House votes to withhold $244 million in U.N. dues

Tribune staff reporters

Outraged that the United Nations excluded the United States from an important human rights panel, the House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to withhold $244 million in promised back dues.

The 252-165 vote came amid rare unanimity by House leaders who rarely speak to one another, let alone agree on public policy. The vote also followed a public plea Wednesday by the White House and State Department spokesmen urging lawmakers not to take such retaliatory action.

Both House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri supported the congressional expression of disapproval. The amendment, which came on a bill to authorize spending for the State Department, would require the payment to be made only if the U regains its spot on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

"When you have Sudan and Cuba and China and Libya on that council and probably in my opinion some of the greatest perpetrators of human rights abuses in the world, and you reject the United States, who basically is one of the most stringent, strident supporters of human rights, I think there is an injustice there, and that needs to be addressed," Hastert said.

Gephardt said he believes that withholding the funds is the best tactic to help the United States get back on the commission.

"You don't just pick up your marbles and go home the minute something doesn't exactly go your way," Gephardt said. "The U.N. has been an enormous force for human rights and for health care and for the right things in our world, keeping the peace, and we should not walk away from it."

It was only in December, however, that the United States cut a deal with the United Nations to make payments of almost $1 billion in dues that had been withheld for several years. Led by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., many Republicans did not want to spend the money to belong to an international organization with which they frequently disagreed.

Under the agreement, the United States so far has paid $150 million and is expected to pay another $582 million this year. The United Nations maintains that the U.S. debt was $1.5 billion.

Looking to avert a full-scale reversal of its recent commitment, International Relations Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the panel's top Democrat, forged a compromise amendment to hold back the third and final installment of $244 million.

"This will teach countries a lesson," Lantos said. "Actions have consequences. If they would like to get this payment, they will vote the United States back on the commission. If they don't, it will cost them $244 million."

The House vote was greeted with disappointment and frustration at the United Nations.

The United States is only paying a portion of the dues the United Nations believes it owes. To get that money, the United Nations had agreed to a variety of reforms that the United States insisted upon without consultation with other member nations. Diplomats said that adding to the list of demands will aggravate existing tensions.

"To insist on that sort of conditionality -- frankly, that's blackmail," said one European diplomat based at the United Nations.

"A deal is a deal," said European Union U.N. Ambassador John Richardson. "We're used to the U.S. sticking to the deals it has made. We hope this is not going to be upheld. We don't think it's necessary."

David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and the president of the independent International Peace Institute in New York, said it would behoove President Bush to prevent the measure from advancing further.

"People in the U.N. system are fairly fed up with the U.S. domestic process on the payment of dues," Malone said.

"It bedeviled the last administration which, I think, did not deal with it very effectively and I think the last thing that Bush wants is to generate problems now that may be bothering him for up to eight years," he said.

Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman who chaired the House International Relations Committee, said the United States already "created enormous resentment for our arrogance" by refusing to pay its dues and then only doing so with significant conditions attached.

Thursday's vote "will only exacerbate that and make the relationship a very dicey, very difficult for a period of time," said Hamilton, who now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The Bush administration said that U.N. payments should not be linked to the United States losing its seat on the Human Rights Commission or to its recent ouster from the International Narcotics Control Board, which members of the House considered a minor slight by comparison.

But Hyde said no one from the Bush White House warned him against proceeding with the amendment.

"If they had strong feelings, they should have communicated them," Hyde said. "We wanted to give members a chance to vote their dismay and disgust."

Lantos said it's not surprising that other countries voted against giving the United States a seat on the commission. Austria, he said, is far less likely to speak out against abuses in China or some other country than the United States.

"We are the most outspoken, articulate proponent of human rights," said Lantos, a Holocaust survivor. "It's obvious, there are more human rights violators in the world than supporters and we've stepped on everybody's toes."

Other lawmakers were uncomfortable about the United States walking away from its commitment a second time.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the United Nations had met U.S. demands to reduce Washington's proportion of dues compared to other countries and to limit peacekeeping expenses in order to receive the money owed.

"Because the U.N. has voted the U.S. off the Human Rights Commission, we are deciding that we can break our agreement, that we can break our contract," Maloney said. "This is wrong, and I think we would be ashamed if our children acted in this manner."

There are no guarantees that angry House members will prevail when it comes to holding back the $244 million. The Senate recently approved the U.N. payments on a resounding 99-0 vote. The next step is a House-Senate conference that Hyde said will give the Bush administration an opportunity to intervene and time for tempers to cool.

"We're confronted with a situation and we have to react to it," said Hyde.

Altogether, 189 Republicans, 62 Democrats and one independent voted for the Hyde amendment. Twenty-one Republicans, 143 Democrats and one independent voted against it.

The House also voted 225-193 for the United States to rejoin the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, and pay it $65 million. The United States quit UNESCO in 1984, unhappy with its management and charging that it was a haven for Soviet spies.

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