean water.  These are all measures of preventive medicine.  Well behind all of this approach for preventive medicine is something else, which is called surveillance.  You have to surveil.  You have to look at what’s going on in various areas to know what to do.  You have to know that the water is dirty.  You have to surveil the water in order to launch clean-up efforts.  You have to surveil the health of people in order to pick up if people are getting polio or if people are getting measles or if people are getting malaria so you know what to do.  So behind public health measures is what’s called health surveillance.


Spencer:


Now as public health systems around the country have been for a variety of reasons becoming weaker and weaker, health surveillance has become weaker and that means that public health all over the world becomes weaker and that means that the overall health of the world becomes more endangered.  So what we said was well what can we do about this?  We’re just one small foundation in the face of all of these things that are going on.  So we undertook with Vodafone, which is the largest cell phone company in the world, figured out how to use their handheld cell phone technology and after a lot of work and a lot of study we decided that the thing to do was to try to train health workers to do this health surveillance, not just health workers but volunteers, citizens and so on to do a lot of the health surveillance.  They can go around and look at things and you can learn a lot just by systematically looking at what’s going on.


Senator Wirth:


So if you train a lot of people to go around, how do you collect the data?  They used to write it down on slick pieces of paper and so on.  Well in this day and age you don’t have to use paper.  You can use a computer.  Well how do you plug into a computer and transmit information?  Well Vodafone was the transmission of the information and we got the Palm company to provide the devices that people would use.  So Palm became a partner of this, and then we said well how are we gonna go about mapping where all these people are?  You’re in X community and somebody else is in Y community and somebody else is in Z community.  How do you put all of that data on a big map together so you can begin to see trends and begin to see what’s happening?  So Google, which has the best mapping there is, became a partner, and then we said how are we gonna manage all this information?  It’s very complicated, it’s very difficult, and there are people who are expert managers, and so we went to a guy named Mark Benioff who owns Sales Force, and Sales Force is a company in San Francisco that is the best back office manager of information.  So what this has become is a quite remarkable health surveillance public health partnership between the United Nations and Vodafone as the base and then Palm sales force and Google.  It’s a very, very interesting operation.  We’re working in three countries and we’re about to expand this to twenty countries all in sub-Saharan Africa.


Spencer:


It seems like a major project with many people involved.


Senator Wirth:


Many people and many companies involved and very interesting.


Spencer:


The UN Foundation just moved offices.  How is this office more “green” as the modern day term is? 


Senator Wirth:


This office has a great deal of natural lighting.  We let in the light and the infrared doesn’t go out.  These are very efficient windows.  The carpet is all recycled carpet and you pick this up and you send it back to the factory and it’s not chemical at all, which makes a much better living environment.  The air circulation is a great deal better.  The heating and air conditioning in the building is very efficient and so we use as little energy as possible. So, we’re what’s called a green building, which is a certified lead standard building.  This is one of the most efficient buildings in Washington so we’re very pleased to be here.  We talk about being good environmental citizens so we think it’s important to walk the talk.


Spencer:


This should set an example for all different office buildings.


Senator Wirth:


Yeah.  That’s the kind of thing that everybody can do and look how pleasant it is.  It couldn’t be nicer.


Spencer:


In 2005, journalist Thomas Friedman wrote a best seller titled, The World is Flat, describing the era of globalization and our newly interconnected and independent world through telecommunication, trade and travel.  Unfortunately, we are not a united world and great problems lie ahead.  Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan used the term, “problems without passports.”  What is your hope for the decades that lie ahead?


Senator Wirth:


Well we have to look at a whole lot of different things and I think that there is a hierarchy of very pressing issues.  I think that the two biggest issues are the proliferation of nuclear weaponry and global climate change, and that’s what the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the UN Foundation are designed to do.  Below that is a level of issues related to terrorism, bio-terrorism and chemical problems around the world, which I think are potentially very troubling, and there are many things that we can be doing about those.  Some of those fall into the scope of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.  They’re not items that we’re involved with.  Behind all of this is the issue of population.  The world’s population is growing very rapidly and that is a recipe for using up a great deal of resources that create a tremendous amount of instability.  If you have too many unemployed people, unemployed young men in particular, it’s a recipe for political unrest. So we work a lot on the issues of population.  Then you get into the basic healthcare issues, how do you keep people well, and that’s a very important agenda and that’s one of the things that we do as well.  So we have hope that we can make a difference in each of these areas.


Spencer:


Finally, you have to have good politics and good governments behind this.  The most important part of that agenda is good government from the United States.  The United States is the best example for countries as to what to do and we’re the longest and most vibrant democracy in the world but we’ve really stubbed our toe in Iraq and we’ve stubbed our toe in many ways in this administration so we’re extremely unpopular around the world. People are very angry at us around Iraq.  We’ve enflamed the Muslim world severely.  We have done almost nothing to resolve the Arab Israeli conflict, which lies beneath a lot of this.  We have provided an opportunity for the Iranians to move very aggressively and that is something they wanted to do and we’re providing now a little check on that, and we’re the largest both purveyor of nuclear weapons and the largest manufacturer of nuclear weapons, and we’re the largest producer of greenhouse forcing gasses.


Senator Wirth:


So we’re pretty much in many ways a rogue elephant.  We’re a rogue state, and so what we have to do is to shape up our own act before we can get the rest of the world to follow our example.  We don’t set a very good example today and that’s what elections are all about.  Certainly President Bush won’t run again.  He’s not allowed to run again and that’s a good thing and we’ll have a new president and that will be helpful and so we just muddle through.  That’s what you say, Spencer.  You call it muddling through.  We just sort of do the best we can between now and the end of 2008 and then we’ll have a new president and that’ll give us an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, provide new and welcome U.S. leadership for the rest of the world, which depends on us, The United States of America.


Spencer:


That’s great.  Thank you very much for meeting with me.