UN chief seeks to smooth over 'deadbeat' comment

AP , UNITED NATIONS

Sat, Mar 14, 2009 - Page 7

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday tried to smooth over his criticism of the US after the White House objected to his description of the country as a “deadbeat” because of its late UN payments.

“My point was simply that the United Nations needs the fullest support of its members, and never more so than in these very demanding times,” Ban told reporters at UN headquarters.

Ban used the word “deadbeat” on Wednesday during a private meeting with lawmakers at the Capitol, one day after he met with US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Ban’s “word choice was unfortunate,” given that the US is the world body’s largest contributor.

The US pays 22 percent of the organization’s nearly US$5 billion operating budget, but is perennially late paying its dues in part because of its budget calendar, but also over political issues.

Asked on Thursday whether Ban should retract his comment, Gibbs said some recognition by Ban of the US role would be appropriate.

“I think given the contribution that the American taxpayer makes, I do think it would be appropriate to acknowledge that role,” Gibbs told reporters at his daily briefing.

Ban had gone to the White House at Obama’s invitation on Tuesday, then made the rounds on Wednesday in Washington seeking to improve relations between the UN and its single biggest financial backer.

On Thursday, the UN chief called his choice of words a “misunderstanding.”

“I noted how generous the United States has been in supporting the UN, both in terms of assessed and voluntary contributions. At the same time, I noted that the United States is also the largest debtor, owing more than US$1 billion in arrears, soon to reach US$1.6 billion,” he said.

The US is behind on its payments partly because its budget runs on a different calendar than the UN’s, but also because Congress and previous US administrations have withheld funding to try to push through UN reforms or because of other ideological disputes.

Obama has pledged to change that.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said she took “great umbrage” at Ban’s use of the word “deadbeat” to characterize the US.

During a brief interview in a House office building hallway, Ban acknowledged with a laugh that he had used that term. He said he did it to draw attention to the fact that the UN needs the money.

On Wednesday night, after The Associated Press reported Ban’s remarks to House leaders, the UN chief’s staff issued a similar statement to “clarify” what he said. It also said that Ban “enjoys an excellent working relationship with the United States and appreciates the many ways that it supports the United Nations.”

Ban drew muted support from his meetings in Congress, where members privately described him as dedicated, thoughtful and serious but generating little excitement. Some of the House and Senate leaders who met with Ban agreed with his assessment of the US’ late payments.

“Clearly they have an interest in the United States meeting its responsibility. In terms of peacekeeping, we’re about US$670 million behind, and I think the argument is well-stated,” said Democratic Representative Bill Delahunt, who also sits on the House Foreign Relations Committee and chairs its subcommittee with oversight of the UN.