Last week, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing titled “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action.” At that hearing, Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–FL) made a statement:
Ambassador Susan Rice says that the U.S. approach to the U.N. is, “We pay our bills. We push for real reform.” Instead, we should be conditioning our contributions on “reform first, pay later.”
In the past, Congress has gone along by willingly paying what successive Administrations asked for—without enough oversight. This is one of the first true U.N. reform hearings held by this Committee in almost 4 years, but it won’t be the last.
Right now, the vast majority of countries at the U.N. General Assembly pay next to nothing in assessed contributions, creating a perverse incentive because those who make decisions don’t have to pay the bills. So I am going to reintroduce legislation that conditions our contributions—our strongest leverage—on real, sweeping reform, including moving the U.N. regular budget to a voluntary funding basis. That way, U.S. taxpayers can pay for the U.N. programs and activities that advance our interests and values, and if other countries want different things to be funded, they can pay for it themselves.
Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer yesterday directly challenged Ros-Lehtinen:
Now, let me be clear: this Administration takes seriously our obligation to guard taxpayer dollars. We are second to none in pushing for a more efficient and effective UN. But gutting our assessments isn’t “UN reform.” It’s just paying less. And trying to avoid paying our bills hurts our ability to deliver results at the UN that the American people want, and that the United States needs. The United States must be a responsible global leader, and that means paying our bills and working for real renewal at the UN.
How could we have won tough Security Council sanctions on North Korea and Iran if we were continuing to incur arrears? How could we have championed any of our management and reform achievements just over the past two years if we had failed to keep current on our assessments? How can we work with other leading contributors to maintain UN budget discipline and hold down costs if we do not meet our own obligations?
No longer can our adversaries at the UN change the subject to our arrears when we press them on an important policy matter, as they did for so long. The President’s decision to pay our UN assessments in full means that we have had more political capital to galvanize support from allies, partners, and others for achieving our goals at the United Nations.
Seldom has so much nonsense been packed into so few words.
As I detailed in my testimony before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.N. reform has stagnated since 2006. Some key reforms have actually been reversed and weakened: The U.N.’s quasi-inspector general—the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS)—has been directly undermined by the U.N. Secretary-General. The U.N. Procurement Task Force was eliminated for doing its job and uncovering mismanagement and fraud. The U.N. Ethics Office is weak, and its authority has been refuted by other U.N. organizations. Financial disclosure is a farce. The effort to review U.N. activities for relevance, effectiveness, and redundancy has been killed. The U.N. Human Rights Council is just as bad as the body it was created to replace. U.N. peacekeepers continue to go unpunished for criminality and sexual abuse.
Brimmer provided few details about the Administration’s “management and reform achievements” because they are embarrassingly meager. Of the reforms mentioned, all have significant questions. Contrary to Brimmer’s claim, the U.N. Ethics Office was established well before President Obama was elected. But its authority was challenged early and remains under assault. The OIOS has been hindered repeatedly, according to former OIOS Under-Secretary-General Inga-Britt Ahlenius, with little objection raised by the Obama Administration. Transparency at U.N. funds and programs is woeful—the U.N. Development Program and other U.N. organizations steadfastly refuse to provide the U.S. unfettered access to their audits or other internal documents.
The U.N. General Assembly has taken no action to address these problems or adopt other reforms despite the decision by the Administration to unconditionally pay our arrears to the U.N. It has, however, increased its budget and increased the amount it charges America for U.N. peacekeeping. The Obama Administration did not even bother to demand a vote on these decisions.
This is hardly surprising. Notable U.N. reform successes typically share one thing in common: congressional involvement backed by the threat of financial withholding.
As I detail in my testimony, congressional intervention led to U.N. budgetary restraint in the 1980s and 1990s. It led the U.N. to create the OIOS—the first inspector general equivalent in the history of the U.N. It led the U.N. to reduce U.S. assessments earlier this decade.
Fear of congressional action helped to spur the U.N. to adopt new rules for U.N. peacekeepers and to establish the Volcker Commission to investigate the Iraqi Oil-for-Food program.
In fact, the U.S. has used financial withholding to press for U.N. reform fairly frequently since the 1980s. Despite this practice, the U.S. was able to advance its agenda in the U.N. and in other U.N. bodies and organizations. For instance, it was able to get Security Council sanctions on Iraq, Libya, Iran, and North Korea and other countries while the U.S. was capping its contributions to U.N. peacekeeping at 25 percent or in arrears for other financial withholding.
Brimmer’s suggestion that the Obama Administration achieved sanctions on Iran and North Korea only because we were paying our bills to the U.N. reveals a shocking lack of confidence in the Administration’s diplomatic skill.
Perhaps the most outrageous part of Brimmer’s speech was her insisting that Ros-Lehtinen and other Members of Congress were insincere in their desire for U.N. reform.
If Congress simply wished to pay less to the U.N., there would be no need to link it to reform. It simply has to pass legislation reducing U.S. funding to the U.N. The U.S. has a responsibility to pay its bills, but the obligation to pay U.N. assessments has not prevented Congress from withholding in the past and will not in the future. Congress rightly understands that it has an even greater responsibility to make sure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are not wasted. It is too bad that the State Department does not share this sentiment.
But clearly, it is not only about reducing U.S. contributions to the U.N. Representative Ros-Lehtinen and other Members of Congress are proposing U.N. reform legislation backed by financial withholding because they recognize the value of many U.N. activities and are angered that they are undermined by ineffectiveness, corruption, and lack of prioritization.
History is littered with examples of failed U.N. reforms. The unfortunate reality is that few countries are interested in making sure that the U.N. has adequate oversight and accountability or uses its resources effectively. Most pay the U.N. a pittance and, therefore, have nothing at stake. Diplomacy alone is rarely sufficient to overcome this inertia. Congress has been instrumental in pressing for U.N. reform in the past and will continue to be indispensable in the future.