The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation by a vote of 221 to 184 proposing wide-ranging reforms of the United Nations. The bill, which was opposed in its current form by the Bush administration, calls for mandatory reductions of up to 50 percent in U.S. contributions to the United Nations.
Debate on the legislation stretched over two days, bringing all of the frustrations lawmakers have had with the United Nations over the years into the open on the floor of the House.
The legislation was authored by the powerful Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Henry Hyde, who described it as overdue radical surgery, in the wake of scandals, such as those involving the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program, and U.N. peacekeepers.
"So, the time has finally come where we must, in good conscience, say, 'enough,'” said Mr. Hyde. “Enough to allowing odious regimes, such as Cuba, Sudan [and] Zimbabwe, to masquerade as arbiters of human rights; enough to peacekeepers exploiting and abusing the people they were sent to protect; enough to unkept promises and squandering the dreams of generations."
The bill calls for mandatory withholding of up to 50 percent of U.S. dues, if the United Nations does not meet 39 reform benchmarks, in numerous areas involving organization, budget and internal accountability, as well as human rights and peacekeeping.
It proposes that contributions to some key U.N. bodies be voluntary, declares countries known to be human rights abusers ineligible for membership on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and contains steps aimed at addressing anti-Semitism and discrimination against Israel in U.N. bodies.
Opponents focused on a key provision that would hold back funds for expanded current and future peacekeeping operations.
"The most short-sighted of the bill's provisions would require a mandatory withholding of peacekeeping funds, unless the requirements in this legislation are met. Simply put, prohibiting the Secretary of State from exercising discretion regarding the withholding of funds to the U.N. is counter-productive," said Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings.
Congressman Tom Lantos warned, the bill, if approved by Congress, would tie the hands of the Bush administration in pushing for U.N. reform.
"The legislation before the Congress micro-manages every possible reform at the United Nations,” said Mr. Lantos. “It creates mechanical, arbitrary and automatic withholdings, and it gives Secretary of State Rice zero flexibility to get the job done."
But lawmakers rejected Mr. Lantos' effort to make reductions in U.S. contributions discretionary rather than mandatory.
The final vote tally was driven by the level of irritation with the United Nations expressed in comments, such as this one from Republican Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana:
"This body needs to put the hammer [to the U.N.] by using American taxpayer dollars on the U.N. to clean up that mess over there. We cannot go on, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, letting this thing be completely out of hand," said Mr. Burton.
Numerous amendments covered subjects such as preserving and extending U.S. influence in the Security Council, and investigations of the Iraq Oil for Food program, and measures to be taken against countries committing genocide.
Several others are aimed at strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a U.N.-affiliated agency, in dealing with the nuclear situations posed by Iran and North Korea.
Congressman Eric Cantor is a Republican lawmaker from Virginia:
"This amendment makes a clear and unequivocal declaration to Iran, as well as to the nations of the world, that the United States is serious about stopping Iran's development of nuclear weapons," added Mr. Cantor.
Passage of the U.N. Reform Act comes despite opposition from the White House, which said provisions of the bill as it now stands would put the United States in a more difficult position at the United Nations, and hinder U.S. efforts to support reforms already outlined by the U.N. secretary-general.
The Senate would have to approve similar legislation for any final bill to get to President Bush's desk, where a veto would be likely, if it keeps its current form after a House-Senate conference.