The Trump administration’s unilateral decision to stop paying its full United Nations peacekeeping bills is hanging peacekeeping missions out to dry while creating financial woes for the countries that provide the blue-helmeted troops and police officers, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is warning.
The UN’s member nations owed the peacekeeping operations just under $2 billion in unpaid bills as of the close of its most recent fiscal year, with $1.25 billion of that related to Trump’s decision to lop 3 percent off its share of the budget, Guterres said in a March 26 report to the General Assembly.
As a result, missions are “frequently cash-constrained” while two missions have been able to sustain operations only by borrowing from closed missions, he said.
Several others are “facing severe liquidity problems that force the organization to withhold payments to troop- and police-contributing countries for their personnel and equipment in order to avoid the disruption of field operations, essentially transforming troop- and police-contributing countries into major financers of peacekeeping,” he added.
Guterres has been warning about the UN’s “troubling financial situation” for the last two years, but the mounting late and incomplete peacekeeping payments have now deteriorated into “frequent cash constraints,” he said.
One factor singled out by Guterres: “The decision of one member state” to pay “approximately 3 per cent below its applicable rate of assessment.” Although he doesn’t identify the member, the culprit is the United States, the largest duespayer to UN peacekeeping.
Based on the scale of assessments — a series of formulations to determine who pays what to the UN — Washington is expected to shoulder 28 percent of the year’s $6.7 billion peacekeeping budget. This proportion includes such factors as gross national income, population and external debt, as well as the permanent seat the US occupies in the Security Council.
But since President Trump took office, US officials have been highly vocal about what they perceive as an unfair budgeting system. The current US position is part of an historical cycle of standoffs that began in the 1980s and peaked during the administration of Bill Clinton, when in 1995 Congress passed a law putting a cap of 25 percent on payment of UN peacekeeping dues. Arrears in hundreds of millions of dollars began to accumulate.
By 1999, when the US was in danger of losing its vote in the UN General Assembly, the Helms-Biden agreement set up a timetable to start paying $926 million in arrears to the UN and other international organizations.
The UN-US calculations and gaps have seesawed ever since. In the early years of the George W. Bush administration, the US cap was raised several times by Congress as arrears were being reduced. When Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009, the US budget cap on payments, at 27.1 percent, was higher than the UN assessment of 25.9 percent. At the end of the Obama years, the US payment ceiling was set at 28.57 percent, according to figures from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The UN assessment stood a little lower, at 28.3 percent.
In June 2017, as US ambassador at the time, Nikki Haley took up the cause of reducing America’s peacekeeping bill, boasting that the US had pressured the UN into trimming nearly $600 million overall from peacekeeping.
Then, in March 2018, she declared that Washington would cap its share of the annual cost back to 25 percent, arguing that no single nation should be responsible for more than a quarter of peacekeeping expenses. Haley pushed other nations to “step up” their contributions to demonstrate their “shared responsibility” for peacekeeping.
Trump echoed Haley’s remarks, expressing concern that other countries were taking advantage of the US.
“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,” he asserted in a General Assembly speech last fall.
The unpaid US assessment is by far the largest unpaid UN peacekeeping bill, compared with $243 million owed to the UN by Brazil; $108 million by Ukraine; and $50 million by Venezuela as of June 30, 2018.
To pay its own bills, the UN has increasingly been forced to withhold payments to troop- and police-contributing countries. Among these countries, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Rwanda, India and Nepal rank as the top providers of peacekeeping personnel. Their troops are compensated according to national salary scales, with these costs reimbursed by the UN. The UN, however, could pay them only half of the funds owed to them in the first quarter of 2019.
This practice was deemed “unsustainable” by India’s UN ambassador, Syed Akbaruddin, who tweeted that countries “are owed amounts equivalent to their assessed contributions for 100 years. Some even more.” The UN owes India alone $38 million — the most it owes any country — for unreimbursed peacekeeping operations as of March 2019, Guterres said.
Failure of the UN to reimburse its members pressures countries’ national budgets. This produces a disincentive for member states to deploy new units to peace operations, which in turn may mean a shortage of much-needed services such as aviation, engineering and de-mining. Arrears have also reached a point where the UN is forced to dip into money meant for future budget periods to compensate soldiers.
“That has created a paradox,” notes the secretary-general. “The United Nations is now effectively borrowing for prolonged periods from troop- and police-contributing countries. Many of them are low-income countries for which that imposes a significant financial burden.
At the same time, the organization is asking those same countries to do more to train their personnel and improve the quality of their equipment, all while operating in increasingly challenging environments. The United Nations, however, is not fulfilling its obligation towards them in a timely manner.”
Unmentioned in the report is the possibility that not paying one’s troops could stir up discontent among soldiers back home, increasing the odds of a coup d’état or other threat to national stability, especially in impoverished, badly run nations in Africa that contribute large numbers of troops to the UN.
Indeed, by refusing to pay America’s bill fully, Trump has ended up harming some extremely poor nations that are eager to do their part at the UN while undermining UN efficiency and the collective financing agreements to which every nation had previously agreed.