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Miami Herald - Money Talks for UN Reforms to Happen

Op-Ed

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By Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Current events at the United Nations are demonstrating again the failures of that organization and the need for reform.

One striking example is the UN Human Rights Council, which is set to soon pass several more anti-Israel resolutions, on top of 33 such measures passed by the Council in the past five years. Israel is the only country on the Council's permanent agenda, while abuses by rogue regimes like Cuba, China, and Syria are ignored. Libya's Qaddafi regime was actually a member of the Council until recently, and other serial human rights abusers still sit on the body.

From shams like the Human Rights Council, to corruption scandals, to mismanagement, and more, it is clear that the UN is broken. But what can be done about it?

I am not interested in tearing down the UN or withdrawing the United States from that body. I believe that we must focus on how to fix the UN to make it more transparent, accountable, and effective. How can we leverage our contributions to advance this goal and U.S. interests and values?

Here are some lessons learned from past attempts at reform:

Lesson One: Money talks . The biggest problem with the UN is that those who call the shots don't have to pay the bills. Most UN member nations pay next to nothing in assessed contributions, work together to drive the UN's agenda, and pass the costs on to big contributors like the United States. The U.S. government goes along and pays all assessed contributions -- 22 percent of the UN regular budget -- plus billions more every year. The UN bureaucracy and other member countries know that we will pay in full no matter what, so they have zero incentive to reform.

Almost every successful U.S. effort to reform the UN has been based on withholding our contributions unless and until reforms are implemented. In the 1980s, Congress withheld funding until the UN changed how budgets are voted on. That effort showed some success, until we stopped conditioning funding on reform. Then, the UN returned to business as usual.

In 1989, Yasser Arafat pushed for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to gain full membership in UN agencies in an attempt to get de facto recognition of a Palestinian state without making peace with Israel. The PLO's strategy looked unstoppable until the United States made clear we would cut off funding to any UN entity that upgraded the status of the PLO. The PLO's effort was stopped in its tracks.

In the 1990s, when UN regular and peacekeeping budgets were skyrocketing, Congress enacted the Helms-Biden agreement. We withheld our dues and conditioned repayment on key reforms. When the UN saw we meant business, members agreed to change, which saved U.S. taxpayers money. Smart withholding worked.

Funding for the UN budget and UN entities must also move from an assessed to a voluntary basis. That way, Americans, not UN bureaucrats or other countries, will determine how much taxpayer dollars are spent on the UN, and where they go. We should only pay for UN programs and activities that advance our interests and our values. If other countries want different things to be funded, they can pay for it themselves.

Lesson Two: U.S. leadership matters. Leadership is what our allies expect from us, and what our enemies fear. We should not be afraid to stand up for our values and interests, even if that means standing alone -- though we should reach out for other responsible nations to join us. Indecisiveness undermines our credibility with allies, and weakens our ability to advance our goals at the UN.

Lesson Three: Don't settle for cosmetic changes. In 2006, the U.N. finally abolished the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights, which was once chaired by Qaddafi's Libya. Instead of replacing the Commission with a credible and effective body, the UN created a Human Rights Council that is as bad as its predecessor.

The Council's rare resolutions criticizing real human rights abuses are usually too little and too late. Why did it take the massacre of hundreds of people in the streets for the UN to throw Libya off the Council? Why was Qaddafi's regime permitted to join the Council to begin with in 2010? Why are other human rights abusers -- including China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia -- still on the Council?

The Obama administration has tried to reform the Council from within, but has failed. We should finally leave the Council and explore credible, alternative forums to advance human rights.

Lesson Four: Don't compare apples and oranges. Some of the UN's defenders like to point to good UN activities to justify the bad ones.

However, we're not here to play "Let's Make a Deal." Each UN program must be justified on its own merits, and funded voluntarily. UNICEF aid to starving children cannot excuse UNRWA having members of Hamas on its payroll.
To incorporate these lessons learned, I will soon introduce a revised version of UN reform legislation which I first introduced in 2007. Its fundamental principle will be "reform first, pay later." I hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will partner with me on this important issue. Fixing the UN is a vital American interest.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.


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