By BARBARA CROSSETTEUS begins lonely fight to cut back its UN costs
March 12, 2000
UNITED NATIONS, March 10 -- A long, hard battle to lower American payments to the United Nations begins next week, and diplomats from a wide cross-section of nations say there is no guarantee that the issue will be resolved.
The outcome, if any, will be crucial to future relations between the organization and Washington. What hangs in the balance is $926 million in American arrears that has been held up by Congress.
Trying to get the money released, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright agreed last year with Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the ranking Democratic committee member, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, that the United States would seek to decrease its assessments for both the regular budget and a separate peacekeeping account.
The United States is billed for 25 percent of the regular budget and wants to lower that to 22 percent; Congress has already passed a law reducing the American portion of the total peacekeeping bill to 25 percent from 30.4 percent.
The Helms-Biden agreement created considerable resentment among member nations, including some of the United States' closest European allies and Canada, who say that no nation can make demands on the organization that violate treaty obligations to pay dues on time, in full and without conditions. Furthermore, many diplomats say that a reduction in American assessments may not necessarily unlock funds because critics of the United Nations in Congress have attached other conditions.
The Helms-Biden agreement complicates the job of Richard C. Holbrooke, the American representative, and his full-time budget negotiator, Donald Hays, as they try to convince 187 other member nations that they are not delivering an American ultimatum but arguing for a long-overdue review of assessments for all nations. The committee of member nations that decides budget allocations begins its meeting next week.
"It is the biggest mess you've ever seen," Mr. Holbrooke said in an interview this week. "But it is solvable. It's solvable if the nations band together and say: 'O.K., we're not going to take a diktat from Washington, but we are going to bring the U.N. budget process into the 21st century.' "
Under the current assessment scale, which is based on a nation's portion of the total of all member countries' gross national products, some countries -- among them Japan, Germany and South Africa -- are paying more than they should, while others like China, India, Brazil, Singapore and Kuwait pay less because of complicated discounts for low per capita income or special exemptions from peacekeeping bills. The United States share of world G.N.P. is just over 26 percent.
Mr. Holbrooke has taken his case for an across-the-board review around the world. He recently visited Portugal, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union. On Tuesday he will leave for Japan and China.
"The message I'm taking to all the capitals and, equally importantly, to dozens and dozens of meetings in New York, is that the present scale of assessments was established in 1974 and was based on economic data of that era," Mr. Holbrooke said. "There have been 57 new nations since then, and some countries have gotten richer and some have gotten poorer -- and, most important, the U.N.'s role in peacekeeping has dramatically expanded.
"At least 120 members of the U.N. will not have any change in their assessments, and those are the poorest countries. This is about the middle-income countries and the countries that are getting richer."
Japan's representative, Yukio Satoh, said in an interview that in a recent meeting in Tokyo with about 50 members of the Japanese Parliament he sensed brewing resentment over Japan's bill. Japan, with about 17 percent of the world's G.N.P., pays 20 percent of the United Nations budget. Leaving aside the United States, the four other permanent Security Council members -- Britain, China, France and Russia -- together pay 13.6 percent.
In addition, Japan has voluntarily contributed $237 million for Kosovo and $214 million for East Timor. A world away in Congo, Japan is paying the $300,000 needed to support the office of an African mediator.
"They are questioning why we have to pay this much," Mr. Satoh said of the Japanese politicians. They have been frustrated, he said, by the country's inability to secure a permanent Security Council seat, a campaign bogged down hopelessly in stalled efforts to reform the council.
Mr. Satoh said that Japan expects to take an active role in the coming budget negotiations, which he said are complicated by "188 countries with different interests and different perspectives trying to look at the same issue."