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World: UN Reform Debate Tests Alliances And Allegiances

  • Sonia Winter

New York, 29 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - As the second week of debate begins in the United Nations 52nd annual General Assembly, it is clear there will be no easy agreement on proposals to expand the Security Council, change the way dues are assessed and modernize and restructure the world body.

One by one, some 75 speakers have now stepped up to the green marble lectern in the vast General Assembly hall to express their country's views, collectively presenting a disharmonious mass of conflicting proposals, competitive claims and ethnic rivalries.

But more than national pride, squarely at the root of most of the controversies is the question of money. Simply put, the United States wants to pay less of UN expenses, other countries do not want to pay more, and some fear that restructuring will eliminate economic and social programs they need.

For many speakers, including Central Europeans, appearing before the General Assembly posed a difficult diplomatic dilemma, crossing customary alliances and testing allegiances among the 185 member nations.

Dues and Arrears

The reform issue is becoming a test of statehood and maturity for Central Europeans and the independent republics. They appear to be joining a UN majority in opposition to the United States on at least one aspect of the current debate -- payment of dues owed to the United Nations.

So far, the only thing on which there is complete agreement in the UN General Assembly is that the United States must pay in full what it owes in dues and peacekeeping costs, variously estimated between $900 million and $1.4 billion. Even America's closest allies have joined the clamor.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, speaking for the European Union, told the Assembly last week the United Nations cannot function efficiently until "all member-states have agreed to meet their discharging their arrears."

Adresses in the Assembly by America's friends have mostly avoided direct comment and -- like Romania -- have said only that they associate themselves with the EU position.

Latvian Foreign Minister Valdis Birkavs was even more cautious, speaking very generally about "recent unprecedented increases in past due outstanding contributions" and the need for financial reform.

But the Scandinavian countries, secure in the knowledge of their own major contributions to the UN, were notably more outspoken.

Swedish Foreign Minister Lena Hjelm-Wallen was the first and only speaker so far to criticize the U.S. by name. She said her country calls on all UN debtors "including the main debtor, the United States," to pay their bills by the end of the year.

Norway's Foreign Minister Bjorn Tore Godal said "non-payments are unacceptable," adding that "it cannot be justified that some countries unilaterally pay less than their legally binding share or nothing at all."

In relation to its wealth and size , Norway is one of the largest contributors to the UN both in money and in the number of peacekeeping troops. One in every 100 Norwegians has participated in UN peacekeeping operations.

During the debate last week, Russia pointedly circulated a news release, saying it has recently paid off $60 million owed for 15 peacekeeping operations and now owes an unspecified amount for only two peacekeeping programs. The announcement said "more payments are expected in the near future."

The U.S. position so universally opposed contests the amount of money owed and more importantly links payment of arrears to UN reform of the payment system. But UN members want the United States to pay off its debt first and then negotiate a new rate.

The U.S. Congress, which controls the national budget, has refused for several years to pay in full the U.S. share of UN expenses to pressure the organization into eliminating bureaucratic bloat and waste.

Earlier this month, it reluctantly considered legislation to pay roughly half the U.S. debt but only on several conditions, including some that have generated their own controversy.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright a week ago summed it up this way: "The legislation is not yet final and its fate is tied to some troublesome unrelated issues, but President Bill Clinton hopes to have a bill he can sign soon."

The unrelated issues are mostly to do with U.S. domestic politics such as an anti-abortion amendment attached to the UN bill by Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey).

Another proposal in Congress would allow Clinton to waive some of the conditions, but not the main one -- reducing America's contribution to the UN budget from 25 percent to 20 percent over the next three years, and cutting its share of peacekeeping costs from more than 30 percent to 25 percent.

In the complicated UN financial system, members are assessed separately for the cost of peacekeeping operations and pay annual dues for the regular UN budget, based on each nation's share of the global economy.

Thus a dozen countries finance more than 80 percent of the UN regular budget, according to U.S. statistics.

The United States is the leading contributor accounting for 25 percent, followed by Japan, Germany, France and Great Britain.

Russia is further down the scale, paying 4.27 percent of the UN regular budget, and China even lower at 0.74 percent of the UN budget.

Nations are assessed in a similar way for peacekeeping operations but there are further refinements of discounts for poor nations and surcharges for members of the Security Council.

The permanent Council members -- the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France -- are considered the A countries on the UN peacekeeping assessment scale which has four major categories. B is for medium industrialized powers. The largest group of nearly 100 countries belongs to Group C, and D is for the poorest, least developed nations that pay only a fraction, if anything of peacekeeping expenses.

