Commentary

The United Nations Debt: Who Owes Whom?

By Cliff Kincaid
June 15, 1998

Last month it was revealed that the Clinton administration had sent $200,000 to the United Nations as “seed money” to help the UN put together a “standby” peacekeeping army. Your elected representatives didn’t vote to spend the money that way. It wasn’t money set aside by Congress for UN peacekeeping support. Rather, the White House “reprogrammed” money that had been appropriated by Congress for another purpose.

Furthermore, the contribution wasn’t even credited against the billion-dollar “debt” that the United States supposedly owes the United Nations. In fact, it’s just one of the many instances in which the Clinton administration has diverted billions of dollars from various federal agencies, especially the Department of Defense, to the UN. And virtually none of this support has been credited against the alleged U.S. debt.

Despite the fact that news articles routinely discuss the U.S. debt to the United Nations, no such debt exists. Assertions about this nonexistent debt ignore the billions of dollars of military and other assistance that has been provided to the world organization but neither properly credited nor reimbursed to the United States; they divert attention from the administration’s policy of providing resources, personnel and equipment to the UN without the approval of Congress.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), a member of the House National Security Committee, is doing his best to end this diversion of taxpayer money. Thanks to his work, Congress is now fully aware of administration attempts to usurp the legislative branch’s constitutional role. Bartlett wants to prevent payment of any “debt” to the UN until all U.S. assistance to the world body is accounted for in the U.S.-UN financial relationship. He also wants the administration to quit the practice of providing the UN “voluntary” assistance worth billions of dollars without congressional approval.


The United States paid more than $11 billion for international peacekeeping efforts between 1992 and 1997.


The Clinton administration insists that Congress has an obligation to pay most — but not all — of the money the UN demands. It says the figure is close to $1 billion. True, Congress has withheld some money from the UN: some members believe we are being overcharged, and others want to force UN reform. But it’s also true that the administration has been diverting additional billions of dollars to assist the UN without asking it to credit them against our “dues.”

Bartlett cites a Congressional Research Service report that found that the United States paid more than $11 billion for international peacekeeping efforts between 1992 and 1997. Although the report didn’t specify how much of that money had been counted as U.S. “dues” to the UN, the figure could be as low as $1.8 billion. That leaves about $9 billion worth of what the administration calls “voluntary” international peacekeeping assistance. But the $9 billion only covers assistance provided by the Department of Defense. Other federal agencies have also been ordered by the administration to support the UN, bringing the sum of uncredited payments to perhaps $15 billion.

The $1.8 billion figure counted as U.S. “dues” to the world body derives from a 1996 General Accounting Office report on U.S. costs in support of UN-authorized “peace operations” in places like Haiti, Somalia and Rwanda during the previous three years. The figure represents the State Department’s share of the costs of those operations. That is the budget from which the U.S. share of UN peacekeeping operations has traditionally been funded. Overall, the GAO found that the costs reported by U.S. government agencies for support of UN operations in those areas of the world was over $6.6 billion and that the UN had reimbursed the U.S. $79.4 million “for some of these costs.” That leaves about $4.8 billion in what the administration calls “voluntary” assistance to the world body.

By refusing to pay the UN “debt,” Congress would not only put a stop to the improper if not illegal practice of misappropriating funds to the UN; it would also acquire additional leverage for forcing tough reforms on that body. The latest UN scandal, uncovered by the New Yorker magazine, is that in 1994 Secretary General Kofi Annan, then director of peacekeeping, ordered UN troops in Rwanda not to intervene to stop a planned genocide campaign that took half a million lives. Annan, a veteran UN bureaucrat, has reacted to the controversy over his role in the genocide by blaming the United States for not doing more to save lives. It appears that much of our “voluntary” assistance to the UN for peacekeeping missions has been wasted.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson insists that if Congress demands reimbursement or credit for all of this assistance, the UN might go bankrupt. In fact, the organization has accumulated a $15.5 billion pension fund; it even continues to pay a $102,000 annual pension to former secretary general Kurt Waldheim, who was exposed as a Nazi war criminal.

The United Nations won’t go broke. Whether it should is another question.

Cliff Kincaid, a veteran journalist, is author of “The United Nations Debt: Who Owes Whom?” recently published by the Cato Institute.