- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

NEW YORK U.N. diplomats, for the first time in nearly three decades, will sit down today to reconsider the allocation of peacekeeping costs with an eye to reducing the American contribution.

The discussion which will likely last until the General Assembly adjourns in December was called by the United States in order to have the assessments more accurately reflect each nation's ability to pay.

"This is a giant step forward on fulfillment of Helms-Biden," U.S. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke said, in reference to the agreement that cleared the way for payment of U.S. arrears in exchange for U.N. reforms.

"The battle to revise the peacekeeping budget, for the first time in 27 years, begins tomorrow," added the ambassador, who was sent to New York with a mandate to push for U.N. reform.

Several diplomats expressed doubts that the world body will act this year on a proposed new scale of payments that more closely follows contributions to the regular U.N. budget.

But the fact that they are even discussing the issue is a tribute to U.S. perseverance and a sign of a springtime in U.S.-U.N. relations, one diplomat said. "The committee has refused to discuss this for at least the last five years," he noted.

The United States is now billed nearly one-third of all peacekeeping costs, a burden Washington is no longer willing to carry. But reducing the U.S. share of the $2 billion budget means increasing the cost to other countries a complicated prospect even given the widespread agreement that the formula needs to be updated.

Two nations, Israel and Hungary, are expected to announce today that they will voluntarily give up deep 80-percent discounts on their peacekeeping assessments that are based on the state of their economies in 1973, The Washington Times has learned.

Other nations, however, will be very reluctant to see their assessments increased.

Donald Hays, the U.S. point man on U.N. budget reform efforts, said the current peacekeeping scheme was "frozen in stasis." He said in an interview last week that 30 countries are paying 98 percent of that budget, while 158 nations pay only 2 percent.

"And that's regardless of economic performance," he said.

U.N. peacekeeping missions were originally funded from the world body's regular budget. But starting in 1973, with a mission to monitor the Israel-Egypt truce in the Sinai, the costs of peacekeeping began swinging too wildly for bureaucrats to predict.

The United States agreed to pay 31 percent of the Sinai mission, and the rest was apportioned on the basis of ability to pay at that time, with some nations receiving discounts of up to 90 percent.

The scale stuck.

"It was never supposed to be permanent. The United States is right to change the scale," acknowledged one member of the Fifth Committee, which considers management and budgetary questions. "I have advised my own government that it will have to, and should in fact, pay considerably more … than we are right now."

The United States is proposing an assessment system that does not explicitly place a ceiling on U.S. contributions, but more accurately reflects a country's capacity to pay by evaluating per capita income and other indicators at intervals of no more than three years.

American diplomats expect the scale to be tied to a similarly revised scale of payments to the regular budget, where the U.S. assessment is 25 percent of the total. The United States accounts for about 27 percent of the world's gross domestic product.

U.S. ambassadors have tried to sell such a plan to the United Nations for the last decade. But this year, for the first time, more than 30 nations have agreed at least to open discussions.

Diplomats from around the world acknowledge that it is in the organization's interest to modernize the scale. But there is little consensus beyond that.

"Just because we are willing to listen, it should not be construed that we, or many others, are willing to pay more," said an envoy from one Asian nation whose economy has improved in recent years.

In 1996 Congress unilaterally decided to cap U.S. payments to the United Nations, with the accumulating difference making up the bulk of U.S. arrears.

But member states have been reluctant to even discuss a change until the United States pays the back dues.

Washington last year agreed to a three-year plan, crafted by Sens. Jesse Helms and Joseph R. Biden Jr., to pay much of the $1.3 billion the organization claims it is owed.

The Helms-Biden law will pay out $548 million this year, but only if U.S. dues are capped at 22 percent for the regular budget and 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget.

"The key to unlocking that money is to make progress on reform of the scale," said Mr. Hays.

Under the U.S. proposal, most developing nations would not pay any more than the token amount they pay now. The burden will be taken up by mainly by nations that have seen their fortunes improve over the last 30 years, such as Mexico, Poland, South Korea and Oman.

The so-called Group of 77, actually a pivotal block of 133 nations, always opposes efforts to increase its obligations. But, apparently torn between the urgent need for peacekeeping in Africa and their own self-interest, members have been unable to agree on a common position for today's meeting.

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