Setting aside concerns about the United Nations' finances, the Security Council voted unanimously today to send 8,950 peacekeepers, 1,640 international police officers and 200 military observers to oversee East Timor's transition to independence.
The creation of the 11,000-strong U.N. Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) comes just three days after the organization established a 6,000-member peacekeeping mission for the West African country of Sierra Leone, where a July agreement ended a brutal civil war. Together, the two missions will more than double the number of U.N. peacekeepers around the world, previously 14,000.
Moreover, shortly after today's vote, the council opened negotiations on yet another peacekeeping mission, this time for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Officials said the world body may send as many as 15,000 peacekeepers to the Central African nation, formerly named Zaire.
The spurt in U.N. peacekeeping comes at a time when the ability to fund such operations is in doubt, largely because of the failure of the United States to pay its debts.
The top U.N. peacekeeping official, Bernard Miyet of France, said the East Timor force could cost from $700 million to $1 billion in its first year. The United States is billed for 31 percent of the cost of all U.N. peacekeeping missions, but Congress has demanded a reduction to 25 percent.
Although the Clinton administration supports the East Timor mission, it has no commitment from Congress to pay the U.S. share.
"This is the right course of action," Peter Burleigh, the deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations, said after the Security Council's unanimous vote. "The international community must help the people of East Timor, first to rebuild their shattered lives and then to construct the institutions that they will need to become an independent state."
The United Nations says Washington owes the world body about $1.62 billion, including $1.1 billion for past peacekeeping operations. The United States says it owes about $1 billion. Legislation to pay the U.S. arrears has been derailed for the past two years by the attachment of antiabortion language, which President Clinton has refused to sign.
In a recent interview, Secretary General Kofi Annan said the United Nations has scraped by because other countries have grudgingly carried Washington's debt. But, he said, the chronic financial crisis is making it difficult to recruit new peacekeepers.
"It creates major problems for us. You cannot take off as efficiently and quickly as you want," the secretary general said. "I've been amazed by the patience and the generosity of troop-contributing countries, some of whom can ill afford in effect to loan money to the United Nations."
Following the council's vote, Annan named Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, 51, as interim governor of East Timor until elections are held, probably within three years.
Annan told reporters that he soon will decide which country will lead the mission, which is to replace an Australian-led multinational force that arrived in East Timor in September. Diplomats said today that Australia, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines are among the front-runners.