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Wealthy and Developing Countries Clash Over UN Reform

A showdown is looming at the United Nations between developing countries which make up the majority of the membership and wealthy countries who pay the lion's share of the bills. The issue is U.N. reform, and both sides contend the future of the world body hangs in the balance.

The issue being discussed Monday was how to update a 60-year old organization for the 21st century. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is proposing sweeping changes that would streamline management and give him broader authority over budget and staff.

But that authority would come at the expense of the General Assembly. There, a 133-member group of mostly developing nations known as the G-77 and China holds the balance of power.

The poorer nations argue that the secretary-general's proposals are an attempt to strip them of what little authority they have.

Last week, the G-77, led by South Africa, proposed a resolution asking Mr. Annan to submit a slew of reports outlining his proposals. The United States, Japan and European countries, which together pay more than 80 percent of the U.N. budget, charged that the resolution was a delay tactic.

Monday's debate ended in an agreement to put off a vote on the measure until later this week. But both sides served notice afterward that they have no intention to compromise. British representative Emyr Jones-Parry warned the G-77 not to push wealthy countries too far.

"They should realize we pay 82 percent of the budget, and we're not going to have this sort of imposition on us by the Draconian tactics of the G-77 at the moment," said Emyr Jones-Parry. "If they want to play with fire, they're going to get their fingers burned. That's clear."

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the G-77 proposal could destroy any serious effort to reform the world body, which he lists among his top priorities.

"This resolution would effectively mean the end of management reform and we think that would be a tragic loss for the secretary-general's proposals and for the reforms that we and many others seek," said John Bolton.

Ambassadors from G-77 countries were equally adamant. South African representative Dumisani Kumalo charged that U.N. bashers in Washington and elsewhere were trying to portray the world body as unreformable.

"There is an attempt to paint the UN as a body that's not functioning properly," noted Dumisani Kumalo. "And because there are people out there in Washington and elsewhere who have the view that the UN is dysfunctional, and whatever, so all this is made to sound like, 'Look how dysfunctional it is, they don't support the secretary-general'. We support the secretary-general."

Ambassador Kumalo rejected the idea that countries which pay more should have a larger voice in how the money is spent.

"This is not a corporation, this is not General Motors," he said. "We are all assessed contributions based on our ability to pay. Because the U.S. pays more money and Japan pays more money, that doesn't give them a right to have much more of a decision about how this organization works. "

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking to VOA, called on both sides to sit down and talk in the spirit of compromise.

"I hope the member states realize that we are at a critical stage," said Kofi Annan. "They have serious proposals on the table and I would urge them to put aside their differences and focus on the interests of the organization and come to an agreement on how to move forward."

The reform debate is expected to continue Thursday in the U.N. Budget Committee, but there is a growing concern the two sides are unlikely to bridge their differences anytime soon.