WASHINGTON – A U.S. congressional committee has drafted a bill that threatens to withhold tens of millions of dollars in dues from the United Nations (search) unless the world body conducts wide-ranging reforms, possibly setting the stage for a funding battle like the one that plunged the U.N. into financial crisis a decade ago.
The "United Nations Reform Act of 2005" targets a panoply of issues that have troubled critics of the United Nations, particularly Republicans, for years. Among other things, it would seek to cut funding for programs seen as useless and bar human rights violators from serving on U.N. human rights bodies.
The 80-page bill, from Illinois Republican Henry Hyde's House International Relations Committee (search), is still in an early form and has only recently been distributed to Democrats, who are likely to oppose several elements. It was sent to a few U.N. officials Thursday night, when a copy was obtained by The Associated Press.
One of the bill's most controversial proposals will be linking dues to the changes it spells out. The document stipulates that if the reforms are not carried out, Congress will withhold 50 percent of U.S. dues to the U.N. general budget, taking the money from programs it deems inefficient and wasteful.
"No observer, be they passionate supporter or dismissive critic, can pretend that the current structure and operations of the U.N. represent an acceptable standard," Hyde said in a hearing on U.N. reform before the document was sent to a few U.N. officials.
The proposed changes would shake the U.N. system at its foundations. The United States, the biggest financial contributor to the United Nations, pays a little under 25 percent of the annual $2 billion general budget. That doesn't include money for peacekeeping, international tribunals, or programs like the U.N. Development Program (search) and UNICEF (search), which are funded separately.
It could also put Hyde's committee on a collision course with President Bush, who has told U.N. officials in the past that he doesn't believe in withholding dues.
For many, the move could be reminiscent of the 1990s, when the United States fell millions of dollars behind in its dues, throwing the U.N. into financial crisis, because former Sen. Jesse Helms (search), R-N.C., and other lawmakers argued the payments were excessive and bureaucracy was too bloated.
That earlier crisis also strained ties with other countries opposed to the U.S. strategy. In 1998, the United States almost lost its voting rights in the General Assembly over unpaid contributions.
"We feel very strongly that your reform ideas, what we know of them, are very good and very strong and very consistent with what other countries want," Malloch Brown said. But, he added, withholding dues "separates you from your allies because it's seen as America acting alone."
A few of the document's ideas resemble changes that Annan laid out earlier this year under his report "In Larger Freedom," which seeks some of the most sweeping reforms in the world body's 60-year history. But most of the bill's contents are unrelated.
The lynchpin of the proposed bill is the requirement that several U.N. programs now funded under the general budget instead raise their money through voluntary contributions from governments and individual donors.
The idea is that by requiring these programs to seek funding on their own, they would have to become more efficient and transparent, or shut down if they couldn't compete. Republican leaders point to programs that are funded that way and now run smoothly, including the U.N. Development Program, the World Health Organization (search) and UNICEF.
The bill gives a list of 18 programs that should be included under the new umbrella. They include lesser-known programs such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development and the U.N. Human Settlements Program. But there are well-known ones as well, including the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, and UNRWA, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.
If those programs do not change, a portion of the dues normally meant for them would be redirected to programs in three categories — internal oversight, human rights or humanitarian assistance. That means that the changes would not necessarily result in less U.S. dues to the United Nations, just that payments would go elsewhere.
Other elements of the bill include strengthening the U.N. whistleblower policy and making the U.N. internal watchdog an independently funded agency. The bill would put in place new ways to crack down on sex abuse by peacekeepers and require annual financial disclosure statements by senior U.N. officials.