By The Hill Staff - 01/23/11 10:22 PM EST
A key House Republican is quickly pressing forward with her goals to scale back U.S. funding for the United Nations.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill that oversight would be a key function of the panel, particularly funding to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) that is "a waste of taxpayer dollars."
Supporters of continued U.S. support of and participation on the HRC say that it's essential that Washington have leverage on the panel, renowned for including countries that have their own records of human-rights violations.
On Tuesday, Ros-Lehtinen will host a panel of U.N. critics and advocates that was originally scheduled for the week that the House suspended most activity in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
The 10 a.m. briefing before the full committee is titled, "The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action."
One of those scheduled to testify, Peter Yeo, represents the United Nations Foundation/Better World Campaign, which at the start of President Obama's term urged the commander in chief to "mount a campaign" to secure a place on the HRC, which the Bush administration had boycotted.
"Support of our UN commitments is more than an obligation, it is a smart investment in America’s strategic, economic and political interests," Yeo told The Hill. "Continued American engagement and diplomacy at the UN will only advance our goals for democracy, human rights and world prosperity."
U.N. critics set to appear include Claudia Rosett, who unveiled the oil-for-food scandal in 2004 and 2005 in The Wall Street Journal; Brett Schaefer, who regularly takes on the U.N. at the conservative Heritage Foundation; and Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based UN Watch, which monitors the controversial HRC.
Neuer told The Hill that UN Watch is going to release new data at the briefing on how the HRC has been run since then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan dissolved the Human Rights Commission in 2006. Annan called the commission "politicized" at the time, but the commission's replacement, the HRC, has attracted many critics as well.
"We will commend the efforts of the U.S. delegation here in Geneva, including [Ambassador] Eileen Donohoe" in briefing the Foreign Affairs Committee, Neuer said, saying the team is "working hard to minimize the damage of the council," but is often in the minority to powerful, controversial members such as Libya, Cuba, China, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
"They're the ones who run the shop," he said, adding of Obama's initiative to place a U.S. representative on the council with the intention of reforming from within that it was "naive for anyone to have thought it would change significantly."
Ros-Lehtinen, one of many lawmakers critical of Obama for that 2009 decision, led the charge against the United Nations in the 111th Congress, introducing bills urging transparency and accountability as well as the withholding of funding.
But the first bill in this Congress taking on the U.N., introduced on the first day the House was in session, came from a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, not from Ros-Lehtinen's panel.
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) introduced a measure to ensure that no federal funds may be used for the "design, renovation, construction, or rental of any headquarters for the United Nations in any location in the United States" unless Obama "transmits to Congress a certification that the United Nations has adopted internationally recognized best practices in contracting and procurement."
“During the Bush administration, it was learned from internal U.N. auditors that 43 percent of $1.4 billion in procurement contracts investigated involved fraud," Stearns said in a statement to The Hill.
"In addition, U.N. peacekeeping operations are plagued with numerous cases of abuse and sexual exploitation," he added. "The U.N. is in desperate need of reform from top to bottom, and my bill is designed to have the world body take the simple step of adopting internationally recognized best practices in contracting and procurement, which includes taking the bid representing the best value.”
The U.N. is also included in a broad-reaching budget-slashing bill by Ways and Means Committee member Kevin Brady (R-Texas).
The Cut Unsustainable and Top-Heavy Spending Act of 2011, introduced Jan. 7, calls for a 10 percent reduction in voluntary contributions to the United Nations -- monies the U.S. is not required to give by law -- for fiscal year 2011.
Total U.S. contributions to the U.N. system were more than $6.347 billion in FY 2009, an all-time high. Brady said his bill targets $3.5 billion in voluntary funds, slashing that in line with the recommendation of the president's deficit-reduction commission.
"There are constituencies for every spending item in the federal budget, but I believe there can be no sacred cows if Congress is to prove itself to be serious about reducing our deficit," Brady told The Hill, adding he thinks the proposals should attract bipartisan support.
"America can fulfill its generous financial obligations to the U.N., but will set priorities within the voluntary funding areas," he said. "A financially and economically sound United States is in the U.N.’s best interest."
Ros-Lehtinen sounded another warning shot at the U.N. on Friday, criticizing the "irony" of the director of the investigations division of the U.N.’s internal oversight office, Michael Dudley, being investigated for retaliating against whistleblowers.
"The fact that the U.S. continues to contribute billions of taxpayer dollars every year to an unaccountable, unreformed U.N. is no laughing matter," she said in a statement. “These allegations reinforce the need for expanded and effective oversight of the U.N. Next week, our committee will lead the way by holding the first of several briefings and hearings on UN reform."
Also addressing the committee at the briefing will be former federal prosecutor Robert Appleton, who headed the U.N.’s Procurement Task Force and whose nomination to the position currently held by Dudley in an acting capacity was blocked by the U.N. Secretariat.
Neuer said he'll be advocating at the briefing that the U.S. use its position on the U.N. Human Rights Council to take advantage of the tools at its disposal to call out offenders.
Over the past five years, the council has produced about 45 resolutions, he said, 35 which are "one-sided measures against Israel."
"One of the most significant tools has been used to wallop Israel over the head and not to promote peace," Neuer said, lamenting that the U.S. and allied nations haven't pulled together to trigger emergency sessions on crises such as the crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Iran or abuses against Tibetans or Uighurs by China.
As to why the U.S. hasn't acted in that capacity at the council, "I know there's political answers to that but I don't know the human rights answers to that," he said.
This story was updated at 10:15 a.m.