A U.S. presidential executive order targeting the United Nations and other international organizations could inflict a major blow to global development and humanitarian operations, slashing American funding by at least 40 percent. But the full extent of the draft measure’s potential harm — for now, at least — remains difficult to gauge, experts say.
The order began circulating Wednesday in various media outlets and quickly spread, even as it remained in draft form. It calls for a conditional review of U.S. foreign funding, including a “special review of funding” for the U.N. Population Fund and development aid that “oppose, more than support, policies across the United Nations.”
“We have to take the order seriously, but it is opaque. Trump will hand over the details of potential cuts to a committee, effectively kicking really hard questions about defunding down the road. I think the main goal is simply to look tough,” Richard Gowan, U.N. expert and fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an email to Devex.
The Trump administration has delayed releasing the EO to allow for further vetting by agencies including the State Department, the New York Times reported on January 28. The order was initially submitted to the National Security Council for review but officials raised concerns about the legality of some contents, according to the report.
The U.S. is the largest single donor to the U.N. — contributing 22 percent to the U.N.’s total operating budget — in addition to providing more than 28 percent of the funds necessary for peacekeeping work, as per an agreement that dictates contributions based on country wealth. The U.N.’s budget for 2016-2017 is $5.61 billion.
Relative to its overall economic wealth, U.S. contributions are small, and as some have pointed out, mandatory, as all member states must contribute to the U.N.
The potential order, if signed, would join a growing roster of controversial executive orders on immigration, global health and other issues Trump has focused on during his first few days in office, largely falling in line with his “America first” policy.
Natalie Samarasinghe, executive director of the United Nations Association-UK, noted that this order, like all others, “will have to jump through many hoops to be realized.”
“At worst, the order could seriously undermine the U.N.’s life-saving work… by forcing its already dangerously underfunded agencies to scale back humanitarian assistance, including programmes that successive U.S. administrations — and the American public — have traditionally supported,” she wrote to Devex.
“At best, this is just bluster, albeit it very worrying bluster that ignores the value of the U.N. to the U.S., and the potential for the organisation to play a greater role, particularly in the peace and security arena, if the Trump administration does indeed plan to put ‘America first’ and be less active globally,” she added.
A Republican-controlled Congress could pose a greater threat to the U.N., Gowan suggests. Republicans have introduced multiple bills to defund the U.N., including one this month that makes contributions dependent on reversing U.N. Security Council resolution that denounces Israeli settlements.
This executive order, in its available form, also reveals clear contradictions. It calls for a special review of funding for the International Criminal Court, for example, even though the U.S. is not — nor has ever been — a member of the organization based in the Hague.
The order specifies a prohibition on U.S. funding that supports abortion or sterilization as a method of family planning. It also would cut funding to any U.N. organization that grants “full membership” to the Palestinian Authority or the Palestinian Liberation Organization, among other provisions.
The Palestinians have had “non-member observer” state status at the General Assembly since 2015, and are also members of UNESCO.
The draft order has general language, however, which could lead to a “scary type of censorship” over organizations such as the World Health Organization, which offers technical guidance on safe abortions, according to Akila Radhakrishnan, the vice president and legal director of the Global Justice Center.
“Are we looking at defunding the WHO or telling them they can’t put out their best medical practices? That’s the kind of thing we are trying to wrap our head around,” Radhakrishnan said. “It is really quite concerning. With broad language like this it can mean they can do what they want.”
The U.S. potentially withdrawing support to different U.N. agencies and bodies would have varied effects, as not all U.N. agencies receive funds from the U.N.’s core budget, and some rely on the U.S. more than others.
Andrew Light, a senior fellow at World Resources Institute’s climate program, suspects Trump will not back the Green Climate Fund, although it’s not singled out in this document. Before leaving office, Obama delivered a second $500 million payment to the fund that helps developing countries confront climate change.
But a funding retreat does not necessarily mean the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement, which it ratified last year.
“I think you have to treat it cautiously,” said Light, who previously worked under the Obama administration as a senior advisor on climate change at the State Department. “It’s going to take them a while to go through and decide what to do and say on any particular program.”
The U.N.’s largest agencies tend to look to the organization’s operating budget for no, or relatively minimal, support, even as they rely on the U.S. heavily for contributions.
The U.N. Refugee Agency, with an operations budget of $7.3 billion for 2017, relies solely on outside contributions. For the past several years, the U.S. has been its largest single donor.
For 2017, the World Food Programme, which is also funded only by contributions, has operational requirements of $9 billion. It estimates its available resources will hover around $5.4 billion, resulting in a funding gap of 40 percent. The U.S. was its largest donor in 2015.
The U.N. Environment Programme, meanwhile, with a much smaller budget of $34.96 million in 2015, drew 4.5 percent of its funding from the U.N. Secretariat, an increase from 2012. For U.N. Women, 2 percent — or $15.3 million — of its funding comes from the U.N.’s operating budget for 2016-2017. It expects to receive $135 million in contributions for 2016, with the U.S. just making up about $8 million of this.
The U.N. offered a clear message on the draft executive order, which leaked one day before U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley had her first day on the job. For now, no judgement is necessary before any potential order becomes official.
“Like all of you, we have read various reports in the media about things that may or may not happen, so I won’t comment on policies that have not been enacted,” said Stephane Dujarric, U.N. spokesperson, during a press briefing at the U.N. Thursday. “Obviously, the U.S. is a major partner and the largest donor to the United Nations… I think the secretary-general looks forward to initiating dialogue with the administration once everybody is in place.”
“No, these executive orders, as we know, are not executive orders. They are reports in the media.”
On Friday, Dujarric declined to provide details on U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ first meeting with Haley this week. Haley, in her first public remarks at the U.N. today, signaled a shift in diplomacy, saying, “You’re going to see a change in the way we do business.” She also said she would be “taking names” of those who don’t “have our back,” splitting from her more moderate testimony during her congressional hearing earlier this month.
Editor’s note, Jan. 30: This story was updated to reflect a delay in the release of the executive orders for further review. It was also updated to clarify that the International Criminal Court is based in The Hague.