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US keeps a watchful eye from the sidelines

30 June 1999

Prospects for US re-entry to Unesco brightened last week with the successful passage through the Senate of a bill to authorizing payment of the $1 billion that the US administration owes to the United Nations.

In principle, the United States could renew its membership before the end of the year, if the bill passes unscathed through the House of Representatives when it is introduced there in the autumn - and if the corresponding appropriations committee agree to meeting the financial commitments that it contains - say US officials present here in Budapest.

Ideally, say the officials, the Clinton administration would like the United States to return as quickly as possible, not least to have a direct influence the election for director-general later this year. But officials acknowledge that the process could take longer.

The bill is co-sponsored by Republican senator Jesse Helms and Democrat senator Joe Biden. It is an amended version of a previous bill that was rejected by House Republicans last year. One reason for Republican opposition was their insistence on further UN reform before US arrears are paid.

The new bill attaches harsher conditions on UN agencies than its previous version. A two-year freeze on the budgets for the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Labour Organization is one such condition. "We feel these organizations are bloated, inefficient, and wasteful," say officials.

Another provision in the bill is that the United States will gradually reduce its overall contribution to the United Nations from 25 per cent to 20 per cent. This is partly to encourage additional contributions from other countries - in particular China.

The US delegation, meanwhile, says it is spending a productive time in Budapest, even if as an observer. United Nations meetings tend usually to be fraught affairs for the United States, as it tries - usually in vain - to persuade the rest of the world to come round to its position.

But as the final conference documents have no legal authority, US officials say that they are happy to take more of a back seat during discussions of the drafting group. But that is not to say that the delegation has not made its views known, in particular through Germany's role on the drafting group.

A particular area of concern is the idea that traditional knowledge should be considered as a science, a demand heard from a variety of developing countries. "A lot of it is worthy of respect. But it needs to be studied more - to be scientifically validated." US officials also feel that the plenary debates could have been efficiently organized.

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