Resist the UN being held to ransom

By Sir Ronald Sanders

(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organization of American States.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto.  The views expressed are entirely his own)

The United Nations (UN) is facing a severe shortage of cash, and, according to its Secretary-General, António Guterres, “the Organization runs the risk of depleting its liquidity reserves by the end of the month (October) and defaulting on payments to staff and vendors”.

This is because 64 of the UN’s 193 member states have not yet paid their 2019 assessed contributions and many have outstanding arrears.  Among the countries that have not yet paid for 2019 and that owe back payments is the United States of America (US), the country with the largest assessed contribution based on its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and other factors.

Should the people of Caribbean countries care that the UN is in such dire financial straits?  A distinguished Jamaican commentator, James Moss-Solomon, for whose views I normally have the greatest regard, recently wrote in the Jamaica Observer: “I have formed the impression (possibly wrongly) that the UN is a comfortable “holiday posting” for those who enjoy good food and wines, and endless cocktail parties celebrating national days, while forgetting their main purpose. The cultured groups all know the fine grape varieties of French, Italian, German, Chilean, South African, and Australian wines and their vintage. Yet they continue to be impotent in their core functions of peace and prosperity”.

I am aware that Mr. Moss-Solomon’s real point is more about the apparent failure of the UN to uphold the principles, which its Charter espouses, than it is about the impotence of “cultured groups” at the UN to carry out their mandates.

In truth, it is not the UN, as an organisation, that is failing the world, including the Caribbean.  It is powerful countries that paralyze the organisation either by ignoring or twisting its rules and principles to serve their own purposes.

Every day, in every Committee of the UN (and hemispheric organizations such as the OAS), powerful countries coerce weaker ones to support their positions. That coercion comes in many forms, including preying on fears of punishment; promises to provide them help; and even veiled threats.   Governments of small countries, so coerced, instead of exposing it, often opt to disguise their surrender, claiming, unconvincingly, that their stance is a manifestation of their own values.

The UN remains a vital organisation for the protection and advancement of the interests of Caribbean countries.  If it did not exist, small countries would want to invent it to address many global issues that none of them could cope with it alone.   These include climate change, global warming, controlling the spread of diseases, drug trafficking, organised crime, and money laundering.  Without the UN and its agencies, the voices of small countries would not be heard, nor would their negotiators have a seat at the bargaining table to negotiate better terms of trade and access to financing in the global market.

In today’s world, small countries would be prevented from inventing a UN by the powerful governments that want their own way and that regard the UN as an obstacle to their national objectives.

Since the UN does exist, despite the efforts of the powerful to marginalise it, developing countries should do all in their power to preserve it and strengthen it in their own interests, and in the interest of global peace and prosperity.

Sadly, among the countries that have not yet paid their 2019 contributions are several in the Caribbean. The governments of those countries should pay up.  By not doing so, they give reason to powerful governments to justify their own non-payment by pointing to the non-payment of others, whereas their real intention is to either cripple the UN or make it obedient.

The world has had examples in the past of powerful governments trying to force international agencies to bend to their will.  In 1984, the governments of the US and the United Kingdom (UK) withdrew from UNESCO.  The US claimed it did so because “the agency had been politicised leftwards”.  In fact, UNESCO’s board (on which I sat with my Jamaican colleague, the late Hector Wynter) was carrying out mandates from the UN General Assembly to support national liberation movements and to conduct studies regarding the “rights of peoples”.  Many of those liberation movements form governments today.

The US had previously withdrawn from the International Labour Organisation in 1977, blaming its departure on the politicization of the organisation, mainly the granting of observer status to the Palestine Liberation Organisation in committees of a 1975 general conference.

The decision of the US government to withdraw from these two UN agencies was taken in its self-interest as the government saw it at the time.  When the US left, a large chunk of the financial contributions, and therefore, the viability of the agencies, went with it.  In those days, the Peoples Republic of China had not yet emerged as a global power asserting a more activist inclination.   Though they did not collapse, both UNESCO and the ILO were crippled by the US withdrawal.

Withholding money from international agencies is an important instrument in the toolbox of powerful governments.   It holds them to ransom.

Right now, according to the UN, the US owes $674 million for the 2019 regular budget and $381 million for previous regular budgets. Fortunately, other countries – because of their improved economic circumstances – are now assessed to pay more than they did before.  So, China, now pays the second largest assessment after the US, with Japan and Germany in third and fourth spots.

Against this background, the US government cannot afford not to pay the UN.  Its national interests would not be served by leaving rival countries in oversized influential positions.

The UN should not be placed in this parlous state. Starved of funds, its operations globally, particularly in the areas that are of vital interest to small countries, are disrupted.  For this reason, Caribbean governments should support the UN Secretary-General’s call “to put the United Nations on a sound financial footing.” The world will become unstable to the detriment of all if the UN is made weak and paralyzed.

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