“Any honest assessment of the United Nations would have to conclude that the organization, very far from perfect, plays an important and often essential role in supporting U.S. foreign policy and national security interests.” – Congressman Howard L. Berman

Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s committee hearing entitled “Reforming the United Nations: Lessons Learned”

Madam Chairman, I’d like to thank you for calling this hearing today, and our witnesses for agreeing to appear before the Committee.

As I noted at our previous hearing on this subject, the flaws, shortcoming and outrages of the United Nations both past and present are numerous and sometimes flagrant.

The Human Rights Council’s obsession with and biased treatment of Israel, the failure to adequately resource the Office of Internal Oversight Services, contracting scandals, and lax management standards which have allowed taxpayer dollars to be squandered should anger Members of this Committee, Republican and Democratic alike.

But these problems, while serious, don’t even begin to tell the whole story.

Any honest assessment of the United Nations would have to conclude that the organization, very far from perfect, plays an important and often essential role in supporting U.S. foreign policy and national security interests.

From UNDP’s work organizing the recent referendum in Sudan, to UNHCR’s efforts to protect and resettle refugees fleeing the violence in Libya, to the Security Council resolution imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, the UN serves as a force multiplier for U.S. interests.

So what should we do to address the UN’s shortcomings?

Some continue to propose withholding dues as a way to leverage change at the UN.

But the fact is, previous attempts to withhold dues simply haven’t produced necessary reforms – and certainly not on the scale of those achieved over the past six years through constructive engagement, like the creation of the UN Ethics office or the Independent Audit Advisory Committee.

Instead, witholdings severely weakened our diplomatic standing and made it much more difficult to achieve positive change.

For just that reason, the George W. Bush Administration strongly opposed a bill authored by our late colleague Henry Hyde that would have resulted in new withholdings.

In a Statement of Administration Policy dated June 16, 2005, they said the legislation would, “detract from and undermine” their efforts to pursue UN reform.

Apparently, even the threat of withholdings isn’t enough for many in this body.

Two weeks ago, when the House debated the Republican continuing resolution, 177 Members voted for an amendment to prohibit the use of any funds to pay our assessed dues.

In effect, that was a vote to withdraw from the UN.

I wasn’t aware that the slogan -- “Get the US out of the UN” – was still such a popular one in this country.

Others have argued that all of our contributions to the UN should be voluntary.

I note with some irony that the advocates of this approach are often the same ones who then support slashing our voluntary contributions to UN agencies – so is this just another guise for withdrawal?

Unilaterally moving to a system of all voluntary contributions would also violate our international treaty obligations.

I’m pleased that we have two former senior-level Bush Administration officials appearing before the Committee today.

In their prepared testimony, both of them are highly critical of the rapid growth in UN budgets, which began at just about the time President Bush took office.

Let me offer two possible explanations for this growth.

First, the UN budget – like our federal budget – grew rapidly in the years after 9/11, as the UN was asked by the Bush Administration to assume more responsibilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.

And second, during the previous Administration we also saw the largest proliferation of peacekeeping missions in the UN’s history – all of them approved by the US and the other permanent members of the Security Council.

These are some important issues worth examining – in contrast to the old allegations about UNDP operations in North Korea, which Mr. Wallace intends to raise.

Those allegations were examined in excruciating detail by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, as well as a US-backed independent panel.

While both investigations concluded that UNDP should improve management and accountability, neither found evidence to support spectacular allegations that the organization funneled vast sums of money to the regime in Pyongyang.

By recycling discredited old rumors, we diminish our own credibility and miss a valuable opportunity to work in a constructive way to repair what we all agree is a flawed system

Madam Chairman, since we are here to discuss the subject of UN reform, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect for a moment on the UN’s response to the political upheaval in the Middle East.

Two days ago, we heard from Secretary Clinton about the response of the US and the international community to the crisis in Libya. In fact, she had just arrived back in Washington from Geneva, where she addressed the Human Rights Council at the opening of its March session.

As we all know, the anti-Israel vitriol that all too often emanates from the Council and the membership of serious human rights offenders on the Council has been a deep stain on the UN’s reputation.

That said, the Council’s unprecedented special session last Friday on Libya, along with the General Assembly’s unanimous decision to remove Libya from the Council, demonstrates that the Administration’s strategy of engagement in Geneva has borne fruit.

I am also very encouraged by Secretary Clinton’s determination to put Iran’s reprehensible human rights record on the Council’s agenda this month.

It’s worth noting that even Hillel Neur of UN Watch, one of the strongest and most informed critics of the Human Rights Council, and a witness called by the Majority at our previous hearing, does not support withdrawing from or withholding dues to the Council.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on ways that we can constructively promote reform at the United Nations, recognizing the importance of the institution to U.S. foreign policy and national security.