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Why UN wasn't a doormat on Islamic State and climate change this week (+video)

World leaders who gathered this week at the United Nations headquarters took on some of the world's most pressing issues, including climate change, the Islamic State, and Ebola.

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    President Obama shakes hands with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon after speaking about the Ebola epidemic, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014, at the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters.
    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
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Say what you will about the United Nations – and many, particularly in Washington, regularly do harangue the global institution as hapless and ineffectual at best and a den of tyrants at worst – but every once in a while, the world body constructed from the ashes of World War II demonstrates its worth.

Even its indispensability, in an increasingly globalized and integrated world.

This week has been one of those moments, as world leaders who gathered in New York have taken up – and in some cases even acted on – the world’s most pressing security, development, and environmental issues.

Tuesday it was climate change.

Wednesday it was religious extremism and the threat posed by militant and terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS).

Thursday it’s been Ebola.

President Obama even stayed at the annual opening of the UN General Assembly for an unusual three days this time, underscoring the role the United States sees for the international community in the issues that matter most to America. As the president said repeatedly as he talked about global priorities with the leaders of nearly all the UN’s 195 member countries, “America will lead, but America cannot do it alone.”

Perhaps the clearest example of the UN fulfilling its purpose came Wednesday, when the Security Council – widely and justifiably blasted in recent years as a broken institution unable to do anything about Syria’s civil war or Ukraine’s destabilizing conflict – approved a resolution requiring countries to take steps to stop the flow of foreign terrorist fighters into conflicts like Syria’s. The resolution also aims to cut off those fighters’ financial networks.

The foreign fighter issue became a defining topic of this year’s General Assembly week not just because the US president took the unusual step of chairing the Security Council session, but also because of fresh news.

As the Council voted Wednesday, French President François Hollande confirmed that a French citizen had been beheaded by a militant group in Algeria pledging allegiance to IS. On Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told journalists that Iraqi intelligence had uncovered a plot by French and American foreign fighters associated with IS to attack subway systems in Paris and the US.   

The US-sponsored resolution not only won the unanimous support of the 15-member Council, but more than 110 countries signed on to the resolution as co-sponsors – a record number for a resolution. And more than 50 leaders lined up into the evening to speak on the issue.

Under the binding resolution, countries are required to enact laws to cut off funds for terrorist organizations and to make it illegal to travel to join a terrorist organization. In addition, countries are required to prevent their territory from being a transit point for terrorist fighters, and countries are to require airlines to share passenger lists.

True, the resolution includes no enforcement mechanism, leading some unimpressed UN critics to label it ineffective UN action as usual.

But the resolution has other attributes that reflect the utility of UN action – even when no UN-flagged army or judge is going to come to enforce it.

The resolution gives leaders a pretext for taking steps that might not be popular with their publics. So for example, Turkey now has an excuse (“The UN made me do it!”) to close its southern border to curb the flow of would-be jihadists into Syria. And Mr. Obama now has a globally mandated cudgel for pressuring Arab allies to stem their citizens’ donations to Muslim extremist groups.

Indeed, one of the useful functions of the UN is as a bully pulpit.

The Climate Summit called by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday delivered no global accord on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. (That, climate-action advocates hope, will come in December 2015 at a UN climate conference in Paris.)

But countries and private companies used the summit to lay out how they plan to enlist in the global effort to slow global warming. And Obama took the summit stage to pressure China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to join other “big countries” by committing to concrete steps to cut carbon emissions.

On Thursday, Obama attended a high-level meeting on Ebola. He reminded his audience of the lead role the US will take in the international effort to stop the virus – even as he emphasized the urgent need for the whole world to unite in stopping a regional outbreak that he said risks becoming a global security issue.

“Stopping Ebola is a priority for the United States. We will continue to lead and do our part,” Obama said at the UN meeting. “But this must also be a priority for the world.”

If the world is to play a crucial role in stopping a public health crisis that is already devastating three West African countries, it will be the UN that organizes and galvanizes that global effort.

Public health experts and UN critics point out that UN agencies have made a mess of international intervention on the Ebola outbreak so far – intervening too late, taking piecemeal action when they did intervene, and failing to recognize early on how this outbreak was different in a changing Africa.

All that is true. But as Obama seemed to be saying by bringing his Mideast intervention to the UN and by plying the organization’s hallways for three days, the place is far from perfect, but in today’s world, we couldn’t do without it.

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