By Bill Miller
Never in the 66-year history of the UN has the US ever needed the international organization more, and vice-versa.
The UN is in the forefront in promoting peace in dangerous areas of the world, providing humanitarian assistance, implementing economic and social development activities, shepherding climate change efforts and enhancing human rights worldwide, all of which are important to US foreign policy and the overall strength of the country.
As philosopher and poet George Santanya said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” From all indications, the perennial onslaught of the UN is well underway by several members of the US Congress who seem determined to repeat previous mistakes.
In the mid-80s and early 90s, the US dramatically damaged its credibility, international leadership, and security by refusing to pay its legal assessments until the UN complied with its demands to make internal management reforms and reduce the US assessment from 25 to 22%, as well as lower the peacekeeping assessment to 25%. In 1999, Senator Joe Biden (D-RI) and Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), both of whom recognized that the US was injuring itself, cobbled together an agreement that agreed to pay back over $900 million of the $1.2 billion bill.
At the end of 2010, according to the UN, the US owes a total outstanding assessed (mandatory) $736.2 million.
In the last session of Congress, Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Texas) introduced H.R. 1146, the American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2009 to repeal the United Nations Participation Act of 1945, which is a legally-binding treaty adopted by the US Senate that the US must honor in paying its legal UN dues.
Currently, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the new House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman, threatened to withhold payments ostensibly to coerce the United Nations to cut costs and improve its management.
Ros-Lehtinen also indicated that other legislation will improve oversight of UN agencies and defund the Human Rights Council because it is viewed as anti-Israel and includes nations guilty of human rights violations.
As Congress deliberates, it should remember how the UN provides assistance to the US and the world:
First, one of the major goals of the UN is to eliminate the scourge of war, which it attempts to do by helping to reduce conflicts around the world. Since 1948, the UN has fielded over 60 peacekeeping missions that saved lives, averted wars, and helped bring democracy to dozens of countries. Over 120,000 military, police, and civilian peacekeepers are now deployed in 14 operations around the world, from Haiti to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Darfur to East Timor. Only 87 personnel are Americans in uniform. Recent findings on peacekeeping show:
-- The total cost of UN peacekeeping dues to the US is equivalent to what we spend in a few days in Iraq and Afghanistan, a small investment for a major return;
-- A Rand Think Tank Report reported that when the UN can conduct a peacekeeping mission, it is more successful than when the US military takes on a unilateral peacekeeping assignment;
-- A US Government Accountability Office (GAO) study indicated that UN peacekeeping costs US taxpayers only one-eighth of what a US military mission would cost.
Although the US pays 25% of the peacekeeping’s $8 billion budget, it is still a bargain because other countries contribute most of the troops, which keeps Americans out of harm’s way, and pay 75% of the total.
Second, the UN is critical to help foster democracy by providing expertise and oversight and to strengthen fragile state institutions through peace building efforts. The UN has developed free elections in such dangerous areas as El Salvador, Cambodia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq and dozens more.
Third, UN humanitarian agencies are available to move quickly to a disaster zone to provide life-saving food, shelter, and medicine. In 2010 when floods devastated Pakistan, the World Food Program helped feed 6.9 million people. Similar efforts are underway in Haiti, Chad, Bolivia and Libya.
Fourth, the UN has not only been the US’s number one partner in fighting terrorism and Al Qaeda, it also combats the flow of illegal drugs, is the backbone of reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and works to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Just last week the world was shocked and outraged when Terry Jones, the minister of a fringe, fundamentalist church in Florida, burned a copy of the Islamic holy book, the Quran. This act spurred an attack by rioting Afghans who overran a UN office in Northern Afghanistan, killing at least 10 workers and beheading two of the victims.
A few other examples of UN support for US policies include: in 2009, President Obama chaired a major Security Council summit that unanimously adopted far-reaching, binding steps to reduce nuclear dangers. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency has exposed Iran and North Korea’s nuclear violations. Additionally, the UN Security Council imposed the toughest sanctions that Iran and North Korea have ever confronted.
