By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008
UNITED NATIONS -- Despite long-standing efforts by successive U.S. administrations to rein in U.N. spending, the United Nations this month presented its top donors with a request for nearly $1.1 billion in additional funds over the next two years -- boosting current U.N. expenses by 25 percent and marking the global body's highest-ever administrative budget, according to internal U.N. memos.
Much of the increased spending flows from Bush administration demands for a more ambitious U.N. role around the world. During President Bush's tenure, the United States has signed off on billions of dollars for U.N. peacekeeping operations in Sudan and elsewhere, and authorized hundreds of millions for U.N. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.N. officials helped organize elections and draft a new constitution.
U.N. administrative costs have more than doubled, to about $2.5 billion a year, since Bush took office, while peacekeeping expenses have increased threefold, with nearly 110,000 peacekeepers in 20 overseas missions at a 2008 cost of about $7 billion.
"This is a breakdown of a 20-year-long effort to rein in U.N. spending," said John R. Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations early in Bush's second term. "What happened in the late part of the Clinton administration, but most spectacularly in the Bush administration, is that the principle of zero nominal growth broke down completely."
That principle required the United Nations to maintain its administrative budget at the same level each year, meeting the costs of inflation through spending cuts.
The additional funds in the latest request would be used to renovate the landmark U.N. headquarters in New York, fund war-crimes investigators in Lebanon and pay $100 million to build a reinforced, attack-resistant U.N. headquarters building in Baghdad. But they would also be used to pay nearly $7 million for a 2009 anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, which Washington believes would serve as a forum to bash Israel.
The United States pays for 22 percent of the U.N. administrative budget and about 27 percent of peacekeeping costs, and it has vowed to press member states and the U.N. Secretariat to seek cost savings. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insists that the organization will have to find savings or live without its new programs. "I want to have a Ferrari, but if I can't afford it I would have to take something else or defer" additional spending, he said. "There have to be trade-offs; there has to be savings from reforms."
During the 1990s, congressionally required budget caps severely restricted the growth of U.N. expenses, and lawmakers enforced fiscal discipline by withholding more than $1 billion in U.S. dues. But administration officials now concede that they have limited leverage, because the bulk of the money in the latest U.N. supplemental request would fund missions and initiatives that Washington either approved or helped create.
On the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Bush spoke before the U.N. General Assembly and challenged the institution to enforce the resolution requiring Saddam Hussein to disarm, suggesting that the institution's reason for being was at stake: "Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?"
Bush sent Bolton to the United Nations as ambassador in August 2005 to cut costs, bring discipline to the sprawling agency and "help the U.N. reform itself to renew its founding promises for the 21st century," as the president put it. Bolton's first act was to negotiate a landmark U.N. reform pact by world leaders that included a new audit board and a U.N. ethics office aimed at improving accountability and oversight over U.N. spending. But such reforms proved expensive, adding more than $100 million in management costs over the next two years. The United States had hoped to defray some of those costs by eliminating other U.N. programs, but the effort was blocked by a group of developing countries.
The cost of managing international crises also spiraled. In August 2006, Bolton helped negotiate a cease-fire agreement to end the Lebanon war between Israel and Hezbollah militants, and approved $700 million a year for a peacekeeping force to help enforce it. Bolton acknowledged that the United States has largely abandoned the key tool it had used to hold down U.N. budgets since the mid-1980s: congressionally driven threats of withholding U.S. dues.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a close ally of the Bush administration, has yielded to U.S. appeals for assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ban recently approved the largest expansion of U.N. activities in Iraq in years, which suffered a blow with the deadly 2003 attack against the U.N. office in Baghdad. The United Nations will spend more than $250 million on Iraq and Afghanistan, a figure that that does not include costly U.N. relief operations for more than 1 million refugees.
At the same time, the United States has agreed to fund many of Ban's preferred initiatives, as well, including expanding the U.N. peacekeeping and political affairs departments, at a cost of tens of millions. Washington has even contributed to U.N. initiatives it disdains, including the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, which the White House has dismissed as soft on despots and biased against Israel.
But the United States has also grown frustrated with Ban's inability to find cost savings. "The special political missions are very important," said a senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "But to date, member states and the U.N. Secretariat itself have not had the political will to prioritize their spending."
Every two years, the secretary general presents the 192-member General Assembly with a budget proposal. The member states traditionally adopt the budget by consensus after making revisions. In response to unforeseen crises, the U.N. membership has previously authorized supplemental funding, but the figures have never approached the sum currently being requested.
In October, Ban told the General Assembly's budget committee that his administrative budget for 2008-2009 represented a modest increase -- half a percentage point -- over the previous budget. "That is not much, considering the demands upon us," he said. But Mark D. Wallace, the U.S. representative to the United Nations for U.N. management and reform, voted against the $4.17 billion budget in December, warning that subsequent supplemental requests would make it "the largest regular budget in the history of the U.N."
The U.N. member states pushed ahead, adopting a budget that excluded nearly $300 million in programs favored by the United States. Those costs are now included in the $1.1 billion U.N. supplemental request.
"This is not the way to do a budget," Khalilzad said.
The U.N. comptroller, Warren Sach of Britain, defended the increases, saying that most of the costs were attributable to reform initiatives approved by Bush and other world leaders and decisions by the U.N. Security Council, where the United States wields veto power. Sach said that more than 10 percent of the supplemental proposal reflected inflation and the costs of running large operations in Europe with a weak U.S. dollar.
"The U.N. Secretariat largely has no control over the level of expenditure requirements," Sach said last month in a confidential memo to Ban's chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar.
Takahiro Shinyo, Japan's deputy ambassador, said that his government will press the U.N. budget committee to slash the latest request and, if necessary, delay approval of some programs until the next budget cycle in 2010. "We are not acquiescing; we are not automatically agreeing," he said. "We will be questioning and proposing ideas for reductions."
Some observers predicted that while the final budget may include cost savings, the vast bulk of it will probably sail through. "As a rule of thumb, they usually get about two-thirds of what they want," said Edward Luck, a historian of the United Nations and adviser to Ban. "Major donors are concerned, but at end of the day, they value what the organization does, and they have a lot of their own priorities they are pushing for in the budget."