Plagued by money woes and a strange paralysis in its Security Council, the 53rd session of the U.N. General Assembly has set itself an ambitious agenda of 160 global problems ranging from brush fire wars to the economy.
But few if any will be solved.Many will be aired in the general debate that allows heads of state to express their particular concerns. Monday, for example, President Clinton asked the 185-member assembly for an "international front to combat terrorism."
Over the next two weeks, other presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and ambassadors will address the stalled Middle East peace process, Balkan instability, African conflicts, the looming war between Iran and Afghanistan, the financial meltdowns in Asia, Russia and Latin America, the computer millennium bug, disarmament and trade rules for banana growers.
As the world's sole remaining superpower, the United States should play a pivotal role in most of these issues. But it cannot.
That's because the richest and most powerful member of the United Nations is also its biggest deadbeat; it owes more than $1.5 billion in unpaid dues. As a result, the United Nations is nearly broke and U.S. influence in the world body has sunk to the point where it risks losing its General Assembly voting rights.
At his inaugural as the assembly's new president earlier this month, Uruguayan Foreign Minister Didier Opertti Badan, warned: "It must be said frankly that it will be possible to do little or very little if states do not fulfill their commitments to the organization."
He did not name the United States but U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been more outspoken, telling Washington that failure to pay its bills was "offending friends and foes alike."
Congress, seemingly unconcerned, has thrown up a host of roadblocks to the Clinton administration's repeated requests for release of the funds. First it demanded staff and budget cuts at the United Nations, which Annan implemented last year. Then it demanded anti-abortion provisions that Clinton is sure to veto. Now it wants to change the dues structure and offset the arrears with our peacekeeping costs, meaning the United Nations owes us money instead of the other way around.
Sen. Jesse Helms, for one, says the military expense we incurred in confronting Iraq and supporting the Bosnia peacekeeping operations far surpass our U.N. dues, which he called "money we do not owe and should never pay."
If that attitude prevails, the United States will soon be in violation of Article 19 of the U.N. Charter, which strips a country of its vote when its debt outstrips the amount past due for the preceding two years. As far back as March, chief U.N. financial officer Joseph Connor said the United States is "approaching that red line."
Loss of General Assembly voting rights would put us in the company of 18 nations such as Burundi, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Liberia, Somalia, Togo and Vanuatu. It would not affect the U.S. seat on the U.N. Security Council, but that hardly affects the only body charged with safeguarding world peace.
Lately, the Security Council has been remarkably passive on Iraq, Kosovo, Congo, Angola, Afghanistan and other trouble spots. A stinging resignation letter from, U.S. weapons inspector Scott Ritter said the council's failure to punish Iraq for violating the terms of its surrender in the Persian Gulf War would result in Saddam Hussein maintaining banned weapons of mass destruction.
Without U.S. leadership the Security Council appears rudderless and the broader General Assembly is reduced to commemorating such meaningless anniversaries as World Book and Copyright Day, International Tolerance Day, World Television Day and No-Tobacco Day. That's just a sample of 44 dates earmarked this year.
As usual, Congress appears to be out of step with American voters. An opinion poll conducted by the United Nations Association indicates that 72 percent of Americans believe it is "very important" for the United States to remain part of the United Nations, and 73 percent say our government should pay its past dues.
So what are our lawmakers waiting for? Do they really like being international pariahs?