Republican plans to cut US contributions to the United Nations are sowing near-panic among national delegations at the UN. The debate on the "National Security Revitalisation Act" opened yesterday on the floor of the House of Representatives. If carried out to the letter, the measure could bring the UN's entire peace-keeping edifice tumbling down.
The House version of the law was expected to be adopted last night or today. At the heart of the legislation, which was promised to voters as part of the Speaker, Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America", is a pledge to cut back US contributions to UN peace-keeping. Specifically, it would oblige the administration to deduct from its UN contributions any money it is spending unilaterally to bolster peace-keeping operations.
"The legislation is a conversation-stopper quite frankly," a senior European diplomat remarked yesterday. "I don't see how the peace-keeping arrangements could continue." Kofi Annan, the UN Under Secretary-General in charge of peace-keeping, this week broke a diplomatic silence on the subject. "It will be extremely difficult for us if the funds are not forthcoming," he said. "I hope that after the issues have been thoroughly discussed, Congress will come to the conclusion that peace-keeping must be strengthened, not weakened."
The Clinton administration has been in high-gear for several weeks to try to deflect the Republican majority from its course. Two days ago, both the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and the Defense Secretary, William Perry, wrote a joint article in the New York Times, suggesting the law would "effectively abrogate our treaty obligation to pay our share of peace-keeping missions agreed in the Security Council", and, "end peace- keeping overnight".
There is little optimism in New York, however, that the administration is making much headway. Some solace is taken from a pledge from the White House to veto the legislation. But it is not certain that a presidential veto would escape an override in Congress.
Especially infuriating for other countries is the notion that it is just the US that pays more for peace-keeping than is reflected in the UN books. Britain spent three times its UN-assessed contribution on peace-keeping between 1992 and 1994.
"The idea that the Americans should be weeping gently in the corner of the public bar of the pub because they are unduly disadvantaged is a load of hogwash. They are not alone," commented one official.
The cost of UN peace-keeping escalated after 1990 when the year's bill was only $270m (£174m). By last year it had reached $3.19bn. Moreover, because of a historical bias that demands that richer countries contribute disproportionately, the US was called upon last year to pay 31.7 per cent of the peace-keeping bill. Britain's share is 6.57 per cent.
Even before the Republicans took control of Capitol Hill, Congress last year passed a separate law requiring that the US share of peace-keeping costs not be allowed to exceed 25 per cent. That measure alone, scheduled to come into effect in October, will leave a hole in UN operations.
The Security Council continues to approve new peace-keeping operations; in the past month it gave the go-ahead for missions to both Haiti and Angola.
The approaching cash crisis could prompt United Nations members to jump- start negotiations to expand the permanent membership of the Security Council with an eye in particular on offering seats to Japan and Germany, the two countries considered most likely to be in a position to increase their peace-keeping contributions.
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