Fifth, the UN has been the driving force behind developing the lifesaving Millennium Development Goals. These logical and quantifiable goals, which have targets to be achieved by the year 2015, focus on reducing abject poverty by 50%, providing universal primary school education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development. Depending upon the country and the region, several goals are on-track to be achieved -- whereas, others are not.
Regarding the sustainable development goal of the Millennium Development Goals, the UN, primarily through establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and conducting its international environmental conferences, has moved the climate change discussion to center stage.
Sixth, UN agencies develop international standards and regulations. For example, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) sets the rules for international mail among its 190 member countries, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) sets standards for air travel, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) helps to make the seas more secure and the World Meteorological Organization is pivotal to move weather information around the world. Airlines, shipping companies and people worldwide directly benefit from these services.
Lastly, the UN is a place where countries convene to promote universal human rights and condemn the world's worst atrocities. The UN General Assembly, with US leadership, has condemned Iran, Myanmar, and North Korea’s human rights abuses by large vote margins, and just recently voted to toss Libya off of the Human Rights Council. The Security Council set up the legal machinery for a 'no-fly zone' over Libya and referred Moammar Gadhafi and his inner circle for possible crimes against humanity, to the International Criminal Court, a highly-unprecedented move that only occurred against Omar Al-bashir, president of Sudan.
UN Women, a new agency, is just coming on-line to focus attention on assisting and empowering women to play stronger more productive roles in their families and communities. Studies have consistently shown that women play a tremendous role in every community, even in ones where they may not enjoy the equal rights or benefits of men.
The UN has improved its internal management quite dramatically over the past 12 years. Arguably, although the UN should continue internal reforms, many UN programs are more cost-effective, less wasteful and more efficient than some US Government programs, such as FEMA’s mismanagement in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraqi Economic Assistance Project where tens of billions of dollars were misspent or stolen, not to mention the Defense Department which has billions of dollars of waste.
For the past 66 years, since the UN was founded, public opinion polls have consistently indicated that the vast majority (a recent poll was at 65%) of the US public wants the American government to work through international bodies, primarily the UN, in dealing with the myriad of intractable international issues and problems. Another recent poll showed that 72% want the US to pay its dues on time and in full to the UN.
In a recent speech, Ambassador Susan Rice, Permanent US Representative to the UN, laid out how much it costs when she reported, “Out of every tax dollar…34 cents goes to Social Security and Medicare, 22 cents to national security and our amazing military, and a nickel to paying interest on the national debt. Just one-tenth of a single penny goes to pay our UN dues.”
Members of Congress should keep in mind that the UN is not a one-world government, it does not infringe on American sovereignty, it does not have the power to tax America, and it does not have a fleet of secret black helicopters, nor a standing army, poised to swoop in on Washington, DC to take over the government.
Although the latter was misinformation disseminated primarily by the John Birch Society, some Members of Congress still subscribe to this bogus conspiracy theory. Freshman Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) recently put out a frightening and erroneous screed as to how the UN Small Arms Treaty would ostensibly infringe on the Second Amendment and could lead to arms control in the US, which is totally fallacious.
There are several truisms that persist: the UN is not a perfect organization, but it has become much more accountable; the UN is in the US’s interest and helps the US achieve many foreign policy goals; the US earns more off of the UN than it pays in legal dues; the US is not paying its fair share at 22% of the budget (it should be closer to 28% according to a fair and equitable formula); and the world needs a strong, effective UN.
Governments at all levels are gearing up to cut back on expenditures as they strive to balance their budgets. The UN, undoubtedly, will suffer reductions in some agencies. The pragmatic UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has requested that the UN incorporate a 3 percent reduction in its budget.
Humorist and author Mark Twain once said, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”
Hopefully, Congress will only focus on the facts for the sake of the US and the world. Even with its flaws, the UN is absolutely critical to the success of many US foreign policies, is a bargain for the services it provides and if the UN disappeared today, it would have to be created tomorrow. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said that the UN is not perfect, but it is indispensable. Are these not words of wisdom for the US Congress?
Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA's Council of Chapter and Division Presidents, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”