A UN spokeswoman told RFE/RL that the Czech Republic last year moved up to the B group of industrialized countries which pays regular UN rates.

Former Czechoslovakia had been in the C Group. Since it split in two, Slovakia has remained in the C group paying one fifth of the regular rates and it very much wants to stay there.

Foreign Minister Zdenka Kramplova told the UN Assembly Thursday that "in terms of capacity to pay (peacekeeping costs), Slovakia simply belongs to the Group C of member states" and she urged the Assembly to make this a permanent allocation.

The scale allocations are reviewed every three years to see whether they still conform to the country's economic situation and a new scale of assessments is now under consideration for next year.

To bridge the gap of proposed U.S. reductions, the U.S. is suggesting that some West European countries, as well as South Korea, China and Japan increase their UN payments. But there is not a lot of enthusiasm for the idea.

Japan's Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi said his country is willing to pay more only if it receives a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

He stressed the linkage in his speech Tuesday, saying; "Japan's assessment is about to reach that of the United States and it is already almost as great as the assessments of the other four permanent (Security Council) members combined. If Japan's assessment were to increase further out of proportion -- with reform of the Security Council not yet realized -- there would be a problem with respect to fairness of such a situation."

Security Council Expansion

The first week of debate in the UN General Assembly suggests widespread support in the United Nations for enlarging the 15-member Security Council but unexpectedly intense rivalry over who should be appointed as new members.

Several Central European nations, including Latvia and Slovenia, last week called for balanced representation, stressing the rights of small states.

Others, like Ukraine and Georgia, said explicitly that Eastern Europe should get an additional permanent seat on the Council. The region already has one of the ten non-permanent rotating places.

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov gave general backing to the idea of expanding the Security Council in a lofty way, saying the decision to do it is long overdue but warning that "expansion should not render our organization less efficient."

Primakov observed further that "UN reform will take place against the background of an ever increasing role of regional organizations, which is a logical process."

The U.S. has proposed adding Germany and Japan to the five permanent members of the Council and three other countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the U.S. believes membership should grow to 20, at most 21 seats, and beyond that has remained deliberately vague

State Department officials said regional groups should themselves decide whether to rotate the seat for their region or allocate it to a single country. That has unleashed a flood of proposals and counterproposals.

Brazil wants to have a permanent Security Council seat representing Latin America but Argentina, Mexico and others say the post should rotate.

Several Arab countries say they have been forgotten and plan to propose a permanent Arab seat.

India, as the world's largest democracy is laying claim to the regional seat representing Asia. Pakistan has voiced objections to that and South Korea is unhappy about the possible elevation of Japan.

Africa is currently represented with two of the existing ten rotating, non-permanent Council seats but says it should have five, plus two permanent seats in the expanded Council.

The European Union has taken no common position on the enlargement issue, leaving room for intense discussion among West Europeans about the choice of members.

Britain appears to support the U.S. position. But Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini has expressed concern about Japan's desire to join the Council, noting that Tokyo is not very active in peacekeeping operations.

In an address to the General Assembly Thursday, Dini also criticized Japan's position linking a raise in UN dues to a permanent seat on the Council.

He said "there can be absolutely no link between members contributions and Security Council reform, lest the impression be created that permanent seats are up for sale."

But Italy's fiercest opposition is against the idea of giving Germany a permanent place on the Council.

Dini says that would leave Italy, a big contributor to the UN, as the only major European state without Security Council representation.

At a press conference after his speech, he said Italy cannot accept being relegated to the lower ranks. "It is not in line with the role of Italy in the world today," he said.

Italy's counterproposal is to not add permanent seats but to expand the number of non-permanent members by as many as ten to make the Security Council more representative. Dini said in the future, when the European Union unifies its foreign policy, it might seek a single permanent seat.

The current five permanent members -- the U.S. Russia, China, Britain and France -- were the main victorious powers of World War II. Their veto rights rested on the assumption that implementing a Council decision against the will of even one power would be difficult if not impossible and renew a risk of war.

Nowadays, the difficult decisions before the Council tend to involve peacekeeping, since it is the only UN body authorized to send peacekeepers abroad. It also authorizes the use of force to settle conflicts. But this has never concerned the nuclear powers and some nations say the veto concept is obsolete.

Belgian Foreign Minister Eric Derycke told the Assembly last week that "the right to veto is incompatible with the general interest."

The U.S. is firmly opposed to changing the power of veto for the big five but says it has no position yet on the new seats. The State Department says "this issue should only be addressed once the shape of an expanded Council is determined."

