General Assembly vote threatened by United States debt

Sascha Matuszak

The U.S. government, accused of being a deadbeat for not paying its dues, could lose its vote in the General Assembly of the United Nations if its debt isn’t paid up by the end of the year.
According to a United Nations General Accounting Office report, the United States owes $1.6 billion in back-payments — much more than the runner-up, Ukraine, which owes $226 million.
Two pieces of legislation must pass by the end of the year for the United States to pay its dues on time and not lose the General Assembly vote.
The first, the Commerce, Justice, State and Judicial Appropriations Bill, was vetoed by President Clinton on Oct. 26. The bill contained significantly less than Clinton requested and included a rider requiring U.S. approval of the U.N. budget before an additional $100 million would be released.
The second piece of legislation, the State Department Authorization Bill, has been struck down in the past by Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey. Smith objects to the funding of U.N. agencies that support or advocate abortion in other countries.
“This sends the message that absolutism in anti-abortion politics is more important than U.S. international treaty obligations,” said Phyillis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

In this corner
Each nation must pay the U.N. dues according to that nation’s gross domestic product. The more a country makes, the more it has to pay.
The United States, with about one-third of the world’s GDP, pays 25 percent of the $2.5 billion U.N. budget.
Even the most conservative estimate of the U.S. debt — the State Department says $719 million — is enough to risk losing the General Assembly vote, according to Article 19 of the United Nations Charter. The article states that any nation owing more than two years worth of dues loses its vote.
Ironically, a 1961 U.S. law denies aid to any country violating Article 19.
The United Nations contends that its financial conflict with the United States is an old one, in which the United States has attempted to gain leverage by withholding funds.
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration encouraged withholding U.N. dues to force reforms, such as lowering the budget, decreasing the number of secretariat members and creating an under-secretary general of management, a position traditionally filled by an American.
“(The tactic) was based on a Heritage Fund report which stated that the United States could increase its power by owing the largest amount of dues,” Bennis said. “It worked well.”
The United Nations complied with the U.S. demands for reform, cutting 12 percent of its bureaucracy and maintaining a zero-growth budget since 1993, said Jessica Jiji, spokeswoman for the secretary general.
“(The United States) still has not paid,” she said.
To pay peacekeeping costs, the United Nations has been forced to borrow from the fund meant to reimburse member-states who provide troops and services for U.N. missions. The countries providing the help — mostly poor nations from the global south — must then wait to be paid.
“When the U.S. refuses to pay its dues, the poor countries pay the price,” Bennis said.
The United Nations also risks shutting down important agencies and committees if there is no funding.
“We would all be dealing with polio, tuberculosis and all sorts of other diseases if it weren’t for the U.N.,” Jiji said.
The advantage of wielding leverage over the world body might not balance out the consequences of the loss of international prestige and the General Assembly vote.
“It’s become counterproductive for (the United States) to withhold the money,” said Don Krauss, executive director of the Campaign for U.N. Reform. “We’ve been using the stick for a decade; now we need to use the carrot.”
… and in this corner
But the U.S. government argues that the United Nations actually owes them money.
According to a U.S. General Accounting Office report, the United States spent more than $6.6 billion to support Haiti, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Somalia from 1992 to 1995.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Maryland, also cites a Congressional Research Service report that said the United States spent more than $11 billion from 1992 to 1997.
“If we owe them dues, I ask that they please subtract those dues from our peacekeeping expenditures,” Bartlett said. “We have spent billions and billions on U.N. peacekeeping expenses; we don’t need to give the U.N. $1 billion when they owe us many times that amount.”
But the United Nations argues that this spending involves unilateral missions launched by the United States to further its own interests. These missions were never under U.N. command.
“I can’t imagine when we went on a mission out of our own selfish national-security interests,” Bartlett said. “Most of these missions are in somebody else’s backyard.”
The United States also accuses shoddy U.N. management for the current budget crisis.
The other important issue for Congress is the possibility that U.S. funds might indirectly support abortion in other countries.
The United Nations contends they have never supported abortion. Jiji said the U.S. tactics are backfiring by eliminating important support for contraceptives and sex education.

The consequences
The only means the United Nations has to punish a deadbeat nation is through Article 19. Normally this would suffice, but the United States sits on the Security Council, the decision-making body of the United Nations. The United States therefore possesses veto power over any action presented to the council for approval.
“Our vote in the General Assembly means nothing,” Bartlett said. “Nothing will change if they strip us of that vote.”
But the United States would lose the confidence of the world community, along with any influence over the structure of the U.N. budget, which is decided by the Assembly.
“It will color any negotiations anywhere in the world … and … shake the entire underpinning of the international system,” Krauss said.
The United Nations-United States relationship has grown more antagonistic over time, but in coming years, the United States’ need for international approval and the United Nations’ need for money should tie the two powers together.
“The U.N. clearly needs us; we’re their cash cow,” Bartlett said.

Sascha Matuszak covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]