UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations yesterday criticized a bill proposed to the US Congress to withhold tens of millions of dollars in dues unless the world body reforms, calling it ''counterproductive" to efforts now underway.
The House International Relations Committee, headed by Representative Henry J. Hyde, Republican of Illinois, distributed an early version of the United Nations Reform Act of 2005' this week. It seeks to cut funding for programs seen as useless and to bar human-rights violators from serving on UN human-rights bodies.
The United States is the largest contributor to the UN budget, and the congressional efforts to restrict funding could set the stage for a monetary battle like the one that plunged the UN into financial crisis a decade ago.
One of the bill's most controversial proposals is to link dues to the changes it spells out. The document stipulates that if those changes are not carried out, Congress will withhold 50 percent of US dues to the UN general budget, taking the money from programs it deems wasteful.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the United Nations did not believe that withholding dues was the solution, particularly as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pushes his own vision for an overhaul, unveiled earlier this year.
''The secretary general's position on the use of withholding as a tool for reform is pretty clear," Dujarric said. ''He feels it's counterproductive, particularly at a time when reform is such a primary agenda item. I think the best way for member states to undertake reform is to engage in discussion among themselves."
The 80-page bill has only recently been distributed to Democrats, who are likely to oppose several elements.
At a hearing Thursday on overhauling the UN, Representative Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, also cautioned against using dues to push for change. As the ranking Democrat on Hyde's committee, Lantos's support would be crucial for getting bipartisan support. ''It will be very important for us to resist the powerful temptation to withhold the payment of our dues in an attempt to leverage needed changes at the United Nations," he said.
The proposed changes would shake the UN system at its foundation. The United States pays almost 25 percent of the world body's annual $2 billion general budget. But that money does not include funding for peacekeeping, international tribunals, or programs such as the UN Development Program and UNICEF, which are funded separately.
For many, the move could be reminiscent of the 1990s, when the United States fell millions of dollars behind in its dues, throwing the UN into financial difficulty. The dues were held up because several US lawmakers argued that the payments were excessive and that the UN bureaucracy was bloated.
That earlier crisis also strained ties with other countries. In 1998, the United States almost lost its voting rights in the General Assembly over unpaid dues.
Yet while some missions still oppose the US strategy, others remain open to the idea. They include Japan, which pays more UN dues than any other nation besides the United States.
''I think we, of course, will be very much interested in how the United States would want to do it," said Jun Yamazaki, the minister for budgets of Japan's mission to the UN.
In a separate development yesterday, the United States defended itself against allegations it is not making enough progress toward nuclear disarmament.
''The United States balances its obligations under Article VI [the treaty article on eventual disarmament] with our obligations to maintain our own security and the security of those who depend on us," US Delegate Jackie Sanders said.