UNITED NATIONS Diplomats and officials were appalled at the Bush administration's decision to cut support for the U.N. Population Fund, saying the move was motivated by domestic politics at the expense of women and children's health.
But experts say the fallout will be minimal, noting that Washington and its allies have survived bigger crises in the last year and a half.
Europe, Canada, Japan and the United Nations have been frustrated and disappointed with this administration's decisions to opt out of the Kyoto protocol on climate change and talks on biological weapons. Most recently, the United States nearly backed out of its participation in the international criminal court.
The battles have been contentious and left bruises between America and its allies at a time when Washington needs them most in the war on terrorism.
The latest row over funding for the U.N. agency that runs family planning programs in 141 poor nations baffled many inside U.N. headquarters on Monday.
In a victory for social conservatives at home, the administration said it would withhold $34 million that had been earmarked for the agency. Instead, the money which makes up 12 percent of the UNFPA budget will go to international child survival and health programs run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, officials said Monday.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the decision was made after the administration concluded "that the U.N. Population Fund moneys go to Chinese agencies that carry out coercive programs" that involve abortion.
But a U.S. government fact-finding team recently concluded the opposite.
"We find no evidence that UNFPA has knowingly supported or participated in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization in the People's Republic of China," the team wrote in its report.
Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the U.N. fund, questioned why the administration was cutting off aid to all countries, when in the past, the fund has promised not to spend the money in China. A State Department fact-finding team recommended the administration maintain that arrangement and Secretary of State Colin Powell praised the agency last year.
"Women and children will die because of this decision," Obaid said. She said $34 million would have been enough to prevent 2 million unwanted pregnancies, nearly 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, 60,000 cases of serious maternal illness and over 77,000 infant and child deaths
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was disappointed at the news.
"I think UNFPA does very essential work and we have made it clear that it does not go around encouraging abortions. It gives good advice to women on reproductive health and does good work around the world, including in China." Last year, UNFPA spent $3.5 million in China from its budget of $274 million.
Annan told CNN that the United Nations would "try and see if other donors will step up and make up the difference because the work we are doing is absolutely essential and we do not want women, particularly poor women, to suffer."
Adrienne Germain, president of the New York-based International Women's Health Coalition, said the decision "indicates the administration is responding to extreme conservatives in this country who are against informed access to contraceptives.
"I was glad that the money would still be allocated in the large area of child health, but the bottom line is a failure to support the key U.N. agency which champions women's reproductive rights and the rights for adolescents to receive sexual health education," Germain said.
Britain, America's closest ally at the United Nations, actually increased its financial support for UNFPA this year and urged Washington to back the organization.
"We've taken the decision that the UNFPA ... should have U.K. financial support and if we're doing it, we think that others should do it too," said Britain's U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock. "So, I hope that the U.S. will make the right decision on this."
U.S. diplomats said privately they were bracing for a negative fallout from the decision. Many at the United Nations attributed the loss of the U.S. seat on the human rights commission in 2001 to Washington's stands on climate control, missile defense, Cuba and even the death penalty.
But Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the decision would "have a mixed impact."
"It'll slightly increase friction with European states but they'll hardly be surprised by this decision. It won't effect something significant such as their willingness to support America's war on terrorism (and) if you compare this to the stand off over the International Criminal Court, it's just a pinprick."
On the Net:
Summary of State Department fact-finding team's report: www.house.gov/maloney/issues/UNFPA/unfpausreport.pdf
United Nations Population Fund: www.unfpa.org
© 2002 The Associated Press