by Thalif Deen
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS, -- With a week before a Dec. 31 deadline, the United Nations is in danger of beginning the new year inauspiciously -- without an approved budget and unable to pay staff salaries.
"I am not sure if the light in this room can and will be on," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters Wednesday.
Annan was hinting at an impending financial crisis which could shut down the world body, dimming the lights in the 39-story UN Secretariat, come January.
"I really, really hope that member states understand the implications of a budget crisis and will do everything to avoid it," the secretary-general said at his year-end press conference.
The potential crisis has been sparked by implicit threats by the United States that it will not support the UN's biennial budget for 2006-2007 if member states refuse to back proposals for a radical overhaul of the world body, including management reforms.
Since the budget is traditionally approved by consensus by all 191 member states, a single country can withhold its support, thereby throwing the entire process into disarray.
John Bolton, the abrasive U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has said the UN's biennial budget for 2006-2007 should be shrunk into a three-month budget giving member states a deadline of Mar. 31 to agree to a set of U.S.-inspired reforms.
But the 132-member Group of 77, comprising developing countries, is refusing to conform to artificial deadlines or rush into a decision under threats.
Last month, Bolton warned UN member states, specifically the 132 developing nations, that if they don't play ball with the United States, Washington may look elsewhere to settle international problems.
Addressing a gathering at Wingate University in North Carolina, Bolton said: "Being practical, Americans say that either we need to fix the institution (the United Nations), or we'll turn to some other mechanism to solve international problems."
Last week, Bolton went further when he said that the reform of the United Nations is coming up against a "culture of inaction" among member states.
In an implicit reference to Bolton's aggressive stance, Annan told reporters that the atmosphere at the United Nations these days is a "bit tense." He said that "tempers are high, and there is quite a bit of mistrust."
"There is a sense that they are operating in an atmosphere of threats and intimidation, which some of them say they resent," he added.
"But quite frankly," Annan pointed out, "I think the only choice they have is to sit down and talk honestly and sincerely and frankly to each other, and try and come to an understanding. But they have to put the interest of the Organization first, not narrow interests."
The Group of 77 (G77) says that UN reforms are primarily driven by right wing neo-conservatives in the United States who have made UN-bashing into a fine art.
The G77 has told Annan that it is strongly opposed to the neo-conservative view that the world body should be run like a U.S. corporation, with the secretary-general playing the role of a chief executive officer (CEO).
The proposal to give Annan more powers would correspondingly diminish the authority of the 191-member General Assembly, the highest policy making body in the Organization.
Asked about the deadlock, Annan said: "I know there have been some differences between the G77 and other groups of countries. But I think they all want to see reform and they all want to see the United Nations move ahead. I am hopeful they will be able to come to an understanding and agree on a budget (before the end of December)."
Bolton is also making a strong push for a new Human Rights Council, which is expected to replace the existing UN Commission on Human Rights whose composition has come under fire because some of its traditional members include countries such as Sudan, Libya and Zimbabwe, themselves accused of human rights abuses.
The year-end press conference also turned into a war of words when Annan was pinned down with questions about his family -- all relating to the now-defunct oil-for-food scandal which has triggered charges of fraud and corruption against some UN officials who administered the program.
A question that has kept haunting Annan is how his son Kojo Annan acquired a Mercedes Benz vehicle in Ghana apparently for his own use but avoided paying customs duties by registering it under his father's name.
Asked about this, he said it was part of the report by the Paul Volcker Commission which probed the oil-for-food scandal. "I know you are all obsessed about the car. My son and his lawyers are dealing with it. If you want to know more about it, please direct the questions to his lawyer or to him. I am neither his spokesman nor his lawyer," he said pointedly.
Told that his own version of the story "doesn't really make sense," Annan addressed the reporter, James Bone, directly: "I think you are being very cheeky here."
"No, hold on. Hold on. Listen James Bone. You have been behaving like an overgrown schoolboy in this room for many, many months and years. You are an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession. Please stop misbehaving, and please let's move on to a more serious subject."
Annan's criticism brought a rejoinder from Jim Wurst, president of the UN Correspondents' Association (UNCA): "On behalf of UNCA, I have to tell you that James Bone is not an embarrassment. He's a member in good standing of UNCA. He has every right to ask the question."
But Annan decided to have the last word: "No, I agree with you. He has a right to ask questions, and I came here to answer questions. But I think we also have to understand that we have to treat each other with some respect."
"You have the right to ask all the questions you want to ask. I reserve the right to refuse to answer questions I don't want to answer. But there is a certain behavior and a certain mutual respect we have to respect," he added.
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