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Withholding UN Payments: Why Does the U.S. Do It?


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

 During his recent visit to Washington, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the U.S. a “deadbeat donor” when it comes to paying UN dues.  The U.S. currently owes the organization close to $1 billion and is perennially late with payments. In fact, as of October 2008, 133 member states had paid their general budget assessments, but only thirty-one had paid their obligations in full.   This practice, more a matter of design than delinquency, has been employed by member states throughout the history of the UN to protest the organization for contradicting their foreign policy priorities. The U.S. is no exception.

As power at the UN became increasingly concentrated in powerful blocs like the Non-Aligned Movement and G-77 in the 1980’s, the U.S. introduced the practice of withholding dues.  A notable instance occurred in 1983 when the Reagan administration, disputing the organization’s support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, withheld a portion of UN dues. In early 2001, a Republican controlled Congress withheld $240 million to protest the U.S. being voted off the UN’s Human Rights Commission.  As recently as January of 2008, Senator Norm Coleman attempted to withhold funds from the UN Development Programme to encourage ethics reform over mismanagement of the program’s activities in North Korea. Another instance occurred in July of 2008, when a Democratic-led Senate appropriations committee voted to withhold a percentage of dues for the UN Democracy Fund, the UN Development Programme, and the Human Rights Council, citing concerns over transparency, accountability, and compatibility with U.S. foreign policy.  

According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. frequently withholds funding from UN programs and policies.   Some of these withholdings happen every budget cycle over recurring concerns with programs such as the UN Special Unit on Palestinian Rights, the Preparatory Commission for the Law of the Sea, the Population Fund, and the Human Rights Council.   

Some, like Tom Kilgannon of the Freedom Alliance, argue that the U.S. is asked to carry too large a burden, especially in tough economic times; “I think that now is the time that we clearly ought to be reexamining our financial support of institutions like the U.N., especially in light of our own economic troubles. It's very troubling the amount of money we put into it.”

A major expenditure for the U.S. is payments to UN peacekeeping missions. Although the U.S. has no soldiers serving in the UN’s seventeen peacekeeping operations, its contributions have more than doubled since 2003, from $700 million to $1.8 billion.   In 1994 Congress placed a 25% cap on U.S. contributions to peacekeeping operations, but the UN has been slow to reduce U.S. assessments.  The resulting gap represents a large portion of U.S. arrears.  A renewed U.S. commitment to multilateralism means both UN peacekeeping operations and U.S. funding for them are expected to increase in the coming years, despite poor records of protecting civilians, sexual misconduct among soldiers, and reports of fiscal irresponsibility and corruption.

The Obama administration faces a challenge similar to that which the Clinton administration faced: meeting campaign promises of stepped-up multilateralism and collaboration with the UN without compromising core foreign policy and defense interests. The Obama administration has already reversed President Bush’s Mexico City policy – a policy that prohibited the U.S. from financing international family planning organizations – and sent $50 million to the UN Population Fund.  Time will tell if President Obama continues the practice of withholding funds to the UN over policies that contradict U.S. interests.