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June 09, 2005

DeJa Vu on UN Dues
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Yesterday the House International Relations Committee approved Rep. Henry Hyde's UN Reform Act of 2005.

Many of the proposals contained in the legislation are sound.   A good number repeat or amplify ideas that Kofi Annan has already been pushing.    The bill mandates stronger oversight, streamlining of programs, improvements in Israel's status at the UN and better support for UN initiatives in areas like human rights and peacekeeping.  The underlying idea of active U.S. leadership to make the UN more effective is one I fully agree with.

The problem with the newly approved legislation is that it requires withholding of 50% of U.S. assessed dues to the UN unless the requested reforms are implemented.  But the breadth and depth of the reforms are such that its almost impossible to imagine that all will be quickly or completely agreed.  The result is that after a four year truce with the UN over finances, the U.S. will once again start accumulating substantial new arrears.

This is a bad mistake, and one that the Bush Administration rightly insists must be corrected.   The U.S. can be effective in negotiating reform without holding the UN to ransom.  John Bolton proved that when he got the organization to rescind its Zionism is Racism resolution in 1991.  He prides himself on having accomplished this through aggressive diplomacy, not by withholding U.S. dues.  The implementation of the 2000 Brahimi recommendations involving far-reaching reforms to UN peacekeeping was likewise accomplished without the threat of withholding U.S. dues.

This is an issue I know first-hand from my time at U.S.-UN in 1999-01 working to settle the U.S.'s arrears to the world body(for more details on my take on reform, read here, here and especially here).  From what I have heard, one of the reasons the Congress is inclined to condition U.S. dues payments on reforms is that Ambassador Richard Holbrooke used that leverage successfully to push through a historic package of financial reforms at the UN, including a cut in U.S. dues.

Don't get me wrong, leverage matters.  It was particularly essential in 2000 in that the centerpiece of the reforms we were mandateed to push was not an augmentation of UN capabilities, but rather a reapportionment of UN dues payments which would require other countries to pay more so that the U.S. could pay less.   We folded that goal into a broader reform agenda (because that was the only way to make it saleable to the membership), but the conditions attached to the dues cut only.

Regardless of the reform agenda, to negotiate effectively at the UN requires having enough flexibility to achieve consensus (virtually all organizational and managerial issues at the UN are decided by consensus, not by vote).

This kind of flexibility proved essential in two respects to the settlement of our dues in 2000 (sorry to get into the weeds here, but I think this needs to be understood).

First, we wound up getting a private donation from Ted Turner to help make up a dues short-fall, something unheard of in UN history before or since.  Details are here.  The then-applicable Helms-Biden legislation mandating that the back-dues could be paid only if we achieved a rate cut in U.S. dues going forward did not contemplate such stop-gap measures.  But Holbrooke saw that a private donation could help fill the funding hole, and sold the idea to both the UN and the Congress.

Even with the Turner donation, we could not achieve 100% of what Helms-Biden required:  namely specified reductions in U.S. dues for both the UN's regular and its peacekeeping budgets.  Rather than throwing up our hands, we cut a deal with the UN's 189 members that achieved the target on the regular budget, and came within striking distance on peacekeeping.

While some State Department officials viewed this as inadequate and thought we ought to flat-out reject anything less than exactly what Congress had mandated, Holbrooke knew better.   He realized that the spirit of the law had been fulfilled to an extent greater than most thought possible, and convinced Congress to amend Helms-Biden and allow for the full arrears payment the law originally authorized.

It was only because Holbrooke knew the players and issues so well that he found the flexibility he needed.  Without his confidence, creativity and, well, chutzpah, there's no way a deal would have been reached.  We ought not write into law a precedent based on those very unique circumstances.

If the final UN Reform Act forces the U.S. to withhold funds until reforms are achieved, the rest of the UN membership will view the measure as blackmail.  They will dismiss the U.S. reform agenda as self-serving, and will argue against the steps we propose simply because they are profferred under the threat of bankrupting the organization.

We will then start down a destructive cycle of accumulating arrears to the UN and then, eventually, embark on an equally tortured path toward getting those monies repaid.  When I first arrived at the UN in 1999, the U.S. delegation could not sit in a debate without being told to pay its dues "on time, in full and without conditions." The issue was a distraction, an irritant, and an obstacle that stood in the way of getting our viewpoint across on a host of important issues.

This is not a smart way to go.  Rather than enforcing rigid conditions for UN dues payments, reform legislation should mandate the State Department to use everything within its power to advocate and build support for the reforms we care about. The UN membership doesn't need conditioning legislation to realize that withholding dues is an option of last resort.  Because of its dependence on the U.S., the membership realizes it cannot afford to drive us into that corner.

We should engage and convince the rest of the UN membership, rather than assuming they are beyond reason and will respond only to threats.   There's considerable backing behind Annan's proposed reforms (many of which dovetail with U.S. interests).

Much of what we're arguing for now - an audit function, a peacebuilding commission, a terrorism convention - is inherently more appealing and sensible to the UN membership than the U.S. rate cut we proposed 5 years ago.  The U.S.'s should strive to build on the momentum already behind these ideas, rather than potentially sapping it by repositioning the reform agenda as a made-in-the-USA platform being rammed down the organization's throat.

If we expect the worst of the UN membership, and prejudge them to be indifferent to reform, they are bound to live up to our worst fears.  On the other hand, if we treat our fellow members as colleagues, treat them respectfully, listen to their ideas and work to persuade them to our point of view, history suggests that - while it won't be easy - we can succeed.


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If I read the UN financial info on "global policy" correctly the US is still not paying much.

They also have a chronology of the UN financial crisis.

If the USofA had chosen to work with Annan on his slate of reforms, even while offering further ideas (or demands), on our own, I'd be more supportive of the plan. The truth is that they're still so fixated on biting Annan's ankles as punishment for having dared to question what the USA was up to in Iraq that even though many of the reforms are what Annan has asked for, it stuck in their throats to work with him.

It's the "my way or the highway" approach that is so distasteful. That, and the blackmail written into the legislation.

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