WASHINGTON – Members of Congress are fighting mad after the United States was kicked off two important United Nations panels in the same day, and have threatened to block $582 million in dues for the organization.
Representatives who had expected to easily approve a Bush administration-backed bill to pay the overdue money on Thursday now say that passage is no sure thing. They also expressed alarm at what they see as a sudden worsening of what had been an improving relationship between Capitol Hill and the U.N.
"I think there's going to be a severe reaction," warned Rep. Ben Gilman, a New York Republican and a veteran of previous U.S.-U.N. battles.
The Bush administration has so far been more muted in its expression, meanwhile, expressed disappointment Tuesday that the United States was ousted from U.N. panels on drug trafficking and human rights, just days after suffering a similar fate with a U.N. commission on human rights.
U.N. critics were particularly incensed because countries with notorious records on human rights, specifically Libya and Sudan, gained seats on the Commission.
The Bush administration feels let down by other member nations that pledged to support U.S. candidates for the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the International Narcotics Control Board, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. He said President Bush was not inclined to take the defeats a sign of discontent over the United States' long-delayed U.N. dues.
"The president believes that we should pay the dues that we owe to the United Nations," Fleischer said. "The real losers in this equation are the people around the world who are struggling to be free. The United States is going to continue its role as a beacon of freedom and human rights, and the president will continue to speak out."
Republicans and Democrats on the House International Relations Committee quickly devised an agreement Tuesday they hope will preserve the payment of $582 million. But whether the deal will satisfy the U.N.'s many critics in Congress remains to be seen.
Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and ranking Democrat Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., wrote an amendment that would allow the $582 million payment but prevent the remaining $244 million owed from being paid until the United States is returned to the commission.
"What occurred last week was a step backward" and enabled "some of the world's premier human rights violators" to join the panel, Hyde said. "In a clear voice, we must express our disapproval of this outrage and work diligently to restore some credibility to this agency."
Lantos said the exclusion from the human rights panel "damaged the institution. We should not compound the damage by withholding the bulk of our arrears payments."
U.S. officials confirmed Monday that American representative Herbert Okun was voted off the drug control committee last week in a secret ballot procedure on the same day that the United States lost its human rights seat, also by a secret ballot vote — and, Fleischer said, despite written pledges of support.
"Those nations did not keep their word," Fleischer said.
Elliott Abrams, an assistant secretary of state for human rights under President Reagan, said a lack of U.S. representation on the human rights commission is likely to "become a sharply negative factor" in diplomatic relations.
"One can only imagine what they (the commission) will say about the Middle East, with no U.S. to defend Israel," Abrams said. He suggested that the administration track down which countries pledged to vote for the U.S. candidate but didn't, even though Secretary of State Colin Powell has ruled out that option.
Diplomats and U.N. officials claimed after the human rights defeat that the United States didn't lobby hard enough. The absence of a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for nearly four months also exacerbated the situation.
Fleischer said he didn't think the lack of an ambassador was a factor. But, he said, "the president would urge the Senate to move quickly on all the nominations that have been submitted that are now under review."
Terms on the U.N. Human Rights Commission run from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, so the United States will remain a member until the end of this year. The next commission membership vote will be next May, and the soonest the United States could return would be Jan. 1, 2003.
Seven countries — Iran, Brazil, India, Peru, France, Netherlands and Austria — were elected to the board Thursday. China, Russia, Nigeria, Turkey, Mexico and Chile complete their current terms in 2005.
As one of 54 commission members, Sudan will be sitting in judgment on international human rights issues - the same country that, according to Bush, often bombs hospitals, schools, churches and international relief stations in pursuit of victory in its long-running civil war.
they would try to block payment of $582 million in late U.N. dues