Congress Is Critical to U.N. Reform

COMMENTARY Political Process

Congress Is Critical to U.N. Reform

Sep 1, 2011 5 min read
Brett D. Schaefer

Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center

Brett is the Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
Even before Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) introduced the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011 (H.R. 2829), the usual suspects had lined up to attack the bill.

Jeffrey Laurenti of the Century Foundation, a former board member of the United Nations Association of the United States of America, stated, “After two years of the closest and most productive cooperation in decades at the UN between Washington and the rest of the international community, it is hard to understand why Republicans in the House of Representatives are determined to poison the well.” Peter Yeo, executive director of the United Nations Foundation, said that the bill would “severely erode America’s leadership role at the United Nations and undermine our nation’s security.” And an unnamed administration source told , “This draft legislation is dated, tired, and frankly unresponsive to the positive role being played by the U.N.”

Essentially, these critics claim that U.S. policy priorities are being advanced at the U.N., and that using America’s financial contributions to press for reforms undermines those efforts. Neither assertion is consistent with the facts.

First, the U.S. is often on the losing side at the U.N. Over the 28-year period that the State Department has reported the statistic, only 31.7 percent of non-consensus votes at the U.N. have gone our way. On resolutions the State Department identified as important to U.S. interests, voting coincidence with the U.S. has averaged 38 percent since 2000. This ratio has improved since 2009, simply because the Obama administration agrees with the U.N. consensus on some issues that the Bush administration did not (such as global warming and disarmament). But the U.S. has still been in the minority on most General Assembly votes.

This lack of support is jarring, considering that the United States has been the largest financial supporter of the United Nations since the organization’s founding in 1945. Currently we are assessed 22 percent of the U.N. regular budget and more than 27 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget. Indeed, U.S. contributions to the U.N. system reached a record level of $7.692 billion in fiscal year 2010 — a staggering 21 percent increase over the previous year. It was the third consecutive year in which U.S. contributions set records.

By contrast, most countries pay so little to the U.N. that they cannot get exercised about its inefficiency, waste, and corruption. For instance, Sierra Leone is assessed 0.001 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget and 0.0001 percent of the peacekeeping budget. While it and dozens of other countries pay less than $35,000 per year to these budgets, the U.S. pays billions. The 129 least-assessed countries together pay about 1 percent of the U.N. budget, and yet constitute a two-thirds majority of member nations. They can pass the U.N. budget over the objection of the U.S.

The disconnect between influence and budgetary responsibilities is pernicious. The U.N. budget has more than doubled over the past decade, as U.S. reform efforts have been ignored, undermined, or reversed. For instance, the U.N. Ethics Office’s authority was challenged early and remains under assault; the Procurement Task Force was eliminated; many U.N. organizations steadfastly refuse to provide the U.S. unfettered access to their audits or other internal documents; and the Mandate Review was abandoned because it provided a basis and methodology for eliminating mandates.

It is not a coincidence that this backsliding on and resistance to reform has coincided with the removal of the credible threat of congressional withholding over the past five years. Most notable U.N.-reform successes have one thing in common: congressional involvement backed by the threat of financial withholding. Congressional intervention led to U.N. budgetary restraint in the 1980s and 1990s. It led the U.N. to create the Office of Internal Oversight Services in 1994. It led the U.N. to reduce U.S. assessments earlier this decade. Fear of congressional action helped 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.

The Obama administration came into office with the mistaken belief that the lack of support for the U.S. in the U.N. was due solely to the Bush administration’s policies. They believed that paying U.S. arrears to the U.N. and adopting a new, conciliatory diplomatic approach would change things for the better.

But in fact, withholding does not prevent America from advancing its agenda in the U.N. For instance, the U.S. 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.

Without doubt, withholding ruffles feathers, but other U.S. policies elicit far more resentment. As seen by the U.N. voting pattern over the past 28 years (during Republican and Democratic presidents), withholding is not the only, or even a primary, reason that the U.S. is so often in the minority. If withholding alters a few votes, that cost would be more than offset by moving key reforms forward. And withholding has been effective in increasing pressure for reforms.

Sadly, the administration is finding that U.S. generosity and cooperation result in little reciprocation at the U.N. — at least where reform and budgetary constraint is concerned. The U.N. General Assembly has opposed and undermined reform efforts and budgetary restraint despite the decision by the Obama administration to unconditionally pay our arrears to the U.N. Most recently, the U.N. decided to adopt a pay increase for approximately 4,800 staff of nearly 3 percent, even as it professed a commitment to budget austerity. The pay increase proves that U.N. talk on budget constraint is unserious. Budget austerity is impossible without constraining staff-related expenses, including pay, because they constitute about 65 percent of the U.N. budget. The Obama administration knows this, and the U.N.’s insincerity produced this rebuke from Amb. Joseph M. Torsella, U.S. representative to the United Nations for management and reform:

My government is deeply concerned by the decision of the Secretariat of the International Civil Service Commission to increase the post adjustment index in New York and strongly objects to this increase.

Such a raise is inappropriate at this time of global fiscal austerity, when member-state governments everywhere are implementing drastic austerity measures such as layoffs, service reductions, revenue increases, and reductions in pay and benefits for civil servants. While we have the highest regard for the many dedicated professionals in the U.N. system, in these difficult times we must — at a minimum — forgo salary increases. Failure to do so could well lead to more draconian approaches to budget-balancing in the future.

The “draconian” approaches hinted at by Ambassador Torsella are those included in the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011. Among other things, the bill demands access for the Government Accountability Office to investigate and audit how the U.N. uses U.S. funds; mandates withholding contributions unless the U.N. shifts 80 percent of its regular budget from mandatory to voluntary funding; withholds U.S. funds for any U.N. organization that admits Palestine as a member state or upgrades its observer’s status; and withholds funding for the U.N. Human Rights Council, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and U.N. peacekeeping pending reforms.

The U.N.-reform legislation will meet resistance in the Senate and from the administration, because it uses U.S. contributions to press for reforms, which is anathema to liberals. But many of the reforms, such as increased budgetary flexibility and transparency and accountability, are not partisan. Congressional patience is short, and U.N. reform is a perennial election issue. Profligacy at the U.N. will not be overlooked when Congress is being asked to implement budgetary cuts for the U.S. government. The more the U.N. resists reform, the greater the chances that Congress will force the issue.

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

First appeared in National Review Online