US urged to pay its $billion debt to U.N.

Impasse threatens American security, global influence, Holbrooke warns

By Kathleen Kenna
Toronto Star Washington Bureau - Nov. 03, 1999

WASHINGTON - American lives will be at risk and the country's global influence harmed if the United States doesn't soon pay its billion-dollar debt to the United Nations, its ambassador warns.

The U.S. is the largest contributor to the U.N., but also its largest debtor, having refused to pay back dues for 13 years over various disputes. The U.N. says it's owed $1.8 billion, but Americans estimate the bill is closer to $1 billion, because of a disagreement over the U.S. share of global peacekeeping costs.

`The U.N. has been an easy whipping boy . . . For all its faults, its inefficiencies, its shortcomings, if the U.N. did not exist, we would either have to invent it or else we would run a grave risk of even more serious tragedies, of even greater wars.'
- Richard Holbrooke U.S. ambassador to U.N.

Failure to repay the debt is not only an international embarrassment but a threat to national security, says Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

``This cycle cannot go on. It is dangerous and self-destructive,'' he told the National Press Club yesterday. ``It leaves us in a role in the world where our credibility, our ability to defend our national interests, is severely hamstrung.

``It endangers American lives.''

Holbrooke, chief negotiator of the 1995 Dayton peace accord for Bosnia, said American soldiers in Kosovo ``are concerned because their safety is jeopardized because we don't adequately fund the U.N. police'' authorized to make arrests there.

The U.S. loses its vote at the 188-member General Assembly on Jan. 1 if the dues remain unpaid. The Senate approved repayment of about half the debt in July, but the issue is stalled in the House of Representatives over a budget struggle with the White House.

There's a chance repayment won't be approved this year, because Congress is due to recess next week.

``If we don't pay by the end of the year, we risk serious international embarrassment, as we could well lose our vote in the General Assembly - an additional and I believe, unacceptable cost to our nation's prestige,'' said Holbrooke, who took over the U.N. post in August.

The Congress vote is ``one of the most consequential decisions since the end of the Cold War. How Congress acts will determine whether the United States will enter the next century alone, acting unilaterally or whether it will seek to lead through partnership.''

He later added: ``Our ability to advance our vital national interests is weakened because our leverage in New York is undermined by the fact that we continually tell other countries how to behave without putting our money behind our advocacy.''

America's demand for widescale reform of the U.N. - especially a reduction in its bloated bureaucracy - made the U.S. the first nation to impose conditions on dues payments since the U.N. was created in 1945.

The U.N. slashed 1,000 staff amid other reforms, but conservative Congress members have annually attached riders to repayment, insisting the debt be paid only if the world body guarantees no funds go to family planning clinics. That campaign has been led by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, who is opposed to U.N. aid that may be used for abortions anywhere in the world.

President Bill Clinton has twice vetoed such a scheme, while warning the U.S. risks losing global influence if the U.N. isn't paid.

Holbrooke acknowledged U.N. failures, such as the ``catastrophe'' in Bosnia when U.N. peacekeepers failed to prevent genocide between 1992 and 1995.

``I understand the skepticism and backlash this bred in many Americans. We must approach peacekeeping skeptically . . . but it is possible to get it right and that's what we've got to try to do,'' he said.

``U.N. peacekeepers have done an admirable job in other places,'' he added, citing Macedonia, Cyprus and Cambodia.

The U.N.'s swift intervention last month in quelling massacres in East Timor, although belated, showed the organization is still crucial to stopping conflict and restoring peace in war-torn nations, Holbrooke said.

``Eliminating the U.N. is simply not an option,'' he stressed.

The U.N. still must undergo a major clean-up and the U.S. will continue to seek a reduction in its dues to 22 per cent of the world total from the current 25 per cent, Holbrooke insisted.

``The U.N. has been an easy whipping boy, after all its ineffectiveness, its failures, its occasional bouts of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism,'' he said, referring to its anti-Israel stance. ``For all its faults, its inefficiencies, its shortcomings, if the U.N. did not exist, we would either have to invent it or else we would run a grave risk of even more serious tragedies, of even greater wars.''

Holbrooke later went to Capitol Hill to resume lobbying legislators, calculating he already has secured 60 critical votes.

`Eliminating the U.N. is simply not an option'

Still stinging from worldwide rebukes for losing a Senate vote last month on a global treaty banning nuclear testing, the White House has increased pressure on Congress to approve the U.N. repayment.

Private phone calls to legislators have been made in the past few weeks by Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, officials confirmed yesterday.

National surveys show consistently that at least 70 per cent of Americans support the U.N. and want the U.S. to settle the debt.

Holbrooke alluded to that public attitude, noting, ``If every American gave $5, the problem would be solved with a little bit of change left over.''