Thursday, May 19, 2005

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s chief of staff yesterday acknowledged that scandals involving Iraq, peacekeeping and human rights have hurt the world body, but said any move to freeze or cut U.S. dues would set back the cause of reform.

“The option of withholding money immediately sets you off from all of your allies in this fight,” Mark Malloch Brown, Mr. Annan’s recently appointed chief of staff, told a House International Relations Committee hearing.

“It would be seen as the United States once again acting alone,” he said.

But several lawmakers expressed unhappiness with the United Nations’ cooperation in the Iraq oil-for-food program, a $65 billion humanitarian program that has become the largest financial scandal in the body’s history.

The House committee and a U.N. investigation appointed by Mr. Annan have clashed over access to documents relating to the scandal, in which Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein stole an estimated $10 billion through illegal oil sales and kickbacks.

The U.N. official who ran the oil-for-food program is now accused of profiting from the scandal, and it was later revealed that Mr. Annan’s former chief of staff, who retired in December, had shredded large numbers of files related to the program before leaving.

“We’re getting absolutely no cooperation from the U.N. in getting to the bottom of this, and we are the biggest [contributors] to the U.N. budget,” said Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, noted that Mr. Annan has been in office since 1997, with little to show for his past efforts at reform.

“I don’t think we can [take withholding U.S. dues] off the table,” he said. “Sometimes, it is the only card we have.”

Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, plans to introduce a major U.N. reform bill this year, saying the organization does useful work in dispute mediation, health and other areas.

“But we are opposed to legendary bureaucratization, to political grandstanding, to billions of dollars spent on multitudes of programs with meager results, to the outright misappropriation of funds represented by the emerging scandal regarding the oil-for-food program,” he said.

The United Nations’ main public information office, he noted, employs 754 persons, while its main human rights commission employs just 450.

Mr. Annan earlier this year announced his own reform program, including stronger management and internal controls; an expanded Security Council; and a revamped “Human Rights Council” designed to deny membership to oppressive regimes such as Libya and Cuba.

But Mr. Malloch Brown warned that a lot of the planned reforms would cost money.

The scandal over sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other deployments, he said, arose in part because the missions were put together “on the cheap.” Developing countries contributed poorly trained and poorly led forces, and there were not enough military police and recreational facilities to keep the troops from misbehaving.

“For me, the United Nations is not oversized, over-resourced or undersupervised by its member states,” Mr. Malloch Brown argued.

“From where I sit, the United Nations is currently stretched too thin … to do the job that people and governments around the world want it to do — and have a right to expect it to do.”

Mark P. Lagon, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said there was a “justifiable and healthy skepticism over how much the United Nations can reform itself.”

He said the Bush administration backs many of the structural changes proposed by Mr. Annan, but said the United States was pushing for a number of management and administrative reforms as well.

Among them: a stronger, more independent internal auditing arm; tougher oversight of peacekeeping missions and the United Nations’ smaller agencies; and a U.N. commitment to waive diplomatic immunity for top officials accused of crimes.

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