US plans to pay $1bn UN debt over 5 years

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The Independent Online

New York

Admitting that its financial delinquency at the United Nations is eroding its influence within the organisation, the United States is proposing to pay off its debt of about $1bn (pounds 660m) over five years.

The plan, outlined by the US Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, amounts to the first sign of movement in several months by the Clinton administration towards attempting to resolve the deepening crisis in relations between the UN and Washington, and delivering the outstanding dues.

For several reasons, however, it has not sent UN headquarters into ecstasies of relief. The proposal will be folded into the next federal budget scheduled to be submitted to Congress by President Bill Clinton on 18 March. But with anti-UN sentiment still rampant on Capitol Hill there is no guarantee that Congress will look kindly on anything designed to revive it.

There are also conditions attached. Aside from the lengthy five-year payment period, there is also the requirement that the UN continue in its efforts to remake itself and reduce its costs. More especially, the US will demand that its contribution to the regular UN budget be cut from 25 to 20 per cent and to the peace-keeping budget from nearly 31 per cent to 25 per cent.

"We are very happy that there is some movement in Washington, but five years seems very, very far away to a place that is looking at bankruptcy by the end of this year," Sylvana Foa, the UN spokeswoman said yesterday. "In five years they will have to send someone else in here to turn off the lights."

UN officials have warned that without a sudden inflow of late payments, the organisation will run out of resources before year's end. It is owed a total of $3.1bn of which the US alone is responsible for about $1.1bn.

Ms Albright, who was addressing a UN forum in North Carolina, warned that unless the US shows some willingness to pay its outstanding dues, its requests for UN reform will go unheeded. "In recent months when I have tried to focus my colleagues on the reform agenda, I have found instead that the United States has become the agenda. I am told by friendly and not-so-friendly nations alike: if you care about making the UN work better than it does, why doesn't the US pay its bills?"

Ms Albright also noted that among those countries nagging the US, Britain has taken a lead. Last year, the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, got under the administration's skin by quipping that the US was seeking "representation without taxation" at the UN by not paying its contributions.

The European countries in particular can be expected to resist the suggestion that America's share of the budget be reduced from 25 to 20 per cent. If enacted, this would inevitably shift an increased burden for keeping the UN running on to Britain and the other European Union nations. The current system calculates countries' contributions according to their share in the world economy. In America's case that implies a UN contribution of 27 per cent.