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Obama's UN Envoy Defends U.S. Funding Level

Susan Rice is President Barack Obama's ambassador to the United Nations.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has been forced to defend the level of financial contribution Washington gives the world body after a senior member of Congress proposed withholding U.S. dues until reforms are undertaken.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican-Florida) is a long-standing critic of the United Nations, which she says has a bloated bureaucracy and pervasive anti-Israeli stance. In her role as chairwoman of the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs, she held an April 7 hearing into whether the United States should change how it funds the UN, saying that "money talks."

"Almost every productive U.S. effort at reforming the UN has been based on withholding our contributions unless and until needed reforms are implemented," she said.

The hearing's only witness was U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and in her opening statement she listed the ways she said U.S. participation in the United Nations makes Americans more secure: by preventing conflict and keeping nations from slipping into war; by helping stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons; by isolating terrorists and human rights abusers with sanctions; by sending humanitarian aid into disaster areas and war zones; and by promoting American values like respect for human rights.

Rice warned that if the United States suddenly pulled its financial contribution, its leadership role would be weakened. "There's no question that when the United States is in debt to the United Nations, when we fail to meet our treaty obligations to pay our assessed contributions, that our influence is diminished, our standing is injured, and our ability to pursue important initiatives that advance U.S. national security and U.S. national interest is gravely undermined," she said.

U.S. Biggest Contributor

The U.S. envoy agreed that reforms are needed but said the United States was already succeeding in pressing the world body to change its ways without the threat of cutting off funding.

The United States is the UN's biggest contributor, with U.S. dollars accounting for 22 percent of its annual budget. Japan comes in second, at 12 percent. In dollar terms, the Obama administration's budget request for 2011 was around $2.7 billion. In comparison, some member states' annual payments are as little as $35,000.

Ros-Lehtinen said she planned to reintroduce legislation soon that will change the way the United States contributes, from a mandatory assessment to voluntary payments.

"Americans, not UN bureaucrats or other countries, should determine how much taxpayer dollars are spent on the UN, where they go, and for what purpose," she said. "That is at the core of the 'United Nations Transparency, Accountability and Reform Act,' which I first introduced in the year 2007 and which I will soon be reintroducing with updates to reflect recent developments concerning the UN."

The Cuban-American politician, who immigrated to the United States with her parents from Cuba as a young girl, is known as a fierce champion of U.S. national interests in foreign-policy matters, a view reflected in her position on U.S. funding of the United Nations. "We should pay for UN programs and activities that advance interests and our values. If other countries want different things to be funded, they can pay for it," she said.

The Obama administration opposes that approach, Rice said, and warned that treating the U.S.’s financial obligation to the UN "as an a la carte menu” could lead to other countries doing the same, which could actually result in a higher cost to the United States.

She pointed out that more than 75 percent of the UN's budget comes from other countries, whose dues make it possible for peacekeepers in places like Afghanistan and Iraq to create the conditions for U.S. troops to come home.

The current NATO mission in Libya, which is protecting civilians from forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi, was started when the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing a military intervention on humanitarian grounds.

UN reform is needed, Rice said, but not at the expense of U.S. funding. "The UN, we all agree, is far from perfect. But it delivers real results for every American by advancing U.S. security through genuine burden sharing," she said. "That burden sharing is more important than ever at a time when the threats don't stop at our borders, when Americans are hurting and cutting back and when American troops remain in harm's way."

Speaking in support of Rice and the White House was the committee's most senior Democratic member, Howard Berman of California, who warned fellow lawmakers, "By withholding a significant portion of our assessed dues unless a nearly impossible list of conditions is met, this bill would severely hinder our ability to pursue U.S. foreign policy and national security interests, support our allies, and achieve the reforms that are necessary."

U.S.-Israel Relations

One of Ros-Lehtinen's most pointed critiques of the United Nations is its allowance of repressive or abusive governments to occupy positions of leadership on its human rights committees. She asked Rice why Iran is on the board of the Commission on the Status of Women, why Cuba is holds the vice chair of the Human Rights Council, and why Syria -- which has recently brutally cracked down on democracy protesters -- is running unopposed for a seat on the same council.

Rice acknowledged that members need to be more closely vetted but said improvements had already been made.

"We have taken the Human Rights Council in a better direction, including by creating a new special rapporteur on Iran," she said. "But much more needs to be done. The council must deal with human rights emergencies wherever they occur and its membership should reflect those who respect human rights, not those who abuse them."

Ros-Lehtinen also pushed Rice on a pet issue -- U.S. support of Israel. She asked Rice to pledge that Washington will resist any efforts in the UN General Assembly to officially recognize Palestine as its own state.

The Palestinian Authority is thought to have nearly enough support among UN member states for a successful vote this September on a resolution that would welcome the state of Palestine to the world body and recognize its territory as including Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, last month called the looming decision "a diplomatic-political tsunami."

Ros-Lehtinen asked Rice to promise that if a "resolution or statement or anything else is brought to the UN that would recognize a Palestinian state of upgrade the status of Palestinian observer mission, the U.S. will do everything it can to oppose and stop such measures and will veto them at the Security Council before they get to the General Assembly."

Rice responded that the United States "fights for fair...treatment of Israel throughout the United Nations" and "every day stands firmly and equivocally with our friend and ally, Israel."

But she also said, "The tough issues between Israelis and Palestinians can be resolved only by direct negotiations between the parties, not in New York."

written by Heather Maher

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