WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United Nations is counting on continued strong financial support from the United States, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday, even as President Barack Obama and Congress negotiate federal budget cuts to try to avoid a government shutdown.
Ban came from U.N. headquarters in New York to tell U.S. lawmakers in Washington that while he was fully aware of the new age of austerity around the globe, “We need to have robust financial support from the United States.”
The U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Susan Rice, took on U.N. critics in Congress who charge that the organization’s budget is opaque, its bureaucracy is bloated and that it uses Israel as a “punching bag”.
“The U.N., we all agree, is far from perfect. But it delivers real results for every American by advancing U.S. security through burden-sharing,” Rice told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
She noted the recent role the world body has played in helping to protect civilians in Libya and Ivory Coast.
Rice warned Congress against proposed changes to the funding of U.N. programs, saying they could end up costing Washington more money if other nations follow suit.
But some Republicans, who have the majority in the House, said they are tired of giving billions of dollars every year under an arrangement that makes the United States responsible more than a fifth of the U.N. budget.
“The fact that right now we are in such an economic crisis and we are expected to pay 22 percent of the budget of the United Nations with no strings attached is an incredible demand on the people of the United States,” Representative Dana Rohrbacher, a Republican, said during the hearing with Rice.
Obama has requested $3.5 billion for U.N. support and peacekeeping missions in fiscal 2012.
Washington pays 22 percent of the core U.N. budget and 25 percent of its peacekeeping costs.
“We’re talking about a lot of money for an organization that uses Israel as a punching bag,” Rohrbacher said, referring to frequent criticism of the key U.S. ally at U.N. bodies such as the Human Rights Council.
The United States has a history of being reluctant to pay its U.N. dues, with U.S. critics accusing the world body of having a sometimes corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy.
But the criticism has been revived just as lawmakers are looking for ways to reduce the U.S. deficit of $1.4 trillion.
The mood in Washington was especially sour on Thursday as attempts by Democrats and Republicans to solve the impasse over this year’s federal budget kept hitting a wall.
Ban met early on Thursday with members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, whose Republican chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a harsh U.N. critic. He then went to visit members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Ban told reporters he had instructed advisers to plan to reduce the U.N. budget by 3 percent. But Ros-Lehtinen scoffed at this during the hearing of her committee, saying it was “like foregoing a cost-of-living increase.”
Ros-Lehtinen plans legislation to change U.S. payments to the United Nations so Washington would choose the programs it wants to fund and ones it does not. Rice said the Obama administration opposed this.
“Treating our bills as an a la carte menu would invite others to follow suit — and would likely lead to greater financial burdens on the United States,” Rice said.
While Washington is the biggest single contributor, Rice noted the rest of the world pays over 75 percent of U.N bills.
As a result, she said, the United States pays a relatively small portion for U.N. missions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan “that are helping to stabilize those countries so we can responsibly bring our troops home.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan and Philip Barbara