June 14, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations
It's an important, but unwritten, rule of
American politics: When Congress feels the need to get involved in
your business, you're in big trouble. We'll soon see how this
applies to world politics - as Congress beads in on the United
This week, the House of Representatives will debate and vote on the United Nations Reform Act of 2005, a bill requiring Turtle Bay to fix itself pronto - or lose a big chunk of the U.S. dollars that fund its operations.
Such threats should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the United Nations recently. The world's premier international institution has been wracked by widespread scandal and mismanagement.
The exposure of the corrupt Iraqi Oil-for-Food program and shocking accounts of sexual abuse/exploitation by U.N peacekeepers in far too many places would be enough to close down most organizations - but not the United Nations.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan admits there are serious problems - and has promised change. But with the United States contributing the lion's share of the U.N.'s bloated budget - $2 billion a year - promises of change aren't good enough.
Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, says the bill's purpose is to "address the U.N.'s legendary bureaucratization, billions of dollars spent on multitudes of programs with meager results, and outright misappropriation and mismanagement of funds."
And there's a stick: If the United Nations doesn't implement - and certify - the changes stipulated - including budget, peacekeeping and Human Rights Commission reforms - the U.S. government would withhold its U.N. dues payment.
Hyde believes that without applying appropriate "leverage," such as withholding up to half of America's assessed dues or mandating cuts in specific U.N. programs, that reforms "will fail or be incomplete at best."
He's absolutely right. Considering the U.S. pays 22 percent of the U.N. budget, a cut of that magnitude would be a painful dose of "tough love."
Some will argue that this bill is meant to destroy the United Nations - but Hyde says he's out to improve its effectiveness and efficiency.
Hyde's bill recognizes that U.N. reforms need to be kick-started. With Annan leaving his post at the end of his term in 18 months, many see him as a lame duck, and woefully incapable of implementing any meaningful reform agenda.
As it stands now, without serious congressional pressure, reforms are likely to languish until the new secretary-general is in place - at best. At worst, reform will be frustrated ad infinitum by the U.N.'s entrenched bureaucracy.
The bill also demands some long-overdue U.N. adjustments. For instance: It gives the largest U.N. donors a stronger voice on how resources are allocated, using "weighted voting."
The three largest contributors - America, Japan and Germany - cover 50 percent of the U.N. budget, while the lowest 128 contributors (of 191 U.N. nations) together give less than 1 percent.
The act also slashes the outrageous spending on U.N. conferences. The world body spent a staggering $565 million over the last two years on meetings - the single largest portion of its budget.
And what of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights - whose members have included highly repressive states such as Libya, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and China? Hyde's bill recommends replacing the commission with a council that would contain no human-rights abusers. (The bill could be improved on the House floor with an amendment requiring council to be democracies, too.)
The Hyde bill intentionally shies away from the growing controversy over U.N. Security Council expansion from 15 to 24 members, likely supporting the idea that increasing membership will diminish its effectiveness.
The Bush administration hasn't commented formally on the bill, most likely preferring to get an up-or-down vote in the Senate on U.N. ambassador-designate John Bolton instead.
And even if the bill passes the House this week, it may never see the light of day in the Senate. But the threat of legislation is often as effective in advancing a cause as passing the law itself.
Despite its often-gaping shortcomings, the United Nations provides an important forum for international diplomacy and dispute mediation. It has advanced international humanitarian, disaster relief, electioneering and peacekeeping efforts.
But unless the United States takes an aggressive lead in shaping the U.N. reform agenda, including insisting on secretariat accountability, any changes at Turtle Bay are likely to be nothing more than window dressing.
Since the United Nations can't-or won't - reform, Congress will have to step in and save the world body from itself.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.
First appeared in the New York Post