House Republicans are planning to introduce today legislation that seeks to force major changes at the United Nations, using as leverage the United States' 22 percent contribution to the world body’s operating budget.
The bill of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would require the U.N. to adopt a voluntary budget model in which countries selectively fund U.N. agencies rather than according to a set formula. It would end funding for Palestinian refugees, limit use of U.S. funds only to purposes Congress outlines, and stop contributions to peacekeeping operations until management changes are made.
The legislation represents the leading edge of Republican moves against the world body at a time when the Obama administration is increasingly building its foreign policy around multilateral institutions, making the alliance-based approach central to its stance on Libya. The bill may advance in the Republican-controlled House but is likely to hit opposition in the Senate and from President Barack Obama.
Ros-Lehtinen had U.N. reform on her agenda even before the Florida congresswoman gained leadership of the committee in January, calling the New York-based body a “stew of corruption, mismanagement and negligence” in July 2010.
The U.S. pays 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular operations budget and is assessed 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget. The U.S. payments totaled $3.35 billion in 2010, of which $2.67 billion was dedicated to the 16 peacekeeping operations worldwide, from South Sudan to Haiti.
Ros-Lehtinen’s aim in shifting the U.N. budget to a voluntary system is to encourage competition for funds and therefore elicit more effective performance from U.N. agencies, said a House aide familiar with the legislation. He wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
The bill’s timing runs counter to the emergence of the administration’s “Obama Doctrine” of working with others to address international issues, particularly those that don’t pose an immediate security threat to the U.S., said Jeffrey Laurenti, a UN analyst at the Century Foundation, a New York-based economic, political and social research foundation.
“After two years of the closest and most productive cooperation in decades at the U.N. between Washington and the rest of the international community, it is hard to understand why Republicans in the House of Representatives are determined to poison the well,” Laurenti wrote in a blog post yesterday.
Laurenti cites U.N. support for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, the world body’s move to authorize limited military action in Libya at U.S. urging, and its successful work in handing power over to the legitimate winner of Ivory Coast’s presidential election.
On Capitol Hill, the focus is less on global affairs than on getting the U.S. fiscal house in order, as concern about the debt grows.
The U.S. ambassador for U.N. management and reform, Joseph M. Torsella, wrote administrators there yesterday to complain about a decision to give employees an almost 3 percent raise.
“Such a raise is inappropriate at this time of global fiscal austerity,” Torsella wrote. Failure to forgo salary increases at the very least “could well lead to more draconian approaches to budget-balancing in the future,” the ambassador warned.
If passed into law, Ros-Lehtinen’s bill would have the United States withhold a percentage of its contributions until at least 80 percent of the UN budget was voluntary.
The legislation would also limit the use of U.S. contributions to only the specific purposes outlined by Congress and would withhold U.S. funding for any U.N. agency that upgrades the status of the Palestinian observer mission or any agency that helps Palestinian refugees.
The bill would also withhold funding for the U.N. Human Rights Council until the State Department can certify that it doesn’t include members subject to Security Council sanctions, under Security Council-mandated investigations for human rights abuses or are state sponsors of terrorism. The council membership had included Libya, until it was suspended by the U.N. General Assembly on March 1 as Moammar Gadhafi moved to crush protests.
Last month, Ros-Lehtinen’s committee approved an authorization bill that would cut by almost 10 percent U.S. funding for peacekeeping operations, which are assessed based on each member nation’s relative share of the global economy.
U.S. law limits the peacekeeping funding to 25 percent of the cost of operations, but Congress has given an annual waiver to permit payment of the full 27 percent assessment for peacekeeping. Ros-Lehtinen wants to bring that amount down, in line with the law, the House aide said.
Groups that promote strong U.S.-U.N. relations, such as the Washington-based Better World Initiative, said the bill would undermine U.S. influence at the U.N.
“We are hard-pressed to find a moment in history where the U.N. has had a greater role in promoting American interests,” said Executive Director Peter Yeo in an e-mail. The bill would “severely erode America’s leadership role at the United Nations and undermine our nation’s security.”
Tensions between the U.N. and the U.S. over the agency’s management and funding are not new. A push for improvements in UN management came during the administration of President Bill Clinton, who signed the Helms-Biden United Nations Reform Act of 1999. It tied U.S. payments to specified steps to improve management.
In 2006, President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, said the U.S. might push to make contributions to the U.N. budget voluntary, as Ros-Lehtinen is doing.
Bolton also focused on peacekeeping operations, holding hearings on reports of sexual exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers in Africa and up to $300 million in unnecessary purchases of equipment and supplies for peacekeeping missions.
In 2006, House lawmakers called for withholding half of the $429 million in U.S. funding for the U.N.’s regular operations that year in an attempt to force changes in the world body. At the time, concern was focused on evidence of graft in the $64 billion U.N. program that allowed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to use oil money from 1996 to 2003 to buy food and medical supplies for his people.
Anger over the scandal drove a 60-member group in the House to sponsor a resolution calling for the resignation of then Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
An attempt in the House in 2006 to pass legislation tying payments to U.N. management changes failed.
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