Republican-Controlled Congressional Committee Targets United Nations

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Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pictured during a briefing on Iran with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, on March 25, 2010. (Photo: Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans)

Monday, January 24, 2011
By Patrick Goodenough

(Editor’s note: Adds dollar figures for 2011 contributions to the U.N. in paragraph 13.)

( – Two years after they promoted and hailed the incoming Obama administration’s steps to revitalize the U.S. relationship with the United Nations, engagement advocates are on the defensive this week as the new Republican majority in the House Foreign Affairs Committee turns a spotlight on the world body.

Committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is holding a hearing Tuesday entitled “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action,” featuring some the U.N.’s most outspoken critics.

The Florida Republican herself would fall in that category. Ros-Lehtinen in 2007 and again in 2009 championed legislation that linked U.S. funding to the U.N. to wide-ranging reforms.

Tuesday’s hearing will include testimony by Heritage Foundation fellow in international regulatory affairs Brett Schaefer, who has long advocated greater congressional vigilance in the face of U.N. waste and actions deemed as contrary to U.S. interests; Claudia Rosett, journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, whose focus on the U.N. included major investigations into corruption into the U.N.’s Iraq oil-for-food program; and Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, which critically monitors the U.N.’s controversial Human Rights Council (HRC).

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Also taking part is Robert Appleton, a former assistant U.S. attorney who played a key role in uncovering and prosecuting oil-for-food corruption. Appleton was favored to take the helm of the investigations division of the U.N.’s primary anti-corruption body in 2008 until blocked by top U.N. officials.

On the “pro-U.N.” side, the committee will hear from Peter Yeo, vice-president for public policy at the United Nations Foundation, a group set up in 1998 with a $1 billion donation to U.N. causes by CNN founder and philanthropist Ted Turner. Its priorities include building public support for the U.N. and advocating U.S. funding for the U.N.

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Flags of member nations flying at United Nations headquarters in New York City. (U.N. Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

With like-minded groups, the U.N. Foundation prodded the Obama administration to pay U.S. “dues” to the U.N. in full, on time and without preconditions; to reverse its predecessor’s policy of shunning the HRC; and to restore funding to the U.N. Population Fund, previously withheld over alleged links to China’s coercive “one-child” policy.

Yeo is a former senior member of staff for Ros-Lehtinen’s two Democratic predecessors, Rep. Howard Berman and Tom Lantos. He also served in the Clinton administration, where according to his U.N. Foundation bio “he led the negotiations around repayment of the U.S. arrears to the United Nations.”

Rounding out Tuesday’s hearing is Mark Quarterman, director of the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who worked at the U.N. for 12 years in various capacities, including that of chief of staff to the U.N. undersecretary-general for legal affairs.

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Funding in the crosshairs

Funding of the U.N. is expected to feature prominently at the hearing. Ros-Lehtinen said late last year she wanted to use “U.S. contributions to international organizations as leverage to press for real reform of those organizations.”

Her earlier U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act sought to make U.S. funding conditional on the implementation of reforms throughout the U.N. system. Provisions included the withholding of funding allocated to the HRC.

The U.S. provides 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular operating budget, which finances the Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council and several other bodies, as well as more than 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget. Member states’ contributions are assessed according to their relative “capacity to pay,” calculated from national economic output.

The administration’s 2011 budget request for contributions to the U.N.’s regular budget was $516.3 million, part of an overall $1.18 billion for the U.N. and affiliated agencies (the World Health Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency etc.) The additional 2011 budget request for U.N. peacekeeping operations was $2.18 billion.

Although the next biggest contributor to the regular U.N. budget, Japan, is assessed at 16 percent, no other country comes close, including the other four permanent Security Council members – Britain 6.6, France 6.3, China 2.6 and Russia 1.2 percent.

Most countries pay well under one percent, but budgetary decisions are made by the General Assembly, where the vote of the U.S. (22 percent of the operating budget) holds no more weight than those of Venezuela (0.2 percent), Syria (0.016 percent) or Zimbabwe (0.008 percent).

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Heritage scholar Schaefer argued recently that the new Congress should withhold U.S. contributions to the U.N. until changes were made to remedy the funding situation.

“If the U.N. is to be a more effective, efficient, and accountable body, budgetary decision-making must be linked to financial responsibilities, because the member states that pay the most have the most interest in seeing that U.N. funds are used effectively,” he said.

“This can be done by weighting votes on budgetary decisions to give major contributors increased influence, shifting funding for activities currently funded under the assessed U.N. regular and peacekeeping budgets toward voluntary funding, or spreading the financial burden across U.N. membership more evenly.”

Advocates of moving towards a system of more voluntary funding say it would compel U.N. agencies to demonstrate greater efficiency and transparency. U.N. humanitarian and development programs such as the World Food Program are already funded via voluntary donations.

Former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2007 that moving from assessed contributions to a voluntary system would allow countries like the U.S. “to judge the effectiveness of the various parts of the U.N. system, and demand results.”

“Non-responsive programs and funds can be defunded, effective agencies and personnel can be rewarded and augmented,” he said. “Most importantly, the crippling mentality of ‘entitlement’ that pervades the main U.N. organization will be stripped away.”

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