Shakeup Plan for UN Unlikely to Satisfy US

Reforms announced today will consolidate some departments. But bigger changes may emerge from behind closed doors

The world body that specializes in resolving conflicts could be facing one of its toughest yet - its own relationship with the United States Congress.

For the past six months, the United Nations has skirmished with the United States over reforms to the UN and over money the US owes. The US acknowledges it is $870 million in arrears. The UN puts the figure at $1.7 billion.

Today, a big UN reform package is due to be unveiled. But the proposals amount to more a reshuffling than a restructuring, and are unlikely to appease the Republican-led Congress, which takes issue with what it views as the UN's bureaucratic inefficiency.

Under Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the UN has been performing a balancing act. It has been caught between what is seen as a shaky US commitment and a growing resentment on the part of other UN member states over US demands.

Comments from UN officials suggest today's reform package will hardly close the issue. "It is not a blockbuster presentation," says one official, who was among the 10 chosen to write the 90-page report. "It does not address the big-ticket US benchmarks.

"But the real action is what is going to happen behind closed doors."

The report focuses mainly on the consolidation of several departments. It also stresses that no reductions in jobs will take place, aside from 1,100 positions already earmarked for elimination since last year.

What the United States wanted

The US "benchmarks," conditions on which American payment to the UN are based, include reductions in US contributions to regular and peacekeeping budgets; notification and consultation with Congress on UN peacekeeping; the prohibition of global conferences outside New York, Vienna, Rome, and Geneva; and reimbursement for all US contributions of equipment used in peacekeeping operations.

Other US benchmarks are starkly political. One section in a proposed piece of reform legislation calls for an end to "the persistent inequity experienced by Israel in the United Nations." It also says that the US "shall seek the elimination" of all the Palestinian committees of the UN.

Such demands are barely mentioned in the current set of reforms, with only three proposals that could be said to be concessions to the US: a no-growth budget; auditing of UN outlays by Congress's General Accounting Office; and a stronger internal auditing system.

Why the secretary-general can't do more

UN officials say such allowances are as much as the secretary-general can offer in a package that must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the 185-member General Assembly.

"This is not and cannot be a corporate clean out," says the UN official who helped write the report. "National governments have a stake in this. We cannot be seen as kowtowing to US interests."

Still, UN officials suggest that the economic and political role of the US is too great to ignore. Other industrialized countries tend to follow the US lead, they say, in spite of outward criticisms of American positions on the UN.

"The UN knows it is on shaky ground right now," says one senior-level European diplomat. "The basic US view is that the era of the UN is over. It is putting its resources in NATO and the WTO [World Trade Organization]. This scares the UN - no matter how bad the relations, without the US, the place is finished."

The adjustment period is far from over. UN officials suggest that further "internal" changes not directly outlined in the reform package will be gradually introduced over the coming months.

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