Politics & Policy

U.S. Money, U.N. Budgets

Sisyphus might have preferred his eternal labor with the boulder to attempting to reform the United Nations. Florida representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, is having a go it nonetheless with her U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act, which deserves the support of all the Republican presidential candidates. It is meant to allow us to better track how our dollars are spent at the United Nations and to tie U.S. contributions to our policy goals.

Historically, U.S. diplomacy has succeeded in achieving some of the easier reforms. But the tougher U.N. reforms have been forthcoming only when Congress has withheld or threatened to withhold funding. The United States contributes a quarter of the U.N.’s budget but is entitled to only one vote on how it is spent. It is thus unsurprising both that budget constraint and management reforms are of more interest to the United States than to most other members, and that withholding funds is our strongest leverage in forcing structural change at Turtle Bay.

In its opening days, the Obama administration naïvely believed that the U.N.’s resistance to reform was the product of a “sour climate” created by the Bush administration’s unilateralism, and attributable to U.S. contributions’ being in arrears. Neither the election of the most pro-U.N. president in American history nor subsequent payment of dues has made the body any warmer to change. This is not a surprise. We have tried it the naïve way, and it is now time to give Turtle Bay a whiff of sterner stuff.

The Ros-Lehtinen bill stipulates that the lion’s share of the U.N. budget be moved from mandatory to voluntary funding. This would fundamentally alter the current system, under which the United States simply is informed what it must pay each year. Under the one-country, one-vote procedures at the United Nations, the United States has no more say over the budget than does tiny Tuvalu. The budget can be passed by two-thirds of the U.N. General Assembly (129 nations) that collectively could pay less than 1 percent of all dues over the objection of the United States, which pays 22 times that amount. Moving toward voluntary funding would lessen the likelihood that United States taxpayers’ dollars could be used to support anti-Israel initiatives such as the Durban conference or the notorious Goldstone report.

Moreover, voluntary dues would encourage more efficiency at U.N. agencies that have become accustomed to automatic funding and lack any real incentives to economize or compete. On Monday, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Joseph M. Torsella, complained that plans to increase the salaries of U.N. employees by 3 percent were “inappropriate at this time of fiscal austerity.” Apparently, no one at the United Nations understands the meaning of the word “austerity.” Incredibly, the U.N.’s budget has increased faster than the federal government’s in the last ten years, despite the United States’ bearing the majority of the cost for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill would also withhold funds from the embarrassing Human Rights Council until it removes from its committee those nations listed as human-rights abusers, known sponsors of terrorism, violators of religious freedom, and those currently under sanctions — a commonsense initiative that could only possibly be controversial at the world body, which sees nothing amiss in North Korea’s serving on the proliferation committee.

The bill could go even farther. We would like to see provisions granting the United States unfettered access to all U.N. internal audits and other internal documents, a revival of the U.N. mandate review to eliminate irrelevant or outdated activities, and changes to make the U.N.’s quasi-inspector-general unit truly independent, with expanded resources and authority. 

In recent years, reform of the United Nations has taken a predictable pattern. First a scandal, then a congressional investigation, and then funds’ being withheld until steps are taken toward remedying the deficiency. This pattern has led to dues reductions, the establishment of an ethics office, and some improvements in overseeing and investigating the conduct of peacekeepers after widespread rape allegations. The United Nations will never truly be reformed, but Ros-Lehtinen is to be saluted for putting her shoulder to the rock.


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