The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary

June 4, 1999

June 4, 1999 | Executive Summary on

BG1290ES: Congress Should Hold the Line on U.N. Reform

Congress is coming under increasing pressure to pay the arrears of the United States to the United Nations (U.N.) in the amount of $1.293 billion. Much confusion surrounds the debate on this issue; the U.N., the U.S. Department of State, and Congress disagree even on how much the United States actually "owes." The Department of State, for example, calculates the arrears to be just $712 million. Even though the United States is in arrears to the U.N., this does not mean the United States is not paying anything to the organization. Indeed, it will pay over $500 million to the U.N. in 1999 alone. The reason Congress refuses to pay the arrears is to force the organization to reform. This is appropriate because instances of waste, fraud, and mismanagement at the U.N. are well documented.

Congress soon will debate legislation on paying the arrears, but it will be pressed to provide the funds unconditionally by failing to require the U.N. to reform. This would be a mistake. In the past, the U.N. implemented reforms and refrained from objectionable activities only when the United States threatened to withhold--or actually withheld--some of its assessed contributions. Yet supporters of the U.N. argue that, by withholding the funds, (1) the United States is reneging on its obligations; (2) the U.N. is reforming (or already has reformed); and (3) nonpayment of the arrears undermines the influence of the United States at U.N. There is no justification for these charges. Consider:

  • The United States is the single most generous benefactor of the U.N. It typically pays 25 percent of the U.N.'s regular budget--more than the combined assessments of 177 members; from 1995 through 1998, the United States paid $2.6 billion to the U.N.'s budgets, an additional $1.4 billion to its affiliated agencies, and billions more in miscellaneous voluntary contributions;

  • The U.N. has failed to implement many necessary reforms despite the ample evidence of waste, mismanagement, and fraud; and

  • Historically, the influence of the United States at the U.N. has not depended on payment of arrears.

For the most part, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ignored the false charges when it drafted the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2000 and 2001 (S. 886). This bill, which was placed on the Senate's calendar on April 27, 1999, includes a bipartisan plan to pay $926 million of the U.S. arrears in return for specific U.N. reforms, which mirrors plans passed by Congress in 1997 and 1998.

S. 886 does not contain, however, all the reforms included in previous efforts to reform the U.N., and it does contain provisions that would allow the Clinton Administration to ignore two key reforms. This is unfortunate because the reforms in S. 886 represent only the first steps toward reforming the U.N.

The federal government should not backtrack on U.N. reforms. Instead, Congress should continue to use its "power of the purse" to coax the U.N. into reforming. To this end, Congress should:

  • Reduce the amount of arrears to be paid to the $712 million calculated by the U.S. Department of State.

  • Remain steadfast in demanding reforms in return for payment of the arrears;

  • Demand that the Clinton Administration bring the U.N. assessments in line with the caps Congress enacted, as well as place a permanent U.S. representative on the U.N. Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, which drafts the U.N. budget before submitting it to the General Assembly for approval;

  • Change the current practice of paying annual assessments nine months late by making payments before they are due, the practice in Congress up until 1982, which would clarify for the American people what the United States actually owes; and

  • Refrain from the recent practice of paying the minimum amount of arrears necessary to maintain the U.S vote in the General Assembly.

Weakening or eliminating the reforms that are necessary at the U.N. would undermine the importance and effectiveness of congressional oversight. Congress has a constitutional duty to protect taxpayer dollars as well as to ensure that the national interest of the United States is not jeopardized by the congressional appropriations process.

Congress has taken the lead in demanding that the U.N. focus on becoming less wasteful and more accountable for its decisions. Congress has promoted this policy by enforcing U.S. law--such as refusing to pay more than 25 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget--and demanding that the U.N. implement long-awaited reforms before it will pay the U.S. arrears. This action is entirely within Congress's power and responsibility. By adopting this strategy, Congress is heeding historical precedent: The only way for the United States to force the U.N. to consider serious reform is to threaten its source of funds.

Congress should continue on this course and ignore the misguided criticisms of U.N. supporters and stress that its goal is to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted by the unreformed organization.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom