WASHINGTON - In a move virtually certain to add to strains between the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, the International Relations Committee (HIRC) of the House of Representatives Wednesday approved a sweeping bill that, if passed into law, will require Washington to withhold up to half of assessed U.S. contributions to the world body unless it implements specific reforms.
Among other ”reforms,” The United Nations Reform Act of 2005, which is expected to be approved on the House floor next week, would also require the U.N. to fund most of its programs through voluntary contributions, rather than mandatory dues from its 191 member-states, and enable Washington to pick and choose those programs it wished to fund.
It would also require the U.N. to set up a number of new oversight boards to investigate the U.N. bureaucracy and specific agencies, as well as adopt new rules that would bar alleged human rights violators from serving the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
We are very disappointed in the approval of a bill that will most likely trigger new U.N. arrears for the U.S. The last time the U.S. withheld funds, it led to a huge debt to the U.N. and inhibited our ability to lead within the institution.
ex-Sen. Tim Wirth
president of the independent United Nations Foundation
And it would withhold U.S. support for new or expanded U.N. peacekeeping operations until specific reforms are implemented.
”No observer, be they passionate supporter or dismissive critic, can pretend that the current structure and operations of the U.N. represent an acceptable standard,” said HIRC chairman Henry Hyde, the Act's main author Wednesday.
”This Act will usher in reforms that both Republican and Democratic administrations alike have long called for, including a more focused and accountable budget, one that should reflect the true priorities of the organization, shorn of duplicate, ineffective and outdated programs,” he noted.
The Act drew immediate criticism from U.N. defenders, including former Sen. Timothy Wirth, president of the independent United Nations Foundation.
”We are very disappointed in the approval of a bill that will most likely trigger new U.N. arrears for the U.S.,” he said. ”The last time the U.S. withheld funds, it led to a huge debt to the U.N. and inhibited our ability to lead within the institution.
”This is like trying to force a bank to renegotiate your home mortgage by refusing to make your monthly payments,” he added.
”The Hyde U.N. Reform Act will only further exacerbate our isolation in the world community, at a time when we need allies,” warned Don Kraus, executive vice president of Citizens for Global Solutions (CGS), a Washington lobby formerly known as the World Federalist Association. ”The Bush administration will be far more effective at achieving its goals if it doesn't alienate potential allies.”
The administration, which has generally opposed withholding dues to the U.N., has not taken a formal position on the bill, which, if passed by the House, will then have to be taken up later this summer by the Senate. The House Republican leadership, which has strongly supported the bill, is considered more to the right than either the Senate or the administration.
In approving the bill, the HIRC rebuffed a Democratic substitute, which included the same specific provisions but gave the secretary of state discretion to decide how much money could be withheld from the U.N. and specific programs and agencies.
The bill comes amid growing hostility, particularly among Republican lawmakers, toward the U.N. dating back to the Security Council's refusal to back the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq in March 2003. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's denunciation of that war as ”illegal” under the U.N. Charter during last year's U.S. presidential campaign also infuriated many Republicans.
In addition, recent revelations regarding possible corruption by senior U.N. officials -- the subject of full-blown Senate hearings -- and Annan's son's involvement in the Iraq Oil-for-Food program, as well as sexual abuse of children and women by some U.N. peacekeepers have added fuel to the anti-U.N. fire, which has been eagerly stoked by key neo-conservative and right-wing media, as well as leaders of the Christian Right who have long regarded the world body with suspicion.
Hyde, however, insisted that his bill is being put forward in a ”constructive spirit” designed to ”strengthen the U.N. and enable it to meet its mandate in ...facilitating diplomacy, mediating disputes, monitoring the peace, and feeding the hungry.”
Some of the proposals, including barring membership in the U.N. Human Rights Commission to governments with bad rights records, echo recommendations made by Annan himself in his own comprehensive reform agenda, ”In Larger Freedom: For Development, Security, and Human Rights, for All.”
Kraus, however, warned that the unilateral and threatening way Hyde's proposals are being presented -- and the resentment that it is likely to cause -- is likely to undercut Annan's own reform efforts.
Hyde's bill, for example, would unilaterally reduce Washington's share of the U.N.'s regular biannual budget from 25 percent to only 22 percent. It also mandates that once the budget is approved, it cannot increase without consensus agreement (giving Washington or any other government an effective veto), and, in any case, cannot increase beyond 10 percent, thus depriving the world body of its ability to cope with unanticipated emergencies.
It also calls for shifting 18 programs, including economic and social affairs, least-developed countries, trade and development, refugee protection, international drug control, and Palestinian refugee, from the regular assessed budget to voluntarily funded programs, thus giving ”all countries more control over how to best invest their contributions,” as Hyde said.
If such a reform is not adopted, the bill calls for Washington to redirect its contributions to ”priority areas which include internal oversight, human rights, and humanitarian assistance.”
The U.N. Public Information Office and international conferences are also targeted for major across-the-board reductions, beginning with 10 percent for 2007 followed by a 20 percent cut in 2008.
The bill mandates the creation of an Independent Oversight Board and an Ethics Office with broad investigative authority over suspected mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and other kinds of wrongdoing within the U.N., its agencies and peacekeeping operations.
Countries subject to sanction by the Security Council or country-specific human rights resolutions would be banned from serving on the U.N. Human Rights commission. In a bow to Israel, the bill also mandates that no U.N. human rights body could have a standing agenda item that related only to one country.
Similarly, the bill calls for major reforms in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), among them the establishment of two new sub-bodies which have sought by the Bush administration.
Under the bill, the U.S. must withhold funds from treaty-monitoring bodies in which the U.S. is not a signatory to the underlying treaty or protocol.
Failure to implement any of the specific mandates would result in the withholding of half of the assessed U.S. obligations which amounted to 438 million dollars this year.
© 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service