Critic Likens GOP’s Attempts to Force UN Reform to Deadly Suicide Bombing

By Patrick Goodenough | August 31, 2011 | 4:41pm EDT

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the U.N. Security Council in New York on September 30, 2009. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sits to her right. (U.N. Photo by Marco Castro)

( – A House Republican bill aimed at driving United Nations reform by withholding U.S. funds is part of “an even more destructive assault” on the world body than Friday’s suicide bombing of a U.N. building in Nigeria, a critic of the initiative said.

“Islamist extremists’ hostility to the United Nations is well known,” said Jeffrey Laurenti, senior fellow at the liberal Century Foundation, in a blog post. “Osama bin Laden famously reviled it as ‘nothing but a tool of crime’ that ‘surrendered the land of Muslims [Palestine] to the Jews’ and works hand-in-glove with the United States in places like Afghanistan.”

“But the United Nations is now at risk from an even more destructive assault – from conservative fundamentalists now in power in the U.S. Congress,” he continued.

Laurenti was likening last Friday’s suicide bombing at U.N. headquarters in Abuja, which killed 23 people, with congressional Republican initiatives targeting funding to the U.N.

He cited in particular the U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act, introduced on Tuesday by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who said the bill aimed at ending “the era of no-strings-attached contributions” to the world body.

Laurenti and other supporters of the Obama administration’s deeper U.S. engagement with the U.N. reacted with dismay to the move.

“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,” he wrote.

“After the shock of two debilitating wars and a financial meltdown, Americans are right-sizing our foreign policy to our means, our values, and ‘a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.’  Why do congressional Know-Nothings respond with suicide attacks?”

In its reaction to the legislation, the Better World Campaign, affiliated to the United Nations Foundation and United Nations Association of the USA, also drew a link with the Nigeria bombing.

“It is shocking that this ill-considered legislation is being introduced on the heels of the vicious terrorist attack,” said executive director Peter Yeo. “Dozens of United Nations employees lost their lives this week working to promote peace and stability in Africa, and some in Congress are responding by cutting off American support for this vitally important institution.”

Yeo said his organization and its partners plan a counter-offensive in the coming weeks to urge lawmakers to vote against the bill.

‘The bad, the ugly, and the indefensible’

Ros-Lehtinen introduced the bill a day after the administration raised concerns about a recently-approved pay raise of nearly three percent for some 4,800 U.N. bureaucrats in New York City.

“Such a raise is inappropriate at this time of global fiscal austerity, when member state governments everywhere are implementing drastic austerity measures,” Joseph Torsella, the recently-installed permanent representative for U.N. management and reform, wrote in a letter to the body that approved the cost-of-living raise.

The pay increase was awkwardly timed for the administration, which has been trying to counter the GOP offensive on Capitol Hill in recent months.

That congressional drive moved ahead Tuesday with Ros-Lehtinen’s bill, which seeks to change the way the U.N. is funded – from “assessed” to “voluntary” contributions.

The U.S. now pays 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular operating budget and 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget – these are “assessed” contributions, calculated according to member states’ national economic output.

Member states additionally make “voluntary” contributions to U.N. agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). The total U.S. contribution in FY 2010 was $7.69 billion.

The envisaged change would enable member states to fund only those agencies and activities that are deemed necessary, efficiently-run and in the national interest.

“This legislation ends the era of no-strings-attached contributions, and gives us leverage to pressure the U.N. to finally make concrete reforms,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is sworn in by House Speaker John Boehner on January 5, 2011 (Photo: Rep. Ros-Lehtinen)

“Making U.N. funding voluntary will give the U.S. control over how our contributions are spent at the U.N. Otherwise, U.S. taxpayer dollars will keep being spent on the bad, the ugly, and the indefensible, and there will continue to be no incentive for the U.N. to reform.”

