Dues and Don'ts

President Clinton is poised to veto a bill that would pay a substantial portion of the $1.3 billion in back dues owed by the United States to the United Nations. His reason is a "rider" that would prohibit any US dollars going to international programs that lobby for abortion.

That rider is a patent political ploy. Given the president's firmly "pro choice" stance, he's not likely to sign anything that takes even a symbolic swipe at women's access to abortion, here or abroad. And the measure attached to the UN dues payment is largely symbolic. It won't affect UN population programs, which already studiously avoid the abortion minefield.

In light of that, some supporters of the UN are urging the president to reconsider and sign. If the abortion rider was the only issue here, they might have a point. But there's more to the bill than this rider. One of Congress's most fervent UN critics, Senate Foreign Relations chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, has seen to it that the bill is larded with numerous other conditions (38 in all) that have to be met before the dollars can flow.

Some are not so bad, like continued reductions in the UN's bureaucracy, sometimes bloated by attempts to spread jobs among nationals of its member nations. But others are outright assaults on UN members' decisionmaking, like a ban on future world conferences. Still others intrude on areas that the US ought to negotiate with other nations: a requirement that other members reduce the US share of UN funding, for instance, or that the UN essentially write off the portion of US debt not covered by this bill, which would pay about $800 million. Some conditions play to anti-UN fears, such as forbidding any move toward a standing UN army.

These conditions not only blight this legislation, they embarrass the US and disgust even its allies at the UN. They may provide a more substantial reason to veto this legislation than the emotion-packed abortion question.

Veto aside, this bill is a marvel of political subterfuge. It holds out the hope of some funding for the UN. But even if the president chose to sign, other UN members would almost certainly find the conditions unpalatable. Those in Congress who have no intention of paying the back dues anyway never had a worry.

Congress should try again.

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