Turtle Bay

Republican Congress to U.N.: drop dead

The new Republican-controlled House leadership sent a clear message that it intends to place the United Nations at the center of its foreign policy mission, stepping up scrutiny of U.N. spending, setting conditions for continued U.S. financial support, and casting a spotlight on the shortcomings of the U.N.’s human rights council. The new chairwoman of ...

The new Republican-controlled House leadership sent a clear message that it intends to place the United Nations at the center of its foreign policy mission, stepping up scrutiny of U.N. spending, setting conditions for continued U.S. financial support, and casting a spotlight on the shortcomings of the U.N.’s human rights council.

The new chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-FL), arranged for the hearing to begin with a group of prominent critics describing the U.N.’s failings.

Lethinen, who had traveled to Florida to tend to her ill mother, did not attend the long-anticipated session. But in a prepared statement read by Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH), who chaired today’s session in her place, Lehtinen vowed to reintroduce legislation that "conditions [U.S. financial] 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."

Lehtinen also pledged to conduct new investigations into allegations of corruption and mismanagement at the U.N. and to insure its interest align with American foreign policy goals. "U.S. policy on the United Nations should be based on three fundamental questions: Are we advancing American interests? Are we upholding American values? Are we being responsible stewards of American taxpayer dollars?," according to her opening statement. "Unfortunately, right now, the answer to all three questions is ‘No.’"

Ros-Lehtinen’s funding proposal echoed a similar plan put forward by John R. Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush Administration, to make funding to the U.N. multibillion administrative and peacekeeping budgets entirely voluntary. The U.S. is currently responsible for paying about 22 percent of the U.N. administrative budget, and about 27 percent of the U.N.’s peacekeeping costs. The initiative is not supported by the Obama administration, which suspects it would garner little support in the 192-member organization and isolate Washington at a time when it is seeking to mend its diplomatic relations with foreign governments.

Today’s hearing included testimony from four U.N. critics, including Brett Schaefer, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Robert M. Appleton, a former U.N. anti-corruption investigator, and two supporters of the United Nations, Peter Yeo, a former Democratic staffer on the House foreign affairs committee who works for the U.N. Foundation, and  Mark Quarterman, a former U.N. lawyer who served as chief of staff into last year’s U.N. probe into the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

It touched on many of familiar political hot button issues — including concerns about corruption associated with U.N. development programs in outlaw regimes — that had largely receded from political discussion about the U.N. in Washington during the first years of the Obama administration. Democratic and Republican representatives also raised concern about the large number of resolutions adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council’s that criticize Israel’s rights record.

Yeo defended the U.N.’s role in advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives, citing the U.N.’s organization of a U.S.-backed independence referendum in South Sudan, and its support of democratic elections in Ivory Coast, where the U.N. has energetically pressed the country’s defeated incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, to step down from power. He also cited the passage last year of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran; U.N. support for the U.S.-backed political transition in Afghanistan; and the U.N.’s struggle to "stabilize and reconstruct earthquake shattered Haiti, a country with close ties to America."

"The U.N. is not a perfect institution, but it serves a near perfect purpose: to bolster American interests from Africa to the Western Hemisphere and to allow our nation to share the burden of promoting international peace and stability," he said.  "We must pay our U.N. dues on time, in full, and without threats of withholding our contribution. When we act otherwise, we send a strong and provocative signal that we are more interested in tearing down the U.N. than making it better."

In response to calls by Ros Lehtinen to withhold funds to the UN, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Bloomberg News last week that he would travel to Washington in the near future to persuade Congressional leaders to maintain financial support for the United Nations. "I think their priorities and my priorities are the same," he told Bloomberg. "The only complaint they may have is the lack of much faster progress than they might have expected."

Ban’s effort to promote the U.N. cause was not helped by Richard Falk, a U.N. special rapporteur, who claimed in a post published on his personal blog that the United States engaged in "an apparent cover-up" of the facts behind the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington. Falk also faulted the U.S. media for being "unwilling to acknowledge the well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events: an Al-Qaeda operation with no foreknowledge by government officials."

In response, U.S. ambassador Susan E. Rice condemned Falk’s remarks as "so noxious" he should be ousted from his U.N. job. "Mr. Falk endorses the slurs of conspiracy theorists who allege that the September, 2001, terrorists attack were perpetrated and then covered up by the U.S. government and media," she said.

Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva today, Ban also blasted Falk, noting that the controversial American rights advocate was appointed by the council itself, and that he has no authority to fire him.  "The council decides whether they continue their jobs," he said. But he said "I want to tell you, clearly and directly: I condemn this sort of inflammatory rhetoric. It is preposterous — an affront to the memory of the more than 3,000 people who died in that tragic attack."

"Let us be frank. This body has come under criticism from various quarters," Ban continued. "For the human rights council to fulfill its mandate, it must be seen as a place ruled by bias or special interests. It cannot be a place that targets some countries, yet ignores others. It cannot be a place where some members overlook the human rights violations of others so as to avoid scrutiny themselves."

Ban came under fire from Appleton, a former U.N. investigator who led some of the most aggressive anti-corruption investigations ever at the United Nations. Appleton claimed that the U.N’s ability to effectively investigate corruption has been undermined by Ban and his top advisors. "I am often asked why there is no will in the organization to pursue such cases, or address them when misconduct is identified," he said in prepared statement. "The short answer is that investigations that uncover fraud and corruption bring bad news, and bad news is not welcome news. The approach of the leadership of the organization is to minimize such issues, and keep them from public view."

Appleton, who was selected twice by the U.N.’s chief oversight official to run the U.N.’s internal investigations, had his appointment blocked by Ban’s office on a technicality. Ban’s advisors defended the move on the grounds that no female, or non-American, nominees were included on a short list of candidates. Appleton has since filed a grievance with the United Nations on the grounds that he was denied the job because he was an American male.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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