Inside File: Britain off UN budget body

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The Independent Online
GERMANY and Japan are on it. The US, Russia and China are on it. France is on it. But as of January, Britain is off.

The 16-member UN Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions is one of the most significant bodies in the United Nations (ACABQ). Its recom mendations play a determining role for the Secretary- General's budget on both regular activity and peace- keeping. It also looks at the budgets of all UN agencies, from the overstretched UNHCR to the profligate Unesco.

In an election on 15 November, Britain lost its seat on the ACABQ. Its candidate was beaten by Sweden by 132 votes to 91. Because three members of the 'Western Group' were standing for only two seats, the US and Britain were exceptionally standing against each other. The US kept its seat with 102 votes.

The defeat came despite intensive lobbying by Britain. British diplomats approached the Swedes to try to get them to drop out of the race. 'All three campaigned hard,' said a Swedish diplomat. 'But the Briton travelled around to various countries to drum up votes, which ours didn't do. We're very pleased.'

British diplomats are dismayed. 'It was probably the most significant election we've had at the UN for five years,' said one. 'It is the only committee on which a member state has a direct voice on the UN budget.'

The UN budget, peace-keeping and otherwise, has given critics in Britain plenty of ammunition. At a time of increasing costs and decreasing revenues, annual UN spending on peace-keeping ventures has exploded, from about dollars 200m five years ago to almost dollars 3bn last year. The ABACQ has a determining role in keeping excesses in check.

The P5 countries - the five permanent members of the Security Council - are expected to shoulder more of the peace- keeping burden than other UN member states. Britain is now the only P5 country without a seat on the ACABQ. It is no coincidence that Germany and Japan - the economic superpowers waiting for permanent Security Council membership - do have seats.

It is worth watching the Treasury's response to Britain losing its place. Though it would be too much to ask for any Treasury official to admit it on the record, there are strands within the department who think Britain's P5 status too costly. Only last spring Norman Lamont, then still chancellor, admitted in private that the Government should seriously consider giving it up.

It is not clear whether Kenneth Clarke shares this view. Some diplomats point out that retaining a role as a medium-size global power is valuable to the Treasury in that it attracts defence contracts for Britain. But the Foreign Office is nevertheless looking over its shoulder. Much as reform of the Security Council is depicted as a process stretching well into the next century, ministers think in the short term. The upheavals the world has seen since the Cold War, from the fall of the Berlin Wall onwards, have slotted well into any electoral period. Should any chancellor with an eye on Number Ten seriously try to choose between Britain's international role and domestic economic growth, there may be good cause for alarm.

SPECULATION about post- election changes to South Africa's diplomatic service is livened up by rumours that Adelaide Tambo, widow of the late ANC president Oliver Tambo, may be considered as ambassador to London.

The incumbent, a white political appointee, is obviously not long for the post. Mrs Tambo - not hitherto known for her political activity - spent nearly all of the couple's exile in the Muswell Hill area.

'Forget it,' said one African diplomat. 'What the ANC want now is not names, but somebody who understands complex issues, like Gatt.' Those cited include Trevor Manuel, of the ANC's economic team, and Oscar Dhlomo, an Inkatha defector.

When Mrs Tambo returned from exile, she greeted the British envoy to Pretoria as 'our ambassador'. She has been saying of late how nice it would be to return to Britain. Said one diplomat: 'I suspect she may have started the rumour herself.'