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US Lawmakers Briefed on UN Reform Proposals

The head of the independent panel that probed the United Nations oil-for-food scandal briefed a Senate panel Tuesday on the panel's findings and recommendations. The official warned lawmakers against withholding U.S. dues to the United Nations as a way of pressing the world body to reform.

Paul Volcker's panel spent a year investigating the scandal surrounding the U.N. oil-for-food program, which had been set up to allow Iraq to sell oil and use the proceeds to pay for food and medicine while that country was under international sanctions.

The panel criticized U.N. leadership for tolerating corruption and allowing the government of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to use the program to collect billions of dollars in kickbacks.

Among the reforms recommended by the panel is the creation of a chief operating officer at the United Nations.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Mr. Volcker acknowledged that such an official may clash with a U.N. secretary general, but he said such conflict could improve operations at the world body.

"There could be some kind of tension at times," he says. "I think that would be healthy. If in fact there is disagreement between the chief operating officer and the secretary general, there must be a reason for it."

Some lawmakers, frustrated with the slow progress of reform at the United Nations, want to withhold U.S. dues to the world body as a way to press for change there.

Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, has been a staunch U.N. critic:

"If Congress does not up the ante (does not keep up the pressure), this moment of opportunity for United Nations reform will pass us by," Mr. Coleman says.

The House of Representatives earlier this year passed legislation that would cut U.S. dues to the United Nations by half by 2008 if adequate U.N. reforms are not enacted.

The United States currently provides some 22 percent of the United Nations' annual budget.

But Mr. Volcker said withholding funds to the world body would be counterproductive:

"This idea that you just cut off money as a unilateral action, apart from raising questions about obligations you have by treaty and so forth, I am not sure how effective it is, because it raises the specter of the United States kind of by itself "bulldozing" the organization by very crude and difficult measures," Mr. Volcker says.

Mr. Volcker also took issue with comments from Senator Coleman that a "culture of corruption" is tolerated at the United Nations:

"I do not know if it's fair to say that the U.N. has a culture of corruption," Mr. Volcker says. "They had some corruption, there is no doubt about it. But it certainly had a culture of inaction."

The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, told the Foreign Relations Committee that reform at the world body would not happen overnight:

"This is going to be a long sustained battle," he says.

He also said the United States should fully pay its dues to the United Nations.

Ambassador Bolton's appearance before the Senate committee was his first since the panel deadlocked on whether to endorse his nomination. The committee's Democrats, and one Republican, Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, expressed concerns over Ambassador Bolton's temperament and allegations he sought to shape intelligence to conform with the goals of the Bush administration. The full Senate did not act on his nomination, and President Bush bypassed the chamber and appointed him to the post.