“With many critical issues looming on the UN agenda –including the possible recognition of a Palestinian state and the continuation of the flawed Durban process – it is absolutely essential that the United States maintain a leadership role in the organization.” – 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: The Future of U.S. Policy”:

I’d like to thank the Chairman for agreeing to schedule this hearing, which will allow the Administration to provide its views on the best approach to UN reform.

We also thank Ambassador Rice for taking the time out of her hectic schedule to be with us today.

Before we get into arguments about where the UN is flawed and where it’s doing good work, I want to remind my colleagues that our discussions here aren’t just theoretical.

Behind every UN office, program and mission, there are real people who have dedicated their lives to feeding the hungry, organizing democratic elections, and keeping the peace.

In the last week alone, over 40 UN staff and contractors have been killed in the line of duty in five different countries around the world.

These include seven that were brutally murdered in Afghanistan, 32 that perished in a plane crash in the Congo, a peacekeeper that was abducted and killed in Darfur, another peacekeeper that was killed in Haiti, as well as a staff member that was killed in the Ivory Coast.

We honor the enormous sacrifices of these brave men and women and send our condolences to their families.

Ambassador Rice, you deserve an enormous amount of credit for your work to pass the most far-reaching Iran sanctions ever approved by the Security Council, and for your efforts to secure UN backing for the no-fly zone in Libya.

We also appreciate the work you have done to promote efficiency, accountability, and transparency at the United Nations.

With many critical issues looming on the UN agenda – including the possible recognition of a Palestinian state and the continuation of the flawed Durban process – it is absolutely essential that the United States maintain a leadership role in the organization.

Yet, our diplomatic standing in New York and Geneva will be dramatically weakened if Congress passes legislation that may soon be considered in this Committee.

By withholding a significant portion of our assessed dues unless a nearly impossible list of conditions is met, this bill would severely hinder our ability to pursue U.S. foreign policy and national security interests, support our allies, and achieve the reforms that both the Chairman and I think are necessary.

On the surface, withholding funds sounds like an attractive option. After all, it’s the approach many in Congress use to encourage changes in the executive branch.

But the UN is not like the executive branch. Like it or not, we are one of 192 Member states, and while we certainly have tremendous leverage over the Security Council and other UN organizations, simply refusing to pay our bills is counterproductive.

The last time Congress forced the U.S. into significant arrears at the UN – an effort led by former Senator Jesse Helms – we lost our seat on the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) – which is the most important UN budget panel.

If the goal of the Helms arrears was to diminish U.S. influence and put genuine UN reform on the back burner, then that goal was achieved beyond their wildest dreams.

If, however, the objective was to foster meaningful reform, then this withholding of dues must be judged a failure.

That point was clearly articulated by former State Department official Terry Miller, one of the Republican witnesses at our previous UN hearing, who testified that “sadly, neither Helms/Biden withholding nor even the long UNESCO withdrawal can be shown to have had much long term impact on the efficiency, effectiveness, or even the integrity of the UN system.”

Ambassador Rice, as the mission in New York gears up for the battles ahead, I look forward to hearing your views on how withholding U.S. dues to the UN would impact our efforts to prevent the recognition of a Palestinian state and pursue other US foreign policy and national security interests.

Unfortunately much of the debate over UN reform has been characterized by dated and sometimes exaggerated allegations such as the “Cash for Kim” scandal.

I agree with Ambassador Mark Wallace – the other Republican witness from the Committee’s last hearing -- who argued that the State Department and Congress need a system of verifiable metrics in order to accurately evaluate the progress of UN reform efforts.

Ambassador Wallace testified the United Nations Transparency and Accountability Initiative (UNTAI) – an effort he spearheaded while serving at the US Mission in New York -- is “a user-friendly way for anyone interested in UN reform, notably many taxpaying Americans, to evaluate the progress being made on key reform issues to ensure that funds were utilized efficiently and effectively for their intended purpose.”

We are constantly told by our friends on the other side of the aisle that the UN is a cesspool of corruption and a money pit for U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Yet based on our review of the data, UNTAI has demonstrated marked improvement among nearly every UN Agency, Program, and Fund.

Why are my friends on the other side of the aisle so eager to bypass and undermine a promising reform effort begun by Republican appointees in the George W. Bush Administration?

Madam Chairman, we agree that much remains to be done to promote greater efficiency, accountability and transparency at the United Nations, and to eliminate the anti-Israel vitriol that all too often emanates from the Human Rights Council and other UN bodies.

But we have a fundamental disagreement about the best means to achieve that reform.

Based on our experience in recent years, I would argue that withholding US dues simply doesn’t work, and that a much better approach is to continue and accelerate the quiet but effective approach to UN reform begun in the previous Administration.

And finally, Ambassador Rice, I would like to reiterate my strong support for the work you and all your colleagues in the Mission in New York have done to promote our foreign policy interests at the UN. Representing the U.S. at the UN can sometimes be a thankless task, but we are grateful to have you there.