by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Concerned about an impending confrontation between the United States and other member states over the UN's budget, a group of 20 non-governmental organizations (NGOS) has appealed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to rein in her ambassador, John Bolton, and take a more conciliatory approach.
The groups, which include the U.S. section of Amnesty International, Oxfam America and Citizens for Global Solutions, say Bolton's threats to prevent the world body from adopting the proposed 2006-7 budget by consensus unless it first enacts Washington's reform proposals are counter-productive.
"U.S. negotiating tactics appear to be undermining the opportunity to complete negotiations on and implement more attainable, but equally important, reforms, such as replacing the Human Rights Commission with a Human Rights Council and creating a Peacebuilding Commission," the groups wrote in a letter sent to Rice Thursday.
"Similarly, strategies that threaten to disrupt or delay the biennial budget process, such as Ambassador Bolton's suggestion to adopt a three-month provisional budget, could seriously undercut reform efforts and the United Nations' ability to carry out ongoing, critical activities, like peacekeeping, election facilitation in the Middle East, or earthquake relief missions," the letter stated.
The letter echoed the concerns of senior UN officials who have also warned that a delay in the approval of the organization's budget, which is due no later than the end of this month, will not only further alienate Washington from most other member states, particularly developing countries who make up the Group of 77 (G77), but may also make it much for difficult for the UN to carry out its responsibilities.
"It's a very serious situation," Warren Sach, an assistant secretary-general and the UN's controller, told the New York Times after Bolton first threatened to deny consensus on the budget last month. "It's fragile and creates real problems in terms of the operational capacity of the organization."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned last week if the budget is not approved by the end of the month, the UN will face a "serious financial crisis."
The NGOs' appeal to Rice to intervene in the budget battle comes amid growing tensions between Bolton and the UN secretariat on a range of issues.
On Wednesday, Bolton harshly attacked a statement by the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour that global efforts to ban torture had become a "casualty of the so-called 'war on terrorism.'"
Although Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court judge, did not explicitly refer to the U.S. or reports that it has used methods amounting to torture or inhumane treatment against suspected terrorists, Bolton told reporters that it was "illegitimate and inappropriate for an international civil servant to second-guess the conduct that we're engaged in in the war on terror, with nothing more as evidence than what she reads in the newspapers."
In response, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has voiced increasing exasperation with Bolton in recent weeks, told reporters Thursday that his boss agreed with Arbour's comments and that she would not be "impressed or intimidated" by the U.S. envoy.
On Monday, Bolton had publicly criticized the secretariat's decision to dismiss the UN's top election official, Carina Perelli, for sexual harassment 10 days before next week's Iraqi elections, which Perelli has helped organize.
"When the head of the office responsible for the UN's role in elections is being subject to (removal), at least in press reports, you need to ask the question, 'What effect it will have on the ground in Iraq?"' he said.
And last week, when he called on Annan to put off a planned trip to Asia in order to take part in the budgetary negotiations, the UN chief snapped to reporters that the U.S. envoy "doesn't run my program," although he delayed his trip anyway.
It was precisely these kinds of exchanges that Bolton's critics, who were plentiful, predicted would take place when President George W. Bush first nominated him in early 2005.
His confrontational -- some say bullying -- manner, combined with his radical nationalism and hostility toward multilateral institutions, particularly the UN, ultimately persuaded a near-majority of U.S. senators that he was unfit for the post. As a result, he is the first U.S. ambassador to the world body who failed to be confirmed by the Senate.
Indeed, his political position was so shaky that Rice, who had rejected Vice President Dick Cheney's suggestion that Bolton serve as her deputy secretary, publicly promized to carefully oversee his performance there.
Nonetheless, many observers believe that Bolton is far more inclined to answer to Cheney, as he did as undersecretary of state for Arms Control and International Security during Bush's first term.
In that context, the current controversy over the UN budget, as well as the rising tensions between Bolton and the UN secretariat, raises a key question about whether Rice approves of the policy and Bolton's confrontational tactics and style.
"The State Department had very reasonable goals on UN reform this year until Bolton came on the scene," said Don Kraus, executive vice president of Citizens for Global Solutions. "We need Rice to play a more effective role in this."
Another lobbyist who requested anonymity described the letter as a "wake-up call for people at State."
At the same time, however, right-wing forces in Congress are lining up behind Bolton's demands that the world body accept comprehensive reforms before approving the next two-year budget.
"If the UN doesn't take action, we anticipate the Congress will increasingly involve itself in this issue as well," a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told the Washington Times Thursday in what was clearly a threat to withhold U.S. contributions -- which make up 22 percent of the UN's total operating budget -- unless Washington gets its way.
Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill that required Washington to withhold half of its dues unless the UN implemented 46 specific reforms. While there is no chance that such legislation would be approved before the end of 2005, observers on Capitol Hill are expecting a major campaign by Republicans in both houses to enact something similar next year, particularly if the U.S.-G77 impasse remains unresolved.
The G77, which, when unified, controls a majority of votes in the UN General Assembly, the body that ultimately must approve the budget, has given approval for a number of reforms backed by Washington, including the creation of a new Human Rights Council and Peacebuilding Commission.
That makes Bolton's intransigent stance all the more frustrating for the activists who favour reform. "Threatening to withhold consensus risks putting the low-hanging fruit that is achievable now out of reach," Kraus told IPS. He noted that Bolton's position had even alienated Washington's closest allies, including Britain, which has called for the proposed 3.6 billion dollar budget to be approved this month.
"Previous U.S. reform initiatives included a year-long campaign to promote UN reform and reduce our assessments at the UN," according to the letter, which was also signed by the Center for American Progress, a think tank headed by senior Clinton administration officials, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Refugees International, and the Open Society Policy Center, among others.
"It was through careful diplomacy and the devotion of resources, including bringing additional staff to the U.S. mission, that this goal was accomplished."
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