Toronto Star 1999-11-11

US budget wrangle begs for UN reform

The United Nations belongs to all of us. And yet the 188-member club has an unhealthy dependency on American leadership, money and firepower.

U.S. President Bill Clinton's wrangle with Congress over America's unpaid U.N. dues is only the most recent symptom of this malaise. Once again the U.N. has been held hostage by the politicized U.S. budget process.

Washington currently owes $1.6 billion (U.S.) of the $2.6 billion in arrears. Russia, Ukraine and Brazil have been the other big holdouts this past year.

For weeks, a few maverick Republicans have blocked the short-term $550 million payout needed to prevent the U.S. from losing its vote in the General Assembly, though not the Security Council. They claimed to object to U.N. agencies funding abortions. But their real goal was to thwart Clinton and score points with their constituents.

Many Americans are only too ready to believe they pay too much of the U.N.'s $10 billion budget: $2.5 billion, or 25 per cent. There's no unfairness in this. The U.S. economy accounts for 25 per cent of world output. Still, Washington seeks a U.N. discount, to between 20 and 22 per cent.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also under pressure to pare operating costs, and restrict costly efforts to promote peace and security in troubled regions. Yet in places like East Timor and Sierra Leone, where the U.S. is disinclined to invest treasure and troops, it is happy to have the U.N. do the job.

Canada's U.N. ambassador, Robert Fowler, calls this attitude dangerous and debilitating. He's right. The U.N. ought to wean itself from unhealthy dependency on a powerful few.

Giving the General Assembly more clout is the place to start.

The Permanent Five - the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France - should have their power to veto General Assembly resolutions removed, or watered down. No single nation should be able to thwart action by a willing coalition of the rest. That has hobbled efforts to help the Balkans, Rwanda, Chechnya and Kosovo.

The 15-member Security Council also needs to become more representative. India, Brazil, Nigeria, Germany and Japan have as much claim to be permanent, as most of the current crowd. Perhaps more. Alternatively, the General Assembly could elect the Security Council, doing away permanent membership altogether.

Finally, the U.N. should have a strong, permanent military force at its disposal, so that it can move swiftly to head off conflict, help govern failed states, and protect human rights.

A handful of countries have dominated and, to a degree, hobbled the U.N. for decades. If they balk at paying, reform is the only way to go.

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