H.R. 2829, the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011

Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s full committee mark-up of H.R. 2829, the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011.

This so-called “reform” legislation is being marketed as a way to combat efforts by the Palestinians to gain statehood at the UN and put a stop to some of the other repugnant anti-Israel practices at the world body.

But that’s nothing more than false advertising. Those issues – as important as they are – are just a smokescreen the majority is using to obscure its real agenda.

In fact, the true purpose of the bill is to end US participation in the UN, and in the process, deal a fatal financial blow to the world body.

Title I of the legislation states that the U.S. must withhold 50 percent of our assessed contributions unless the President certifies that at least 80 percent of the entire UN regular budget is funded by voluntary contributions within two years.

All of us know that it would be impossible for the President to make such a certification – among other things, it would require a revision of the UN Charter and a renegotiation of the treaty establishing the UN. It is not going to happen.

Even if the UN Human Rights Council was truly reformed, the Goldstone Report was completely repudiated, and the UN instituted more meaningful audit and oversight disclosure requirements, this bill would still defund the UN if they didn’t adopt an 80% voluntarily funded regular budget.

In July, this Committee voted to slash US contributions to the UN by 25 percent. Why not just have a straight up or down vote on making additional cuts rather than going through this subterfuge?

Madam Chairman, this legislation is premised on the notion that withholding our UN dues can leverage meaningful change at the organization.

But there’s simply no evidence to support that argument.

Previous attempts at withholding did not lead to any significant and lasting reforms – they only succeeded in weakening our diplomatic standing and influence, and undermining efforts to promote transparency, fiscal responsibility and good management practices in the UN system.

For those reasons, the George W. Bush Administration opposed the late Chairman Henry Hyde’s UN bill, which was not nearly as draconian as this legislation.

Madam Chairman, I want to say a few words about the contention that this bill is necessary to prevent the Palestinians from forging ahead with plans to unilaterally declare statehood at the UN or upgrade its membership at various UN entities.

In fact, current law already requires withholding of US funds from any UN entity that grants full membership to the Palestinian Authority.

As we saw last week, this threat of withholding was not particularly effective, as the UNESCO executive board voted 40-4, with 14 abstentions, to submit the question of full Palestinian membership to the full UNESCO membership.

Frankly, I don’t understand the logic of penalizing a UN organization for the votes of its member states. In fact, many of the states that are likely to support unilateral Palestinian moves at the UN would undoubtedly prefer that the US withdraw from the organization, so one could argue that this bill would be rewarding them for bad behavior.

A more effective approach would be to reduce or eliminate U.S. assistance to countries that vote against us at the UN on resolutions that only encourage the Palestinians from circumventing direct negotiations with Israel. This bill contains no such provision.

Madame Chairman, all of us are familiar with flaws and shortcomings of the United Nations.

The anti-Israel vitriol spewed from the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; the Human Rights Council’s obsession with and biased treatment of Israel; and in general, the organization’s overlapping jurisdiction of agencies, duplication of services, and inefficient procurement practices.

But it is also important to recognize that the UN often plays an essential role in supporting American foreign policy and national security interests.

UN peacekeepers separate warring parties and create conditions for reconciliation at a fraction of the cost of deploying the US military.

The World Food Program feeds the victims of famine in the Horn of Africa.

The World Health Organization coordinates international efforts to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

And the UN Security Council has provided the legal basis for putting together a strong international coalition of countries determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability – a critical issue that we will discuss at tomorrow’s hearing.

Madam Chairman, I agree with you that we need to keep the pressure on the UN to ensure that US tax dollars are spent wisely.

But trying to ram through this partisan piece of legislation is not the way to do it.

I urge my colleagues to reject this extreme and counterproductive bill, and to support the substitute amendment I am offering.

My substitute acknowledges the simple reality that Congress cannot legislate change at the UN like we can in the Executive Branch.

Instead, it seeks to provide direction to and strengthen the Administration’s ability to push for greater transparency, accountability, and ethical standards at the UN.

It would do this by enshrining in law the State Department’s UN Transparency and Accountability Initiative – originally conceived by former U.S. Ambassador for UN Management Reform, Mark Wallace, a George W. Bush Administration appointee – which will strengthen our ability to monitor the UN’s progress on management reform.

It would also mandate rigorous reviews and monitoring programs for various peacekeeping efforts, and make it the policy of the United States to work with the UN to institute a number of needed management reforms.

My amendment will not get the US out of the UN, but it would be a far more effective tool for promoting real reform and countering anti-Israel bias in the UN.

I urge my colleagues to support the substitute and defeat the underlying bill.