UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)--Any day now, as President George W. Bush reviews the new annual budgets, he may finally do the right thing.
After consistently refusing to approve funds for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) since he took office, he may decide to save the lives of thousands of women and children. He can do that by giving the go-ahead to the $34 million that Congress has promised UNFPA each year, beginning in the Clinton administration.
But as the president's decision looms on the $34 million allocation for next year, staffers at UNFPA--which aids the world's most impoverished women--are not holding their breath.
Congress has been approving funds for the UNFPA since the agency was started in 1969, with the expectation their decisions will be honored.
But, while U.S. representatives such as Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) have rightly called UNFPA the "single largest global source of multilateral funding for maternal health and family planning programs," their wishes have been ignored by the Bush administration.
UNFPA estimates the refusal costs in tragic terms: 2 million unwanted pregnancies that lead to 800,000 of the very abortions Bush condemns; 4,700 maternal deaths and 77,000 infants and children who died before they reach age 5.
And this $34 million so-called voluntary contribution is actually pretty small compared to the $1.48 billion voluntary contribution the United States recently gave to the World Food Program, or the $120 million it gave to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
(The U.N.'s 191 member nations pay for the work of the U.N. in two different ways: with these voluntary contributions made to U.N.-related agencies and other bodies, such as the World Bank and World Health Organization, at annual donor meetings. Also, with dues assessed biennially by the U.N. General Assembly of all countries, based on wealth and population.)
Yet the Bush Administration has refused to hand over the $34 million promised to UNFPA every year on grounds that UNFPA supports China's "coercive family planning," that, because of the nation's one-child policy, often leads to abortion and sterilization.
An official at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, who said he could not be named, confirmed that the administration "has no intention of releasing any funds to any recipient that might use them for abortion."
Yet, according to Anika Rahman, president of Americans for UNFPA, which works to promote the organization: "This administration's own team went to China and found that UNFPA has never been engaged in a single act of coercion in China.
"And they have acknowledged that fact," continues Rahman, "but now continue to deny the funds on grounds that--apparently just by working there--UNFPA supports China's 'highly coercive environment.'"
Other aid organizations being hurt by the administration's narrow focus on birth control include the World Health Organization, WHO.
In 2002 the State Department froze some $3 million intended for WHO, following complaints by far-right constituents that WHO conducts research on mifepristone, the "abortion pill."
Yet, just last September, then-president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., Gloria Feldt, contested these complaints in a column published by MaximsNews.com. "No U.S. monies are spent on mifepristone research, but the Bush administration withheld its contribution to WHO as a coercive tool anyway," Feldt wrote.
Other U.S. Arrears
It's not just voluntary contributions where the United States is in arrears.
The U.S. has repeatedly fallen behind in its dues assessed by the General Assembly until now its total owed in combined arrears and current dues is a whopping $1.5 billion, according to semi-monthly U.N. reports on dues and arrears for all 191 countries.
This figure includes dues owed to three major U.N. budgets: to the U.N. regular budget, to the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations and to the international tribunals investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
By wealth and population, according to General Assembly estimates when the United Nations first got going 60 years ago, the United States should pay some 35 percent of the U.N. regular budget, as it did then. But Washington soon negotiated a cap for all countries at 25 percent. Through more recent negotiations, it now pays 22 percent.
Meanwhile, the cost of U.N. dues to individual Americans has never exceeded 25 cents per year, far less than that of a tiny country such as Cape Verde, which each year pays its dues on time, to the tune of $28.92 for every citizen.
It is also well-documented that the U.S. is among a handful of countries reaping most of the profits from U.N. development projects, since the U.S. is one of a handful of industrialized countries that fund such projects and conduct the feasibility studies that define them--and decide who gets the profitable chance to carry them out.
(A few years back, in fact, an enterprising journalist crunched some numbers and determined that, for every $1 the U.S. Government gives to the huge development undertakings of the World Bank, the U.S. private sector gets $10 back.)
Women Pay the Price
Meanwhile, women often pay a high price when member states short these U.N. budgets. A good example is the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping.
As the richest member state, which rarely sends troops to peacekeeping missions but gets to make major decisions about peacekeeping, the U.S. is assessed 27 percent of the total peacekeeping budget, to which its total owed just reached just under $900 million.
"We have found that, if a peacekeeping mission has insufficient funding, forcing the peacekeepers to pull out prematurely, the country relapses back into war within five years," says Comfort Lamptey, gender adviser for department's 'best practices unit.'
"And with that comes crimes against women, whose bodies during any war become the battleground."
And if peace cannot be sustained, adds Lamptey, "it is women who become widowed and are left to raise the children."
Just last week the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, released a new report on sexual violence against women in the war torn Darfur region of Sudan. In the report, the agency's head Louise Arbour calls for the government of Sudan to recognize and end what Arbour calls the "most horrific sexual violence," including "the severest forms of gang rape" by both Sudan's military and the militias creating its civil strife.
For all these reasons, the United States should be upholding all its obligations to the U.N., dues and voluntary contributions alike.
Pat Orvis is a U.N. correspondent who has traveled extensively on assignment in all the developing regions.
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