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UN: U.S. Official Stresses Sovereignty Over Engagement

The chairman of the U.S. Senate's powerful Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, accepted an invitation yesterday to make a rare address to the United Nations Security Council. Helms called for a new beginning in U.S.-UN relations, but also warned the council that the UN will not dictate how the United States should engage in foreign affairs. His comments sparked a discussion among council members about the role of the United Nations and the United States' relations with this body, reports UN Correspondent Robert McMahon.

United Nations, 21 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Senator Jesse Helms presides over a committee that authorizes the funding for about 25 percent of the UN budget.

He played a key role in passing legislation late last year -- with conditions attached -- that provides for the United States to pay more than $900 million in arrears, money needed for the world body to carry out initiatives such as peacekeeping. Any further payment of dues the UN says are owed by the United States will ultimately require his approval.

So Helms found a large, attentive audience -- including the full Security Council and an estimated 100 ambassadors -- when he spoke on U.S.-UN relations yesterday. As anticipated, the North Carolina senator was blunt, repeating most often that the United Nations must be careful of exceeding its authority.

"If the United Nations, my friends, is to survive into the 21st century, it must recognize its limitations."

Helms' address asserted the United States' sovereign right to pursue its foreign policy and also was at times sharply critical of the way the United Nations functions.

He told the council that it had reacted "admirably" to the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but has since failed to stop Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. He said the council had been paralyzed over the crisis in Kosovo and had been a particular failure in Bosnia, proving unable to protect the people of Bosnia from genocide.

Helms also said the United Nations needs to cut its spending and to be careful of exceeding its authority in international affairs.

The U.S. Congress late last year voted to pay $926 million in UN arrears over three years, ending years of debate on separate issues like international abortion programs, which had blocked the payments. But the legislation also included a number of conditions which must be met for all the money to be released. One of the conditions is that the United Nations maintain a zero-growth budget.

Helms said Americans would never accept the United Nations as the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force in the world. He also denounced plans for an international criminal court, saying it was not competent to judge the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States.

"If the United Nations respects the sovereign rights of the American people and serves them as an effective instrument, it will earn and deserve their respect and support. But a United Nations that seeks to impose its presumed authority on the American people without their consent begs for confrontation, and I want to be candid with you, eventual U.S. withdrawal."

But the U.S. senator also said he hoped relations would improve between the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, which is currently controlled by members of his Republican Party. He said his visit was intended to extend a "hand of friendship" and convey the hope of enjoying a relationship of mutual respect.

Helms' comments provoked a response from a majority of Security Council representatives, many of them affirming their commitment to the role of the United Nations and the importance of the active participation of the United States.

British Ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock said the United Nations has played an indispensable role in international peace and security for the past 50 years. He said the main security problems worldwide currently consist of fights within states, or intrastate conflict. But the UN, he says, has drastically reduced cases of conflict between states.

Greenstock told Helms it was not correct to look at the United Nations as a separate entity that responds to emergencies but as a democratic body that responds to the will of its members.

"The UN is, in itself, if you like Mr. Chairman, a great democracy. We have to do things here democratically because we all have national sovereignties. We all have national sovereignties. And in a globalizing world, there is such a thing as the international collective interest."

Ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Van Walsum said it would be a "nightmare" to think of the United Nations without the United States. But he said the United States must still recognize its obligation to pay its dues to the organization.

"Under the United Nations Charter, which was ratified by the United States, a member state cannot attach conditions to its willingness to pay its assessed contributions to the organization. We would also like to observe that in our view, the most effective way of improving U.S.-UN relations is the payment in full of United States arrears."

After yesterday's session, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, the council's president, stressed to reporters that Helms was working closely with the U.S. administration on the issue of UN reform and involvement. Holbrooke, who extended the invitation to Helms to come to the council, noted that other members of the Foreign Relations Committee will join Helms today for a meeting with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, lunch at UN headquarters, and a committee meeting at a nearby office building that will look into recent developments at the United Nations.