Representatives of the 15 countries in the UN Security Council traveled to Washington on Thursday to meet members of the U.S. Senate responsible for approving U.S. dues to the United Nations. The meeting was cordial though the envoys did get a polite lecture about how U.S. democracy works. RFE/RL's Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.
Washington, 31 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ambassadors representing members of the UN Security Council appeared before the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday in an effort to foster improved cooperation -- and to keep the check coming.
Although they got a civic lesson about how U.S. democracy works, our correspondent in Washington reports the unprecedented meeting was cordial, amiable and friendly.
U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, the Republican committee chairman, noted it was the first time in the UN's history that such a meeting has taken place. Helms invited the 15 ambassadors to Washington last January. Helms was in New York at the time, the first member of Congress to address the Security Council.
Helms said the Senate plays a unique role in U.S. foreign policy, including the power to ratify treaties, confirm ambassadors and -- with the House of Representatives -- pay for foreign operations such as UN dues.
The United States currently owes $1.7 billion in past UN dues. About half of it cannot be paid under legislation devised by Helms until U.S. dues are lowered to 22 percent from 25 percent for the regular UN budget and to 25 percent from 30 percent for peacekeeping expenses.
The U.S. has agreed to pay $929 million for the arrears.
"We want very much to improve the relationship between us (U.S.Congress ) and you (UN Security Council members) and to strengthen cooperation between our country and the United Nations, a kind of respect and cooperation that takes into account the sovereignty and independence of the United States of America."
Helms, a critic of the United Nations, was the ambassadors' host through most of the day. The North Carolina senator said the visit by the council members was a new beginning in U.S.-UN relations. He urged the UN to reform.
Senator Joseph Biden, the committees top Democrat, also told the ambassadors it was time to reform the UN, making it more lean and efficient.
"I know and I understand that on the issue of - quote - 'reform of the United Nations' , that you may all agree that there is a need for reform in the United Nations. You probably all agree that we shouldn't be telling you and conditioning our support for the United Nations on what we think reform should be. I understand that. I just hope we are able to discuss frankly, if we can, in addition to your possible displeasure with the way in which we conditioned what we did. I hope we'll frankly discuss what reforms are or are not needed in the United Nations."
Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine's Ambassador to the UN, told the committee that his country agreed.
"We fully respect and fully share your opinion that the United Nations should be reformed more actively."
Earlier Thursday, the delegates were welcomed at the State Department by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering. Both served as former U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations.
Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov said he bought his plane ticket only after Albright issued her own invitation. He and other ambassadors stressed that the council had not agreed as a group to the visit, but were going as individuals.
The council is made up of five permanent representatives -- The United States, Russia, Britain, France, China -- and ten who serve on rotating basis. Currently they are Canada, the Netherlands, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Mali, Namibia, Argentina, Ukraine, Jamaica and Tunisia.
State Department spokesman James Foley said the U.S. was hoping that the visit would have a positive outcome.
" I wouldn't look for any immediate results coming out of the trip, but nevertheless it's important ... It signals to the American public and to the world how seriously we take the UN "
Any change in U.S. dues to the United Nations requires agreement by all 188 UN members, not just the 15 on the Security Council.