Russia and China delivered an early snub to US president Donald Trump and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres on Monday by boycotting a meeting on United Nations reform, in what could be a harbinger of things to come at the General Assembly this week.
The Russian and Chinese representatives at the UN, Vasily Nebenzya and Liu Jieyi, were absent from the reform session chaired by Mr Trump and Mr Guterres and attended by delegates from 120 countries, diplomatic sources in New York told The National.
The National has also learned that Moscow and Beijing have not signed the declaration of a 10-point plan for broad reforms at the world body. The document, drafted by the secretary general's team, is known as the Political Declaration for UN Reform High Level Event, according to Fox News, and garnered support from 120 of the 193 UN member states.
The absence of Russia and China is an early statement to Mr Trump that the sailing will not be as smooth as anticipated for him or for Mr Guterres at the General Assembly.
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The US president and his representative to the UN Nikki Haley have made reform efforts the centrepiece of their strategy at the world body, but Moscow and Beijing have concerns that the proposed changes will come at their expense and empower Japan and India, according to the diplomatic sources.
“The declaration on UN reform will not be passed through [the UN], and the UN will not change," Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quoted Mr Nebenzya as saying.
The rift could also affect US efforts on the North Korea file at the assembly, where Ms Haley is seeking stronger measures against Pyongyang, contrary to the wishes of Russia and China.
However, Mr Trump called Chinese president Xi Jinping, who is not attending the UN gathering this year, on Monday to discuss North Korea. "The two leaders committed to maximising pressure on North Korea through vigorous enforcement of United Nations Security Council resolutions," the White House said.
Moscow’s absence came hours after US secretary of state Rex Tillerson met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Sunday. Their meeting appeared to have to do more with Syria and a recommitment to “deconflicting military operations, reducing the violence, and creating the conditions for the Geneva process to move forward, pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254”, the state department said.
But if nothing else, the UN reform meeting displayed a more unified Trump-Guterres front. “You have been fantastic,” Mr Trump told Mr Guterres at the opening of the meeting. “I applaud the secretary general for laying out a vision to reform the United Nations so that it better serves the people we all represent.”
Mr Trump criticised the “bureaucracy and mismanagement” at the UN. “While the United Nations on a regular budget has increased by 140 per cent, and its staff has more than doubled since 2000, we are not seeing the results in line with this investment.”
The proposed reforms championed by Mr Guterres target a more level field in contributing to the UN budget and to international security. The plan also strengthens accountability measures and slashes the budget by eliminating duplication.
“We encourage the secretary general to fully use his authority to cut through the bureaucracy, reform outdated systems, and make firm decisions to advance the UN’s core mission,” Mr Trump said.
The US pays more than 22 per cent of the UN's annual budget and 28 per cent towards peacekeeping efforts, making it the top contributor to the organisation. Under pressure from Ms Haley, however, the UN cut $600 million (Dh2.2 billion) from its peacekeeping budget this year.
Despite the absence of Russia and China, Ms Haley described the support shown for the UN reform plan as “miraculous”.
“The impressive part is we ask other countries to sign on to their support for reform and 120 countries have signed ... That’s a miraculous number,” she said.