Meanwhile, it is business as usual for the unreformed Security Council. Under current regulations, five non-permanent seats are becoming vacant. Later this session, the Assembly is expected to elect Bahrein, Brazil, Gabon and Gambia to two-year terms, beginning in January. A fifth seat is being contested among Belarus, Macedonia and Slovenia.

Slovakia, apparently hedging against both a reformed and unreformed Council, last week announced its candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council in the year 2,000.

Prospects For Agreement On Reform

Nothing happens very quickly in the United Nations and current proposals for reform are expected to be discussed for weeks and months -- until an attempt is made to vote on the package before the Assembly adjourns in December. But even that remains a question mark.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma warned in an address to the General Assembly last week to "try to avoid drowning this issue in endless discussions and appeals as has been repeatedly the case in the past."

The U.N. has been discussing ideas for changing its structure and reforming the Security Council for several years. But little was done until under U.S. pressure, a new Secretary General was elected to lead the world body.

Ghanaian-born Kofi Annan has made reforms a primary goal. U.S. officials have applauded him as doing more in the nine months of his tenure to reform the UN than was done in the duration of its 52-year existence.

Annan is already overhauling the bureacracy, slimming the secretariat by abolishing 1,000 posts and consolidating operations under tighter budget controls.

But the package of reform proposals he submitted in July that are now being debated have aroused deep distrust among many delegates. As various factions lobby to increase support in the Assembly for their view, new blocs and alignments appear to be forming.

Some African countries have expressed concern, that Annan, who was educated in the U.S. and has lived in New York for many years, is really an agent of the United States and the changes he is making are designed to increase his own power..

But the most basic split appears to be along traditional economic lines between industrialized and developing countries -- 132 nations that form the largest bloc in the United Nations and could scuttle any proposal if they vote together.

Foreign minister Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, currently the leader of the group, significantly did not endorse Annan's reform proposals in his address to the General Assembly last week. He called it "a basis for discussion."

Experts on the UN say calls for "further discussion," "thorough study" or "careful deliberation," have become code words for skepticism and a move to slow the reform process.

The foreign ministers of Iran and China similarly stopped short of a full endorsement and stressed the importance of reforms achieving a proper balance between developed and developing countries.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe Wednesday told a special Security Council debate on Africa that "Africa is of the view that for reforms to be meaningful and credible they should seek to reinforce the pivotal role of the United Nations in development."

Mugabe, chairman of the Organization for African Unity, was expressing the fears of many developing countries that heeding a U.S. call to cut costs and eliminate waste in the UN will mean a reduction in economic and social development programs in favor of Western goals of maintaining peace and promoting human rights.

He and others maintain that democracy will come after economic conditions improve and they want to restore economic development as the number one goal of the United Nations

Most countries, including the Central Europeans, have expressed support for a proposal to channel any savings from Annan's cost-cutting measures into a special development fund for the poorer nations.

Some experts say the developing countries will eventually support most of the reforms but want to be courted and gain some advantages in the process.

The U.S. recognizes that the group's support is essential and seems to have begun to woo its members. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presided over the special Security Council session and said it was held to focus the attention of the international community on Africa and lay foundations for "a peaceful and prosperous future for the African continent."

Many countries support part of the reform package but say they will not rush into action on proposals to expand the Security Council.

Slovakia, has joined the go-slow group, saying it prefers "a continued and thorough discussion in this regard without an articifial acceleration of the whole process."

Other countries, including Ukraine and Latvia, say the proposed reforms are imperfect but better to start with something than nothing. Kuchma urged the Assembly to begin work on the reforms without delay.

Latvian Foreign Minister Birkavs said his country views the package as a work in progress and will support it "as a good springboard for reform."

Slovenia urged the Assembly to adopt the major reforms quickly this session, and similarly Lithuania called for a strict time-frame, warning against prolonged debate.

Most of the western nations are urging members to adopt the reforms without stalling but recognize that this may be difficult to achieve.

Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy said Thursday that with so many proposals on the table, an early decision is unlikely.

He said he has been meeting with many delegates and feels that any attempt to force a vote during the current session of the UN Assembly would be in his words "very divisive."

Axworthy said Security Council reform is an important step and must be fully debated. He said the process must "be fair and open."

Two thirds of the UN members need to vote in favor of any resolution on the Security Council.

To maintain reform momentum, several countries are pressing for "a framework resolution" which would establish the structure of an expanded Security Council but leave until later the contentious issues of who will take the seats and who will have veto power.

Even then, several years will go by before anything happens because the individual legislatures of UN members have to ratify the final decision.