Britain rebukes US over UN debt

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The Independent Online

New York

Britain is seeking ways to punish countries which owe money to the UN, including the prime offender, the United States, which could lose its vote in the General Assembly.

Closed-door debate on tough penalties for late-payers has been under way in New York for several months, with Britain and Sweden taking the lead. Most controversial is a proposal to reactivate a long-forgotten article of the UN Charter which stipulates that any country two years in arrears should lose its assembly voting rights.

A hint that such a fate could befall the US was delivered by the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, in a speech to the assembly this week. Neatly reversing the slogan employed against Britain by American revolutionaries 200 years ago, he said: "Perhaps an appropriate policy could best be entitled 'no representation without taxation'".

Mr Rifkind expressed his dismay about the American debt - now standing at over $1.1bn - to the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, in New York this week. Thirty other countries are seriously behind in payments.

A British official wondered aloud yesterday whether the US could be happy "in the company of this group that includes Iraq and Libya".

With a total of $3.6bn owing, the UN is facing its worst ever cash shortage. Money is being diverted from peace-keeping just to keep the lights on. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, has even suggested seeking a loan from the World Bank.

American arrears date back to the Reagan presidency. The backlog was reduced by President Bush, but during the Clinton administration a Congress deeply hostile to the UN has withheld or cut back payments, for a mixture of political and financial reasons.

British sources say the US could fall foul of the two-year arrears rule soon after the end of this year.

"The article is not an immediate threat for the Americans, but it is still there and we are suggesting it should be tightened up", the official said.