US may make UN funds conditional on Israel's treatment

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen: Support for world body must serve US interests and reflect American values.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (photo credit: courtesy)
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
(photo credit: courtesy)
WASHINGTON – Members of Congress threatened to withhold US funding for the UN unless it increased transparency, countered a culture of corruption and reformed its Human Rights Council.
Several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which held a hearing on “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action” on Tuesday, took the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to task for singling out Israel and allowing major human rights abusing nations off the hook.
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“US policy on the United Nations should be based on three fundamental questions: Are we advancing American interests? Are we upholding American values? And are we being responsible stewards of American taxpayer dollars? Unfortunately, right now, the answer to all three questions is ‘No,’” committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) said in her opening statement, read in absentia as a family emergency kept her out of town.
“In the past, Congress has gone along by willingly paying what successive administrations asked for – without enough oversight,” she said.
Ros-Lehtinen announced she would be reintroducing legislation that would make American contributions to the UN budget – which now comprise about 20 percent of the total – voluntary.
The US now contributes more than $6 billion a year to the UN, and Republicans have been keen to cut the budget deficit in a time of financial crisis. Several have pointed to international assistance as a key target.
Ros-Lehtinen particularly objected to the US “paying onefifth of the bills for the UN’s anti- Israel activities, including the UN Human Rights Council, a rogues’ gallery dominated by human rights violators who use it to ignore real abuses and instead attack democratic Israel relentlessly.”
Committee ranking member Howard Berman (D-California) agreed that he was “repelled by these examples of corruption, mismanagement and bias” at the UN, including the rights council’s “obsession with and biased treatment of Israel.”
But he defended the organization for also addressing issues important to US interests, including providing peace-keeping missions, humanitarian aid and sanctions resolutions against Iran.
Berman pushed for engagement with rather than defunding of the UN, and similarly pressed the US to make strong use of its position of the rights council rather than walk away, noting its achievements such as keeping Iran out of the body.
He pressed Hillel Neuer, the head of UN Watch and one of the witnesses at the hearing, on whether the US should leave and defund the UN.
Neuer said that his organization supported the US paying all its dues and taking advantage ofits position on the rights council rather than ignoring it. However, he also criticized the US for not doing more.
Though he said that it can’t stop the deluge of resolutions against Israel, despite its best efforts, he did think that it could use the bully pulpit of the council to draw more attention to abuses.
“We still don’t understand why nothing’s been introduced on Iran,” Neuer said. “With significant diplomacy we could have a resolution on Iran that would pass. It wouldn’t be easy, but why’s it not being introduced?” Peter Yeo, the vice president for public affairs at the United Nations Foundation, who also testified at the hearing, acknowledged there were problems on the rights council.
“Some of the most challenging and serious human rights violations continue to go unaddressed, and the council itself places undue focus on Israel,” he said.
“The UN is not a perfect institution, but it serves a near perfect purpose – to bolster American interests from Africa to the Western Hemisphere [and] promote international peace and stability.”
Yeo said there had been improvements recently in stamping out corruption and working more effectively but warned that America needed to continue its financial contributions to play a role in those efforts.
“Further progress will not happen unless the US is at the table pressing for changes,” he said.
The hearing was held as the UN Security Council considers a resolution that would condemn Israel for settlement activity in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-New York), the presumptive ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East subcommittee, issued a blistering attack on J Street on Tuesday for its conditional support of the resolution.
“After learning of J-Street’s current public call for the Obama administration to not veto a prospective UN Security Council resolution that, under the rubric of concern about settlement activity, would effectively and unjustly place the whole responsibility for the current impasse in the peace process on Israel, and – critically – would give fresh and powerful impetus to the effort to internationally isolate and delegitimize Israel, I’ve come to the conclusion that J Street is not an organization with which I wish to be associated,” Ackerman said in a statement.
“The decision to endorse the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel in the UN Security Council is not the choice of a concerned friend trying to help.
It is rather the befuddled choice of an organization so openminded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out,” he continued.
“America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel. Unfortunately, J Street ain’t it.”
In response to Ackerman’s statement, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said he “deeply regrets and objects” to the congressman’s characterization, which “reflects a misunderstanding of J Street’s position and of the UN resolution in question.”