GENEVA – The United Nations is facing a challenge about how to respond to U.S. President Donald Trump's controversial decisions to suspend entry for refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries to the United States.
Experts say the world body is now wedged between its aims to help the world's downtrodden and persecuted, its need to maintain funding from its biggest donor for U.N. operations — and a new bid to get other countries to take up the slack left by the United States, a traditional beacon for people fleeing war.
With rumblings of funding cuts by the Trump administration, the financial stakes are very high for the United Nations.
The United States pays 22 percent of the U.N.'s regular budget and over 28 percent of the costs of its far-flung peacekeeping operations. It also sends large contributions to U.N. agencies like the World Food Program, the children's agency UNICEF and the World Health Organization, which has been at the center of the fight against the Zika virus.
On the campaign trail, Trump rallied a base with strong misgivings about the U.N., and in December tweeted cryptically that "things will be different" at the U.N. after Jan. 20 — the day he took office. The U.N. had "such great potential," he wrote, but was now it's "just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!"
A U.N. official said that with a new secretary-general and a new U.S. president, the United Nations needs to develop a long-term relationship that adheres to the values of its charter and takes into account the importance of the United States as a founding member and its largest contributor. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The task is perhaps most delicate for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which says 65 million people have been displaced worldwide by conflict and persecution — the highest number since World War II. The new U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, headed UNHCR for a decade before being picked for the U.N.'s top job.
In an executive order Friday, citing security concerns, Trump suspended the U.S. refugee admissions for 120 days and set a 90-day ban on U.S. entry for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen. Protests erupted at many airports across the United States, and many families were left in limbo.
The order "makes the job of the United Nations, and UNHCR in particular, very, very difficult," said Michael Williams, a distinguished fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London and a former U.N. undersecretary-general.
"Mr. Guterres will be moving with a deliberate pace, and not wishing to inflame the relationship with the U.S.," he said.
Philippe Bolopion, deputy director for global advocacy at Human Rights Watch, urged Guterres to take a "clear stand."
"With President Trump's scare-mongering against refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, Guterres is now facing a major test," he said.
The U.N. line is gradually stiffening.
In Ethiopia on Monday, Guterres didn't directly address the ban, but said he hoped it would be temporary. By Tuesday, the U.N. chief spoke out more strongly in a statement, and U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric added that Guterres wants the U.S. ban lifted "as soon as possible."
Guterres said countries have the right, even the obligation, to avoid infiltration "by members of terrorist organizations." But he said they cannot discriminate on grounds of religion, ethnicity, or nationality: "Blind measures, not based on solid intelligence, tend to be ineffective as they risk being bypassed by what are today sophisticated global terrorist movements."
Still, the secretary-general did not mention the United States by name, and said refugees are finding more and more borders closed around the word, in violation of the protection they are entitled to under international refugee law.
The United States is UNHCR's single largest donor, ponying up over $1.5 billion last year — over four times more than the No. 2 donor, the European Union. The U.S. accounts for over one fourth of all funding for the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration, which is also based in Geneva.
UNHCR has spoken out firmly before. When Hungary was closing its borders 16 months ago to prevent the entry to thousands of refugees from Syria and beyond, it insisted the Hungarian government had "legal and moral obligations" to allow "unimpeded access" for people in need.
So far, the refugee agency has been more careful in its response to Trump's ban. An initial statement on Saturday praised America's "long tradition" of protection for people fleeing conflict, expressed hope for continued U.S. leadership, and pledged to work with the new administration.
Filippo Grandi, Guterres' successor at UNHCR, said Monday he was "deeply worried by the uncertainty" faced by thousands of refugees in the process of being resettled in the U.S. His office said the U.S. could have resettled 20,000 people over the 120-day suspension, based on the average rate over the last 15 years.
While most of the world's refugees are in countries neighboring war zones, the U.S. currently takes the bulk of "resettling" refugees — a process involving about 230,000 of the most vulnerable people, IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle said.
On Wednesday, five independent experts with the U.N. human rights office, which tends to speak out more vigorously than other U.N. bodies, said Trump's order against people of seven countries was "clearly discriminatory" and violates United States' international human rights obligations to not turn away people with a right to protection.
Williams, of Chatham House, said Trump was trying to get more out of other countries.
"Particularly with UNHCR, the U.S. has punched way above its weight, and he's trying to even it out," he said. "In that regard, I'm not without sympathy."
Doyle, at the IOM, urged other, farther-flung countries to show "a modicum of the same degree of openness that the U.S. has shown."
"Let's have it from the Latin Americans, let's have it from the Asians. Let the Europeans show a bit more generosity," Doyle told a U.N. news conference Tuesday.
"Probably the most important thing is for other countries to step forward and say, 'We will take these people who have been approved and cleared,'" in the U.S. resettlement process, he added. "Why not?"
Lederer reported from New York.