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Action on U.N. Dues Dismays Envoys

Congress: Vote by House to freeze payment over loss of human rights seat is expected to have limited impact. Blame placed on U.S. policies.


UNITED NATIONS — Diplomats here reacted with dismay Thursday after the House voted to partially freeze payments of American dues to the world body until the U.S. regains a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

"That is not the best way to solve the problem," said Shen Guofang, China's deputy representative. "In the Human Rights Commission, the members are decided by a democratic election. If you are voted off, it is the choice of the member states. It should have nothing to do with contributions."

Stung by the United States' surprise ouster from two U.N. bodies last week, the chamber voted 252 to 165 to withhold $244 million in arrears, despite White House objections. It also voted to restrict U.S. cooperation with the proposed International Criminal Court.

The freeze on dues will have limited impact. In a hard-fought deal finally sealed last year, the U.S. promised to hand over $926 million in long-unpaid dues in three parts. The House vote Thursday released the second and largest chunk of the arrears, $582 million. The $244 million wasn't expected by the U.N. until next year.

House Republicans led an effort to block both payments, while some Democrats wanted to fully repay the arrears.

"It's an acceptable compromise," Richard Holbrooke, ambassador to the U.N. until last January, said of the House vote. Holbrooke spent more than a year brokering the deal.

But the House vote left a sour taste at U.N. headquarters in New York, where many countries believe that the U.S. lost its seats on the rights panel and on a board dealing with international narcotics issues through inattention and arrogance.

"One thing that the U.S. needs to understand is that the founding principle of the U.N. is that all nations are equal and that nothing guarantees them a seat in every body," said a Central American diplomat who requested anonymity. "Nor should they act as if paying their dues is optional."

Diplomats here said the U.S. lost its position on the rights commission in part because of competition. There were four candidates for the three seats open for Western countries this year on the panel, which holds elections for one-third of its positions each year.

But most of the blame, they said, belongs to the U.S. for opposing U.N. measures to limit land mines, protect women and children and create the International Criminal Court. Unilateral moves by the Bush administration to drop out of the Kyoto, Japan, global warming treaty and to develop a missile defense shield alienated some allies.

"By voting them off the commission, we were sending a signal to the U.S. that it cannot do whatever it wants without regard to the international community," said a Latin American delegate who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Not only has the Bush administration not yet replaced Holbrooke, she added, but its nominee for the post, John D. Negroponte, has been criticized for his record as U.S. ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s, when that nation's government was widely seen as abusing human rights.

Since Holbrooke left, the U.S. mission at the world body has been running on a skeleton staff. The team was scrambling until the last minute to confirm votes, passing out fliers and buttonholing members in the race for a seat on the rights panel, a mission official said.

Holbrooke said that, despite appearances, the United States did not lose to Libya or Sudan, countries considered to be among the worst in human rights but that won seats on the commission. Rather, it lost to the European Union, which put up three candidates for the four Western spots.

"That was a strategic mistake," he said. "The U.S. should have pressured either Austria or Sweden to withdraw before the vote."

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