When US Won't Pay UN, Both Come Up Losers

Talk about humble pie....

Late in October, Hans Corell, the chief legal officer of the United Nations, welcomed guests at a working lunch in the UN delegates' dining room. He thanked governments and American private foundations that had paid their air fares from around the world. He thanked Japan for providing the main course, Peru for the dessert, and South Africa for the wine. He did not have a cent in his own budget to cover the cost.

Mr. Corell was speaking not to a party of tourists but to 185 eminent jurists, judges, lawyers, and distinguished academics gathered for a colloquium with the International Law Commission (ILC).

It was the first event of its kind, a two-day brainstorming session on strengthening the commission in the development and codification of international law. The ILC has, among other things, prepared the draft statute of the projected International Criminal Court, which one day may pursue, worldwide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity.

The somewhat pathetic luncheon may be a thigh-slapping joke to members of Congress, who had just blocked all United States payments to the UN. It marked an increasingly bizarre American official relationship with the organization the US created. No country more loudly proclaims its devotion to the rule of law, yet none has been more selective in the law it accepts.

The US insists that treaties, such as those banning proliferation and testing of nuclear weapons, be honored to the letter, but it overrides its own treaty obligations to pay its share of the UN's expenses.

The World Court suffers under the restrictions imposed by the continuing UN deficit. Money is short for translating the voluminous written evidence and pleadings submitted by states that come before it. Printing is expensive and, as the court's caseload grows, has fallen years behind. Staff is short. There are no funds to hire clerks. Some current cases involve or interest the US, such as the Lockerbie bombing.

The UN is valuable to the US

For years, the US has not paid its full assessments for the UN's regular budget and for peacekeeping operations (despite having voted for them). It is ironic that the latest, complete cutoff has come when the UN's value to the US has been demonstrated yet again. The International Monetary Fund, officially a UN agency, is the prime resource in preventing economic melt down in East Asia, a calamity that could seriously affect the American economy. Congress, before going on vacation, refused to give the IMF the promised $3 1/2 billion needed to replenish its working capital.

Congress also seems oblivious to the UN's central role in the current psychodrama with Iraq. The UN Security Council and the chair of its special commission on the disarmament of Iraq, Richard Butler, put Saddam Hussein back in his box for the moment, which the US could not have done alone. To be sure, this game is yet to be played out, and American force may still be needed, but, as in 1990, it is best used in the framework of a joint endeavor.

Failure to pay peacekeeping costs means that many nations, including some that have provided troops and equipment for UN operations, have not been reimbursed. They're owed between $800 million and $900 million.

Turning a deaf ear

On another level, the Helms-Burton Act punishes foreign companies that make use of American property confiscated by Fidel Castro's Cuba. But when a Polish noble family demands at least compensation for its ancestral home, confiscated by the former communist regime and now housing the US embassy in Warsaw, Washington is hard of hearing.

The US seems at its Pecksniffian best in reducing payments to the UN by simply refusing to pay more. In part, it is the victim of its own ham-handedness. The Reagan and Bush administrations opposed cutting the US assessment on the mistaken assumption that the US role would be diminished, but American influence in the UN rests on much more than money. Paradoxically, Congress's meat-axing the Clinton administration's payment package clears the way for some skillful diplomacy this month that may rearrange the scale of assessments and thereby iron things out.

In any event, Washington must pay more than $1 billion to get itself and the UN out of a financial hole that hurts them both. The stakes are large in several respects. When President Clinton called Secretary General Kofi Annan to tell him what Congress had done, he said he would try to get the money restored in February. For Mr. Annan, failure would mean more borrowing from shrinking UN peacekeeping funds and the UN pension funds. For Mr. Clinton, it would be another sign - and in an election year - that he is becoming a lame duck.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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