A breakthrough agreement to deploy a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur risks being undermined by a shortfall of up to US$1 billion in US contributions to the costs of global peacekeeping, campaigners said on Monday.
A UN delegation announced on Sunday that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had agreed at talks in Khartoum to allow the deployment of a 20,000-strong UN and African Union hybrid force by next year.
The deal ended months of wrangling and followed a direct threat by US President George W. Bush to impose additional sanctions on the Sudanese government.
At least 200,000 people have died in Darfur, in western Sudan, and an estimated 2.5 million have been displaced, since fighting between government-backed militias and rebel forces erupted in 2003.
Diplomats who attended the Khartoum talks said they expected the new Darfur force under UN command would be paid for from the UN peacekeeping budget.
But former Colorado senator Timothy Wirth, president of the UN Foundation, warned Congress last week that the proposed Darfur deployment, and other current or future UN operations, were being jeopardized by mounting US debts.
"As of June 2007 the US was US$569 million in permanent arrears to the UN for UN peacekeeping," Wirth said.
"The administration's budget request for the UN peacekeeping account for fiscal year 2008 [beginning in October this year] was found to be short by an additional estimated US$500 million," he said.
"If this is left unaddressed, US arrears to the UN will exceed US$1 billion by the end of 2007 for peacekeeping alone," Wirth said.
Deborah Derrick, executive director of the Better World Campaign, said the new Darfur agreement was being threatened by the Bush administration's failure to pay its dues.
"If the plan is to put pressure on Sudan's government but the US is unwilling to back it up, it absolutely undermines the credibility of the whole operation," Derrick said.
Public pressure on the government to pay was growing, she added. More than 32,000 people from all 50 US states had signed an online petition calling on Congress to pay its UN dues at www.priceofpeace.org.
A state department spokesman said last week that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice regarded paying off US peacekeeping debts as "one of her highest priorities over the next couple of years."
But Derrick said that when administration officials were asked when the cash would be handed over, "they look at their toes and say nothing."
Wirth said persistent US debts sat uncomfortably with the Bush administration's growing enthusiasm for UN peacekeeping missions, such as that launched on the Israel-Lebanon border last year and another that the US is proposing in Somalia.
More UN peacekeepers than ever before -- in excess of 80,000 -- were deployed globally last year, a study by the Center on International Cooperation at New York University said.
"The event you can probably most anticipate is the phase-out of the US presence in Iraq," Wirth said.
The White House would soon be asking for a UN mission to Baghdad, too, he said.
He also noted that developing countries, which provide the majority of peacekeeping troops, were footing the bill for richer countries."
"Bangladesh holds a US$77 million unpaid invoice because donor nations, the US in particular, are not paying their bills in full," he said.
A new global survey published by Foreign Policy magazine has underlined how high the stakes are. It named Sudan as the country most likely to become a failed state if internal conflict and deteriorating conditions were not halted.
Seven other sub-Saharan African countries are placed among the 10 most vulnerable states.
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