House Republicans introduced legislation today that seeks to force major changes at the United Nations, using as leverage the threat to withhold some of the U.S.’s 22 percent contribution to the world body’s operating budget.
The bill by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would demand that the UN let countries decide how much to pay and which programs they will support, rather than assessing payments based on a formula. It would end funding for Palestinian refugees, limit use of U.S. funds to only purposes outlined by Congress and put a hold on creating or expanding peacekeeping operations until management changes are made.
“We need a UN which will advance the noble goals for which it was founded,” Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said in a statement. “The current UN continues to be plagued by scandal, mismanagement and inaction, and its agenda is frequently hijacked by rogue regimes which protect each other while targeting free democracies like the U.S. and Israel.”
Republicans are moving against the world body at a time when the Obama administration is increasingly building its foreign policy around multilateral institutions, such as the alliance-based approach on Libya.
The bill, which has 57 co-sponsors who are all Republicans, may advance in the Republican-controlled House. It is likely to face opposition in the Senate and from President Barack Obama.
“We oppose this legislation,” said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, at a press briefing today. She said the measure would cut by half U.S. funding for the U.N and “dangerously weaken the UN.”
“We believe in UN reform,” she said. “We just don’t think this is the right way to go about it.”
The U.S. pays 22 percent of the UN’s regular operations budget and is assessed 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget. 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.
“After two years of the closest and most productive cooperation in decades at the UN 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,” Jeffrey Laurenti, a UN analyst at the Century Foundation, a New York-based research group, wrote in a blog post yesterday.
Laurenti cites UN 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.
Brett Schaefer, a UN analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation that supports many Republican initiatives, said that Ros-Lehtinen’s goals dovetail with the administration’s interests in seeing more UN accountability, improvements in peacekeeping and an end to policies that single out Israel for criticism.
“The real point of divergence is how do you achieve these policy goals,” Schaeffer said in a telephone interview.
Representative Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the bill would hurt Israel and undermine U.S. leadership.
“At a time when efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel in the General Assembly and elsewhere are gaining steam, I can’t see how a bill that will undoubtedly weaken our influence at the UN and make it harder to counter Palestinian attempts to unilaterally declare statehood is in Jerusalem’s interest, let alone our own,” Berman said in a statement.
Percentage of Contribution
If passed into law, Ros-Lehtinen’s bill would have the U.S. withhold a percentage of its contributions until at least 80 percent of the UN budget was voluntary.
The legislation also would limit the use of U.S. contributions to only the specific purposes outlined by Congress and would withhold U.S. funding for any UN 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 UN 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.
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.
Ros-Lehtinen’s bill would direct the president to have his UN ambassador use the U.S. veto power in the Security Council to block the creation of new peacekeeping operations or the expansion of existing ones until reforms are made.
Groups that promote strong U.S.-UN relations, such as the Washington-based Better World Initiative, said the bill would undermine U.S. influence at the UN.
“We are hard-pressed to find a moment in history where the UN 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 UN and the U.S. over 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 UN, John Bolton, said the U.S. might push to make contributions to the UN budget voluntary, as Ros-Lehtinen is doing.