US payment is a welcome drop in the UN bucket of deficits

Caught by surprise by the United States's sudden decision to pay millions of dollars in overdue payments, United Nations officials are seeking clarification of the move. US Undersecretary of State John Whitehead flew in from Washington to meet with officials here Wednesday, after the White House announced late Tuesday that President Reagan would ``release'' $44 million withheld in fiscal 1988 and $144 million withheld in fiscal 1989. Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater added that President Reagan would request ``full funding of the United Nations system'' in fiscal 1990.

UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar welcomed the US decision to make a ``partial payment'' of its debt, but added that ``it is not the end'' of the organization's financial crisis.

Meanwhile, UN sources say, there still are potential barriers that could indefinitely delay full funding. The President is authorized to immediately pay $15 million of the $44 million. But before the remaining $29 million can be released, Congress has 30 days in which to vote down the payment. It is unclear what Congress will decide, and the situation is complicated by the fact that Congress adjourns before expiration of the 30 days.

Funds have been withheld because of what the Reagan administration and Congress perceive as irresponsible financial and political action by the UN. As a condition of payment, the US demanded cutbacks in UN Secretariat staff, changes in hiring rules, and an overhaul of budget procedures that would, in effect, give the US veto power over what it sees as wasteful spending.

Mr. Fitzwater said the President acted because the UN has adopted ``important organizational reforms.'' A major factor in the decision is also the UN role in conflict resolution. In commending the UN chief, he cited the Afghanistan peace accords, the Iran-Iraq truce, and the UN's future role in US-brokered Angola-Namibia negotiations.

UN spokeswoman Nadia Younis said the Secretary-General considered the US move ``a most postive development.'' But, she added, ``Until the outstanding contributions by all member states are paid, the [UN] will continue to operate with inadequate current income and virtually without reserves.''

According to the UN, the 159 member states owe the UN $602 million of regular budget contributions. In addition, peacekeeping payments lag by $687 million.

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