How US Republican threats to cut UN funding could actually play out

By Amy Lieberman 16 January 2017
Sebastian von Einsiedel, director of the United Nations University-Centre for Policy Research. Photo by: Evan Schneider / U.N.

Ongoing U.S. Republican threats to cut United Nations funding have sharpened with the introduction of a bill in the Senate that would halt support to the U.N. until a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements is repealed.

The new measure, introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, hits upon the U.N.’s operating budget and the work of all U.N. agencies and specialized organizations, which rely heavily on the U.S. for voluntary contributions. If passed, the Safeguard Israel Act would conditionally prohibit the U.S. government from making “any voluntary or assessed contributions” to the U.N.

A coalition of Republicans, including in the House of Representatives, are also pushing for other, similar legislative proposals that would either reduce U.S. funding to the U.N. or make it voluntary.

In December, the U.S. abstained from a Security Council vote reaffirming that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory violate international law. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has since tweeted that the U.N. “has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time” and also promised “things will be different” after Jan. 20, his inauguration.

In her final press conference as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Powers warned that “the United States needs the U.N.” “The U.N. goes to places that the U.S. will not go,’ she said.

On Friday, U.N. associate spokesperson Eri Kaneko said the U.N. was monitoring the situation as it unfolds and that the legislation is in its early phases.

“But, as matter of principle, the secretary‑general very much welcomes an opportunity to discuss any issues with U.S. lawmakers. And we look forward under the new administration to the continuing strong partnership between the U.S. and the U.N., especially in the three main pillars of human rights, peace and security and development,” he said during the press briefing.

Indeed, it may not be easy for the U.S. to pull all U.N. funding. While the bill needs to clear Congress, the U.N. also legally requires member states to contribute varying amounts to its regular budget, based off of each country’s gross national product.

The United States contributes the maximum percentage — nearly a quarter — of the U.N.’s overall operating costs, totaling nearly $595 million for 2017. Withdrawing this financial support could also mean losing a seat at the General Assembly and influence the international agenda, as civil society groups such as The Better World Campaign have stressed.

Here, Sebastian von Einsiedel, director of the Tokyo-based U.N. University-Centre for Policy Research, offers some perspective on how to interpret the latest funding attacks — and which U.N. agencies any slashes would most likely affect.

What do you think the biggest, and most immediate impacts of the cuts against the U.N.’s operating budget would be? What about in terms of funding cuts for specific U.N. agencies, which look to voluntary contributions from countries?

It’s very hard to predict where, how and if at all massive funding cuts will occur. Certainly noises coming out from some quarters of the Republican party are not encouraging … The introduction … [of the Senate legislation is] deeply worrying, not least because of the expressions of support for this legislation from moderate Republicans such as John McCain.

Irrespective of this specific legislation, the most vulnerable parts of the U.N. are likely the agencies that rely primarily on voluntary funding. The U.S. is the largest donor to a number of major humanitarian agencies, including the U.N. refugee agency and the World Food Program. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which provides humanitarian support to Palestinian refugees, may be particularly at risk because of its unpopularity among Republicans, including Marco Rubio. Given the lifesaving — and already underfunded — support these agencies provide to millions of refugees during one of the worst refugee crises in recent history, these cuts could have devastating effects on some of the most vulnerable people on this planet.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which relies in large parts (60 percent) on voluntary funding (the U.S. being the top voluntary contributor) is also likely to come under pressure due to the Commissioner’s outspoken criticism of Trump during the presidential campaign — a snub that Trump is unlikely to forget. The U.N. Population Fund may also be a soft target, because of the perception among many Republicans that its family planning work is linked to abortion. Significant cuts in U.S. funding to the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund, to which the U.S. is one of the largest donors, would surely undermine global buy-in to the Paris agreement.

What operations, or work, do you anticipate would be protected from these cuts? Or do is there is no way to ascertain that at this point?

Compared to the threats posed to voluntarily funded agencies, it is less likely that the U.S. will renege on its obligations to pay its share of the U.N.’s regular budget, partly because these regular contributions are enshrined in legal agreements and partly because that may eventually result in the U.S. losing its voting rights in the General Assembly.

Agencies that focus on issues that align with the priority agenda of many Republicans may also be less likely to suffer funding cuts, for instance, the work on countering drug trafficking and organized crime by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

What are the risks of the U.S. withdrawing  and even threatening to  support to the U.N.? You have written recently on the effect this could have on influencing other countries and impacting morale, for example.

Withdrawing U.S. support to the U.N. would run counter to U.S. interests by weakening the U.N. just at a moment when a new and highly capable U.N. secretary-general is embarking on a reform agenda that promises to make the U.N. a more effective, efficient and accountable multilateral institution addressing global challenges.

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