- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

NEW YORK — The United States this week proposed shutting down the influential office of the U.N. representative in Washington, prompting complaints from some U.N. officials that the move would curtail the organization’s access to Congress.

U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte suggested closing the $1 million-a-year U.N. Information Center (UNIC) at a meeting of the U.N. budget committee Tuesday, one of several proposed cost-cutting measures.

U.N. officials were aghast at the suggestion, saying they had been assured that UNIC-Washington was not to be included in a planned consolidation of information centers around the world.

“Isn’t that a surprise?” Catherine Bertini, the U.N. budget chief, said of the proposal. “They had rolled it around at a junior level, and then said, ‘Oh it’s just an idea; it’s nothing serious.’ I’ll continue to believe that is their position.”

UNIC-Washington, she said, is critical for tracking legislation and briefing congressional staffers and others in the U.S. government and public life on U.N.-related issues.

Other U.N. officials suggested a political motive for the proposed closure.

“The State Department has their own channels, but this is our direct line to brief Congress on all kinds of issues,” said one U.N. official, who asked not to be identified.

“I wonder if that has something to do with it. They have questions about peacekeeping, the budget, specific [geographic] areas or issues. I wonder if they are trying to limit our contact with Congress.”

American conservatives have long been suspicious of the United Nations as an institution, and particularly the General Assembly, which has often served as a forum for criticism by Third World countries of the United States and Israel.

The distrust has eased only partly since former Sen. Jesse Helms, together with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, negotiated a deal in 1999 to pay off back dues to the United Nations in exchange for a package of reforms to U.N. budget and management processes.

American liberals, meanwhile, have championed the organization, with philanthropist Ted Turner in 1997 pledging $1 billion to establish a fund that among other things has served as an advocate for the international organization.

Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, rejected the idea of a political motive, saying that UNIC-Washington is redundant and its closure makes fiscal sense.

“There are 700 people in the Department of Public Information in New York, and we are not sure why there has to be a public-information center in Washington as well,” he said yesterday. “That center is a waste of money.”

But one congressional staffer said he already had heard of resistance to the idea from both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

“If the U.S. is serious about staying in the U.N., to pull the U.N.’s best interface with Congress doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “They’re crucial to getting [key figures] together … because they know who is who.

“We pay, what, 22 percent of a million bucks?” he said.

The Washington office is charged with “ensur[ing] timely and systematic communication exchange with representatives of the U.S. Congress, government agencies and Washington-based research institutions,” among other public-information tasks listed on its Web site.

Until two years ago, the office also maintained an extensive library of U.N. documents for the general public, think tanks and lawmakers. But most of those operations were moved online, said UNIC-Washington Director Catherine O’Neill.

The U.N. Information Center’s operations cost around $1 million annually, including salaries for nine full-time employees and about $270,000 in rent and overhead.

“In all my recent conversations with a wide range of Americans involved with U.S.-U.N. relations, this has never been mentioned,” Mrs. O’Neill said. “We do a jillion briefings for the Hill [and private relief organizations]. If that’s a value, then we’re worth it.”

The United States is the only host government that does not donate office space to a UNIC on its soil, the organization said. Japanese U.N. envoy Toshiharu Tarui said yesterday that his government finds the Tokyo liaison office so important that it underwrites $200,000 a year in expenses.

A decision to close the Washington office would have to be approved by the U.N. General Assembly, which last year agreed to consolidate more than a dozen European UNICs into one, to be based in Brussels.

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