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Covid-19 Disrupts UN & Threatens Potential Cash Crisis in World Body

The UN’s empty corridors. Credit: United Nations

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 13 2022 (IPS) - The 22-month-old coronavirus pandemic – which has claimed over 5.4 million lives worldwide, devastated economies and reduced an additional 100 million people to poverty—has also disrupted the work of a partially locked-down United Nations triggering a potential cash crisis in the world body.

Addressing the UN’s Administrative and Budgetary Committee late last year, a spokesperson for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said for “any organisation to succeed, it must be given adequate financial resources to implement its mandates. However, COVID-19 has disrupted not just the UN’s work, but many of our economies”.

“It is understandable that countries whose economies have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 may face difficulties in paying their assessments (namely UN’s membership dues). It is therefore all the more important for Member States that have the capacity to pay their assessed contributions to do so in full, on time, and without conditions”.

“Otherwise, the UN faces a real risk of not having the resources it needs to carry out its mandates,” said the spokesman for ASEAN, a group which comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Last year, 11 countries were in arrears under the terms of the UN charter, including Antigua and Barbuda, Comoros, the Republic of Congo, Guinea, Iran, Papua New Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia, Sudan, Vanuatu and Venezuela.

Article 19 of the UN charter says “A Member of the United Nations which is in arrears in the payment of its financial contributions to the Organization shall have no vote in the General Assembly, if the amount of its arrears equals or exceeds the amount of the contributions due from it for the preceding two full years. The General Assembly may, nevertheless, permit such a member to vote if it is satisfied that the failure to pay is due to conditions beyond the control of the Member.”

Asked about the defaulting member states, Paulina Kubiak, Spokesperson for the President of the UN General Assembly, told reporters January 12 there were 11 Member States on the list, which is similar to the numbers in previous years.

She said these Member States are unable to vote in the General Assembly until they make the minimum payment. But there are a few exceptions.

In A/Res/76/2, the General Assembly decided that Comoros, Sao Tome and Principe, and Somalia shall be permitted to vote in the GA until the end of the current 76th session, leaving 8 countries still in default.

The exceptions are made by the General Assembly at the start of the session on the recommendation of the Committee on Contributions. These exceptions are based largely on the state of a country’s faltering economy.

On December 24, the 193-member UN General Assembly adopted a regular budget of $3.12 billion for 2022 while the annual peacekeeping budget is around $6.5 billion.

The off-and-on lock down of the United Nations since March 2020– with the overwhelming majority of its 9,900 staffers working from home—is beginning to have an impact on the operational services of the world body.

The lockdown, which was partially lifted last month, has been reinstated twice. In a message to New York-based UN staff sent out on January 10, Gilles Michaud, chair of the UN’s Occupational Safety and Health Committee, says after consultation with UN’s senior leadership, it has been decided staffers will continue to work from home (WFH) and not return to office (RTO)— through 28 January “at which point the situation will be reviewed once again.”

The decision to extend WFH has been prompted largely by the fast-spreading Omicron variant which last week averaged about 37,000 cases daily and overwhelmed New York city hospitals. But there is no official breakdown of the number of virus cases among UN staffers.

Ambassador Boubacar Diallo of Guinea, the outgoing chairman of the Group of 77 plus China, the largest single coalition of developing countries at the UN, warned late last year that the Group continues to be disappointed that due to security concerns, the Administrative and Budgetary Committee is being deprived of interpretation services (in the UN’s six official languages) during informal consultations.

This is primarily due to the absence of staff from the UN premises.

“We look forward to the day that multilingualism is fully restored, and we can enjoy interpretation services as we are doing here today. We are committed to a thorough consideration of the agenda items allocated to the Committee, and in this regard, note with disappointment that several reports are still outstanding,” he added.

This endemic situation, he pointed out, significantly compromises the Committee’s work.

“The global challenges that we face today are becoming far more complex and interconnected, and the solutions require a collective global response. As we have heard from many of our leaders (during the UN General Assembly sessions in September), this is the time for us to double down on multilateralism and reaffirm our commitment to a rules-based multilateral system,” said Ambassador Diallo.

With a resolution being adopted by consensus, including the 134 members of the G77, he said, “It is not possible to turn a blind eye to a General Assembly resolution and a deaf ear to the two-thirds majority of the General Membership.”

Speaking on behalf of the 27-member European Union (EU), Thibault Camelli, Counsellor to the delegation of the EU to the United Nations, said: “We call upon all Member States to pay their contributions in full and on time. We remain deeply concerned that the liquidity situation of the United Nations continues to undermine delivery of mandates.”

The temporary solutions introduced so far, he warned, have only alleviated the consequences of this crisis, and they corner the Organization into systemic underperformance. The Member States of the European Union call upon the Committee to rise up to this challenge. We will continue to advocate for sustainable solutions to this crisis”, he declared.

Joseph Chamie, an international demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division, told IPS the current crisis should not come as a surprise to Member States as the coronavirus pandemic has greatly impacted the work of the United Nations.

In addition to the large majority of UN staff members working from home, the normal day-to-day operations of the Organization have been greatly reduced and restricted, he said.

“It’s understandable that many Member States are disappointed with the lack of interpretation services. However, with the available technology, interpretation services for the UN languages should be able to be provided without difficulties”.

It is also not surprising, said Chamie, that many Member States, especially the poor less developed countries, are calling on wealthy, more developed nations to increase their financial contributions to the United Nations.

“However, it strikes me as somewhat ironic that many Member States, including less developed countries, say that have difficulties paying their UN assessments, but they have few difficulties in paying for their military expenditures.”

The UN budget for 2021 was only U.S. $3 billion, a relatively small cost for the international body. In comparison, he pointed out, the UN annual budget amounts to:

— a small percentage of the military expenditures of many countries, including China, India, Russia, the United States and the European Union; 4 percent of the worldwide pet food market; 3 percent of U.S. annual spending on soft drinks; and 1 percent of the wealth of the two richest Americans.

Regarding possible reductions in the numbers, salaries and benefits of UN staff members, it makes little sense and appears to be largely for domestic political consumption. Hopefully, Member States, and the General Assembly, will focus on those critical global issues facing the world’s nearly 8 billion inhabitants.

The relatively small budget of the United Nations is a real bargain for Member States and the world.
In terms of cost, deaths and injuries, the price of peace is far less than the price of war, Chamie declared.

Meanwhile, US Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, Senior Advisor for UN Management and Reform, told delegates the United States urges budget discipline across the UN system and will closely examine the increasing demands for assessed contributions.

This includes ensuring that only necessary construction is undertaken and that major projects avoid cost over-runs. The UN should also seek to contain increased spending in response to new and expanded mandates by eliminating outdated ones, consolidating duplicative areas of work, and repurposing existing resources.

He said staff entitlements and conditions of service comprise nearly two-thirds of the UN’s costs. Reestablishment of a unified salary scale remains a priority for the United States, including through addressing divergent decisions by different administrative tribunals across the UN common system, enhancing transparency on compensation costs including by use of commercially available data, and reaffirming the authority of the ICSC, while improving its methodology.

Speaking on behalf of the African Group, Ambassador Harold Adlai Agyeman of Ghana said: “We insist that, as much as possible, all in-person meetings be held with interpretation services as required by the relevant rules of procedure of the General Assembly and agreed resolutions on multilingualism that is at the core of this organization”.

He said Members of the African Group use, as working languages, four of the six official languages of the United Nations. The Group therefore considers it of utmost importance that Member States should be able to contribute to the deliberations of the Committee in the official language they are optimally effective in.

The UN’s six official languages are: Arabic; Chinese; English; French; Russian; and Spanish.


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