U.S. Uses Dues to Push Reform
Like a fed-up parent trying to coerce a child, the United States
frequently uses what means it can to press for changes within
the United Nations: money.
With the United States' $440 million annual dues to the organization
making up about 22 percent of the United Nations' budget, much
is at stake when Congress threatens not to pay.
Congress has withheld a portion of U.S. dues several times over
the last few decades in an effort to shrink the amount of dues
owed in general or to prompt changes within the world body.
In June 2005, the House passed a bill tying the payment of future
dues to the 60-year-old organization to a series of reforms it
wants the United Nations to implement. Among the changes the bill
is pushing for are a restructured U.N. budget, cutbacks in what
the United States considers wasteful spending on conferences and
public information, and stricter standards for membership to human
rights bodies. Under the bill, if the reforms aren't completed
within two years, the United Nations would get only half of the
United States' dues.
The bill's passage by a 221-184 vote came amid strong objections
from Bush administration officials, who argued the move would
interfere with their ability to conduct foreign policy.
A similar, more lenient version of the bill has been introduced
in the Senate, but the upper body has yet to vote on it.
If Congress follows through on the threat, it would renew what
has been a consistent struggle between the legislative body and
the United Nations over the paying of dues.
In the 1990s, as the United States emerged from the Cold War
as the world's sole superpower, Congress frequently withheld significant
portions of American dues. By the end of the decade, the United
States owed more than $1 billion to the organization's general
budget, in addition to hundreds of millions more to its peacekeeping
budget. Mounting political and international pressure to pay the
dues led to an agreement to reduce the American allocation to
the organization in exchange for paying off some of its debt.
The Helms-Biden bill, passed in 1999, allocated repayment of
much of the United States' debt to the organization in exchange
for smaller future payments. The United States' allocation of
the United Nations' general budget fell from 25 percent to 22
percent, a difference of tens of millions of dollars.
By September 2005, the United States still owed $569 million
in past dues to the organization, including some $392 million
to the peacekeeping budget, according to U.N. spokesman Ari Gaitanis.
The United States is not alone in withholding some of its U.N.
dues. In recent years, as many as two-thirds of the United Nations'
191 member states have failed to pay their contributions in full.
The poorest member states pay as little as $20,000 a year in
dues, or .001 percent of the United Nations' $2 billion general
Besides the United States, of the 14 other top contributor countries
to the United Nations, five others were behind in their payments
in fall 2005 -- Japan, Spain, China, Korea and Brazil. Still,
the United States' overall outstanding payments of $560 million
from years past dwarfed the next highest total of $59 million
But this year, at least one country has threatened to follow
the United States' and withhold part of their payment in hopes
of forcing reforms at the world body.
Japan, which is vying for a permanent Security Council seat,
in July 2005 raised the prospect of pushing for a reduction in
how much it pays the United Nations if the country is not granted
a permanent seat on the council, according to an Agence France-Presse
Japan, which sits on one of 10 two-year council seats, pays 19.5
percent of the U.N. budget, second only to the United States.
With or without the threat of non-payment hanging over its head,
the United Nations is feeling the pressure to undergo a series
of reforms and Secretary-General Kofi Annan has proposed many
of the changes that are called for in the House bill passed in
That has led some to criticize the dues threat as potentially
undermining a reform effort that is already underway.
"Nothing could be better calculated to infuriate the rest
of the world and entrench the view that the United States is a
bully rather than a partner in international efforts to address
international problems," Ann Florini, a foreign affairs expert
at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, wrote
in a June editorial.
However, the bill's chief sponsor in the House, Rep. Henry Hyde,
R-Ill., said in June that the threat of withholding dues -- which
he called "radical surgery" -- was necessary to keep
the pressure on the United Nations to reform itself.
"Sometimes that's the only way to save the patient,"
said Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee,
according to the Washington Post.