AT the United Nations, questions about who is going to keep the peace resurface. As coffers dry up due to non-payment of dues by at least one-third of its member states, the UN’s ability to maintain its workforce and help keep world peace is at risk.
The other day, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the UN was “facing its ‘worst cash crisis’ in nearly a decade because 64 of its 193 members have not paid their annual dues, including the United States, its largest contributor.” The US funds 22 percent of the total UN General Assembly budget and 28 percent for peacekeeping.
The US owes the international organization $674 million for the 2019 regular budget and $381 million for previous regular budgets, UN sources say. “It is also in arrears in payments for the separate budget for the UN’s far-flung peacekeeping operations. It owes $255 million for peacekeeping missions that have been closed and $2 billion for active peacekeeping missions.” Israel, Brazil, Iran, Mexico, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Uruguay, among others, are also in arrears.
The immediate impact, unless the defaulting members pay up, is that funds for payment of salaries for UN Secretariat personnel, numbering around 37,000 worldwide, will be unavailable by next month. The UN said further that conferences and meetings might have to be either postponed or canceled.
But probably of greater concern is how the UN can keep maintaining its peacekeeping operations. Countries like the Philippines that send peacekeeping troops to troubled areas are supposed to be reimbursed by the UN for their expenses, but lately these payments have become problematic.
This is not the first time that contentious issues have marred the UN’s budgeting process, especially where the US is concerned. US President Donald Trump complains that the US pays an unfairly large amount of dues, in relation to other countries, that is. Many Americans, then and now, share his views.
In the 1980s, the Clinton administration enacted a law that capped US share of the UN peacekeeping budget at 25 percent. Because the assessed rate for the US was higher than the unilaterally set limit, arrears in hundreds of millions of dollars accumulated. The cap was eventually raised by the Bush and Obama administrations.
Even then, in 2006, the US demanded a vote on the approval of the UN budget. Up to that point, this has not happened at the General Assembly. Approval of the budget used to go through a more diplomatic process of consensus.
Trump’s position reverts to the Clinton formula. He told the General Assembly in 2018: “The United States is committed to making the United Nations more effective and accountable. As part of our reform effort, I have told our negotiators that the United States will not pay more than 25 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget.”
While the UN charter has sufficient devices by which grievances of member states can be addressed, the standoff appears to rationalize non-payment, or at least delays in payment, of dues altogether. It may not only be about assessment of dues, however. The likes of Trump have questioned the mandate of the world body and the way it is carrying out that mandate. He has withdrawn from the UN Arms Treaty and UN Human Rights Council over resolutions antagonizing Israel. Irked by threats of investigation over allegations of human rights violations in his government’s deadly drug war, President Rodrigo Duterte has responded by withdrawing from the UN International Criminal Court.
As disputes reach to a point where lives depend on cash, people have come forward to express their views with their wallets.
This gives us occasion to reflect on how the UN came into being in the first place. In 1939, world leaders lost their collective wits, driving their respective countries to a global conflict (yet again) — known as World War 2 — that claimed the lives of an estimated 85 million combatants and civilians. Indirect casualties from ensuing genocides and various diseases of pandemic proportions numbered up to 100 million more.
In 1942, with the world still reeling from the devastation brought about by the war, the “victorious” countries led by the Big Four (the US, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and China), established the UN. Their aim was, primarily, to arrest madness — endemic among humans — and prevent another global war.
In a way, this was a replay of what happened in 1919. The victorious Big Four (Britain, France, the US and Italy), established the League of Nations, aiming to prevent the recurrence of World War 1. The invasion of Machuria (in China) by Japan in 1931 and of Ethiopia by Italy in 1935 exposed the League’s impotence. Another global war, ignited by Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, killed the League for good.
In a world where another war may leave nothing to kill or die for, one hopes the peacekeeping efforts of the UN will grind it out, imperfect its steps may be. The moral suasion of peace may not move sovereign states and principalities, but individuals with the means can step in when their governments are unwilling to foot the bill.