Britain may hold back UN fees

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The Independent Online

New York

Exasperated by the failure of the US to clear its debt with the United Nations, some of its closest allies, including Britain, are thinking of hitting back by withholding some of their own UN contributions.

The countries contemplating rebellion are those who, as well as paying their regular UN fees, also take part in peace-keeping worldwide by providing troops and equipment. Because of its financial crisis, sparked by the US debt, the UN has been unable to reimburse states for peace-keeping costs.

The proposal now under consideration by some governments would be to deduct what each is owed for peace-keeping from their annual UN contributions. "We want to rattle the cage a little," one diplomat said yesterday. "We have to find some way of getting through this whole crisis".

Any such campaign would only deepen the problems faced by the UN secretariat. "It is our understanding that it would be illegal," Sylvana Foa, the UN spokeswoman, said yesterday. "But what would we do about it - send out the cops? I don't think so." Washington, which currently owes the UN $1.5bn, including this year's dues, would have no grounds to complain.

The general humiliation of the US is being compounded, meanwhile, by an increasing flow of letters to the secretariat from private US citizens voicing their own embarrassment at their government's delinquency and enclosing cheques for as little as $4.

While the UN has refused to publish details of how much different countries are owed for peace-keeping - in spite of intense pressure from France, in particular, to do so - officials confirmed yesterday that Britain has been especially affected. The Exchequer may be owed as much as $250m. That is roughly equivalent to Britain's entire contribution to the UN last year, both in regular fees and peace-keeping costs.

Among those who have raised the possibility of simply stopping payments into the UN's coffers until the peace-keeping account is cleared has been the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind. He floated the notion while visiting the UN last year, but it was quashed by the British delegation here.

The case against such action has been that it would undermine the moral high ground from which other governments have been able to attack the US for reneging on its treaty obligations. . European nations were especially affronted by proposals aired by Madeleine Albright two weeks ago under which the US would repay its UN debt over five years, but on several conditions, notably that America's share of the UN budget be cut from 25 to 20 per cent.