United Nations punishes biggest debtor

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The United States is smarting from a humiliating loss in elections at the United Nations for a place on a key finance committee. The unprecedented snub reflected a deepening anger among members over Washington's continuing failure to pay its UN dues.

Although sniping in UN corridors about America's delinquent standing on contributions and, more recently, about its messy efforts to deny a second term to the Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is almost endemic, there was undisguised astonishment at its failure to secure one of sixteen highly coveted seats on the body, known as the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budget Questions (ACABQ).

Membership for the coming year of the ACABQ, which makes the most important decisions about UN spending, was decided in an annual secret ballot of all UN states last Friday. It is the first time that the US, which is supposed to provide a quarter of the organisation's budget, has been passed over.

Tension continues to gather, meanwhile, over the fate of Mr Boutros-Ghali. While diplomats strain to see any sign of softening in the US position, formal discussions on the Secretary Generalship in the Security Council are likely to begin in about a week. The list of possible successors is now about thirty-long.

A recent attempt by the US Ambassador to use a private lunch with Mr Boutros-Ghali's wife, Leah Boutros-Ghali, to ask her to help convince her husband to step aside apparently backfired, sources said. "She responded that she would do no such thing," one remarked, with a touch of glee.

Reaction to America's ousting from the budget committee ranged, meanwhile, from unmitigated, almost vengeful, joy to deep concern over the longer- term consequences. "Maybe now Washington will wake up and smell the coffee," one UN official remarked. "This should show them at last that the maxim is true: there is no representation without taxation".

The US itself offered no sign of humility. "The lack of American participation on the ACABQ will inevitably diminish the significance of that body in UN budget deliberations," an official offered. And for good measure, he went on: "The outcome of the ACABQ elections adds even more to the importance of electing this year a new, highly-qualified, reform-oriented Secretary General for the UN".