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Bipartisan panel calls for UN overhaul

New human rights council urged; vote set on denying dues

WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan congressional panel called yesterday for an overhaul of the scandal-plagued United Nations, including the creation of a special body to investigate corruption as well as the abolition of the existing UN Human Rights Commission, which has included member states accused of rights abuses.

In a report released to lawmakers, the panel criticized the UN as lacking oversight, accountability, and professional ethics. But it praised the world body's potential to promote peace and democracy across the globe.

''Institutional reform of the United Nations is not a favor to the United States. It is a vital aspect of the continued integrity and vitality of the UN," said former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell, one of two cochairmen of the panel along with former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Congress, which created the task force in 2004, is preparing to send a much blunter message to the UN. The House is expected today to approve legislation that would withhold half of the US dues owed to the UN if it does not undertake reforms. The United States, the largest financial contributor to the UN, pays about 22 percent of the annual $2 billion general budget.

At the same time, Senate Republicans continue to push for the confirmation of John Bolton as UN ambassador. Critics of both efforts say they would alienate other countries.

''This is the problem you have: The Republicans in elected office know that you will be popular in this country if you come out against the UN," said Lawrence Korb, a Republican and former Reagan administration Defense Department official. Congress's effort to force changes at the UN ''does send the wrong signal -- that it's either my way or the highway," Korb said.

The Bush administration told Congress yesterday that it opposes the bill that would withhold UN dues. The bipartisan chairmen of the Task Force on the United Nations said such a move would aggravate international relations and perhaps delay needed reforms.

The UN has come under attack for alleged corruption in the $64 billion oil-for-food program, which was meant to help provide basic needs to the Iraqi people while they were under the rule of Saddam Hussein. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has been drawn into the scandal, with evidence surfacing this week that he may have known more than he acknowledged about a multimillion-dollar oil-for-food program contract awarded to a company that employed Annan's son.

International officials are also outraged over charges of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in Africa, and the organization's Human Rights Commission has been ridiculed for allowing nondemocratic member states, such as Libya, to be on the panel.

The rights panel's ''reputation is in shambles," Gingrich said. The task force recommended that the UN disband the current commission and replace it with a Human Rights Council whose members are democracies dedicated to protecting human rights.

The task force did not specify which countries would be considered eligible for membership. Such nations as Pakistan and Uzbekistan, for example, have been criticized by human rights activists, but have strategic importance to the United States. Gingrich indicated he did not think either country met the appropriate standards for human rights.

The 12-member task force, which also includes academic scholars, recommended that the United States provide immediate support for efforts to halt genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, including financial help and the establishment of a ''no-fly" zone over the area. It also called on the United States to demand explanations from countries with an ''absolutist doctrine of nonintervention" of why they refuse to stop mass killings.

A spokesman for Annan, Fred Eckhard, said the UN chief agreed with many parts of the report. Annan ''believes that the task force's call for a US commitment to work with other member states and the UN staff is the best basis on which to pursue and achieve lasting reform," Eckhard said.

But Congress has been impatient with the pace of what lawmakers in both parties say is critically needed reform. Republican leaders are demanding stronger action.

Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, said he may schedule another vote today on Bolton, and accused Democrats of obstructionism in holding up confirmation of the embattled nominee.

House Republicans say they have the votes to pass a bill today that includes the potential loss of US dues if the UN does not make changes. Also, the newly created International Relations subcommittee on oversight has made investigating the UN its primary mission, holding hearings on the oil-for-food program.

''I'm in favor of the UN, but it's been hijacked by rogue nations, pariah states that use it to beat up on the United States," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida.

Representative William Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts and ranking member on the International Relations oversight panel, said the bill would reinforce an image of the United States as arrogant and bullying. Senator George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio, said that message sent by the House legislation would be reinforced if Bolton is confirmed.

''There is a sense that reform is long overdue. This is not the way to achieve it," Delahunt said. ''This is about appealing to the [GOP] base."

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