The United Nations is coming under sharp criticism in the U.S. Congress where debate is under way on legislation proposing sweeping UN reforms. The Republican-sponsored bill raises the prospect of mandatory reductions in U.S. contributions to the world body:

The U.N. Reform Act of 2005 is backed by a powerful Republican member of the House of Representatives, and is the culmination of years of frustration with the failure of the United Nations to undertake needed reforms in everything from internal management to peacekeeping.

House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, left, talks to Rep. Tom Lantos
The author of the bill, Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, says it is a reaction to scandals such as the one involving the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program, and a recognition that the UN needs outside pressure to change its ways:

"So, the time has finally come where we must, in good conscience, say enough. 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," he said.

Mr. Hyde's "radical surgery" would involve mandatory withholding of up to 50-percent of U.S. dues if reforms are not made on 39 key benchmarks, including areas of organization, budget, and internal accountability, as well as human rights and peacekeeping.

It would make contributions to some key UN bodies voluntary, would declare countries known to be human rights abusers ineligible for membership on the UN Human Rights Commission, and contains steps aimed at eliminating discrimination against Israel in UN bodies. /// END OPT ///

Provisions would also hold back funds for expanded current and future peacekeeping operations, something opponents of the legislation describe as unreasonable and potentially damaging for UN operations around the world.

Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings decried what he calls draconian provisions in the bill. "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 UN is counter-productive," he said.

U.N. officials have told Congress at a recent hearing of Mr. Hyde's committee that withholding funds would hinder a UN reform plan already put forward by Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Congressman Tom Lantos says withholding contributions would tie the hands of the Bush administration pursuing reform at the United Nations, and hurt the UN's ability to take on greater global responsibilities. "The legislation before the Congress micromanages every possible reform at the United Nations. It creates mechanical, arbitrary, and automatic withholdings, and it gives Secretary of State Rice zero flexibility to get the job done," he said.

Among numerous amendments proposed to the bill is one by Mr. Lantos that would make withholding of U.S. funds discretionary, rather than mandatory.

Others involve such things as anti-Semitism at the United Nations, U.S. influence in the Security Council, and UN cooperation with investigations of the Iraq Oil for Food Program. One amendment proposed cutting off U.S. assistance to countries opposing U.S. positions in the General Assembly and Security Council, while yet another proposed a 75 percent cut in U.S. contributions.

The Bush administration, which has had trouble getting a new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (John Bolton) confirmed by the Senate, has big concerns about the House legislation. A senior State Department official, Nicholas Burns, re-stated concern about the legislation saying it would make reform more difficult.

House debate on the U.N. Reform Act also comes on the heels of a report by a congressionally-mandated task force recommending a range of management and other reforms, but also calling U.S. leadership crucial to change.