The bill is designed to encourage a phased shift to the new funding approach by linking it to U.S. contributions. The U.N. is given two years after enactment to ensure that at least 80 percent of its regular budget is being funded on a voluntary basis. If not, the U.S. will be required to withhold 50 percent of its assessed contribution.

Ros-Lehtinen’s office described it as “a sliding incentive scale, not an ‘all-or-nothing’ sanction; the more the U.N. makes its regular budget voluntary, the less we withhold.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said halving U.S. funding “would seriously undermine our international standing and dangerously weaken the U.N. as an instrument to advance U.S. national security goals.” The department had an “ongoing dialogue” with lawmakers on the issue, she said.

Multiple targets

Ros-Lehtinen’s bill has 57 original co-sponsors, all Republican, and including 15 members of the Tea Party caucus.

Aside from its main thrust – the assessed-to-voluntary shift – the bill also targets issues and activities at the U.N. important to many U.S. conservatives. If enacted, it would:

-- place conditions on U.S. funding for the IAEA to ensure that state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran and Syria, do not receive its assistance.

-- withhold U.S. contributions from any U.N. agency or program that upgrades the status of the Palestinian observer mission (in the context of the Palestinians’ looming bid for U.N. recognition.)

-- withhold any funding for follow-on measures relating to the Goldstone report, which accused Israel of war crimes during its Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009 offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

-- stop funding for – and U.S. membership in – the U.N. Human Rights Council until the State Department certifies that it includes no member that is subject to Security Council sanctions, under Security Council-mandated human rights investigation, is a state-sponsor of terrorism, or is designated a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations. Current HRC members falling into those categories include China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba.

-- withhold funding for the U.N.’s controversial Durban racism process.

-- prohibit funding to the UNRWA until it vets its staff and aid recipients for ties to terrorist organizations and takes steps including ending anti-Israel propaganda and politicized activities.

-- oppose new or expanded peacekeeping missions until reforms are instituted – a provision that may be waived by the president if required for national security interests or to prevent genocide.

-- declare U.S. policy on various issues, including opposition to any expansion of the Security Council that would diminish U.S. influence, and the need for an international definition of terrorism that does not equate acts of terror with actions taken by governments in defense.

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

A ‘bargain’ at $3.5 billion? Double that

Writing on the U.N. Foundation blog, U.N. Dispatch, managing editor Mark Leon Goldberg asserted that Ros-Lehtinen’s plan would ultimately cost the U.S. taxpayers more.

Echoing an argument made in a speech last June by assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs Esther Brimmer, he said that other countries will follow the U.S. lead, and in the process U.S. priorities will likely take a hit.

As an example, Goldberg noted that the U.S. contributed only $88 million of the $355 million needed to fund the U.N. mission in Iraq this year, while the rest of the tab was being covered by countries that may not have supported the decision to invade Iraq in the first place.

“If the USA moves to a voluntary funding mechanism, you can bet that other countries will follow,” he said. “When that happens, other countries will likely sharply reduce their contributions. Could you really imagine France and Germany voluntarily chipping in to an Iraq mission?”

Goldberg concluded that “$3.5 billion” in U.S. funding for the U.N. was “a bargain.”

In fact, U.S. taxpayers paid more than double that amount last year for the U.N.

Reports on U.S. contributions to the U.N. tend to focus on what the State Department requests and gets each year, but that department is only one conduit of funding.

In FY 2010, State was one of 17 government agencies that contributed to the U.N. system, according to an Office of Management and Budget report sent to Congress on June 6.

While State accounted for the largest amount, $5.42 billion, the total was $7.69 billion – up from $6.34 billion the previous year.

The extra $2.27 billion was channeled through agencies including the U.S. Agency for International Development ($1.9 billion), the Department of Agriculture ($100 million), Health and Human Services ($139 million), Labor ($49 million), Treasury ($30 million), Environmental Protection Agency ($10.5 million), Commerce ($8 million) and Energy ($4.5 million).

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