UN-Paid Dues: The Costs of Cooperation. (Global Notebook)

By Huebner, David; Haddad, Raja | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

UN-Paid Dues: The Costs of Cooperation. (Global Notebook)


Huebner, David, Haddad, Raja, Harvard International Review


On September 24, 2001, only 13 days after the tragic events in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, the US House of Representatives approved a US$582 million payment in back dues to the United Nations.

Despite a history of squabbling and heated debates, this measure's passage faced almost no opposition. In the context of the US-led international campaign against terrorism, it may have seemed a way to reach out to an international community long neglected by Washington.

In August 1995, UN member states owed a total of US$3.7 billion in outstanding assessments. Of this amount. US$850 million constituted dues owed for UN regular activities, and US$2.85 billion was owed for UN peacekeeping. Although several UN member states had some responsibility for these dues, the United States owed almost one-third of the debt: US$525 million in regular funding and US$740 million for peacekeeping operations.

The US Congress continuously refused to cooperate; in 1994 it rejected a bill that would have paid US$300 million for UN peacekeeping, and in 1995 it turned down a proposal that would have given the United Nations US$672 million. It seems ironic that the United States, which was establishing itself as a leader in the resolution of international conflicts-as illustrated by its actions in Somalia and the Balkans-was unconcerned with assuming such a role in the international body created specifically for that purpose.

By 1995, many members of the international community, particularly countries that paid their dues on time, were frustrated with the situation. British Secretary of State Malcolm Rifkind explained that there was no way the UN system could work correctly under such circumstances. He described the United Nations as "on the verge of financial collapse" and demanded a policy reminiscent of the American Revolution: "No representation without taxation." Andre Quellet, the Canadian foreign minister at the time, also spoke out, complaining that Canada "cannot accept that member states, some of which rank among the richest in the world, fail to meet their financial obligations to this institution. This is even more difficult to accept when we consider that a number of the poorest countries in the world meet their payments in full and on time."

The situation did not get any better in following years. Not only did the United States continue to default on payments but also other countries felt less obliged to pay dues. In 1996, of US$689 million in unpaid dues, the United States was responsible for US$527 million, 76 percent of the total debt. In peacekeeping, the total dues amounted to US$1.72 billion, of which the US share was 53 percent. Furthermore, countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and Russia, which had fulfilled their payments in previous years, began accumulating debts in both budgets. The United States was becoming a model to follow and to the detriment of the United Nations, which found itself the subject of a growing international change in prioritization.

As the problem grew, the US Congress saw the need to respond; in October 1998 it passed a bill that would have paid US dues. However, US President Bill Clinton, though a strong proponent of paying off the debt, vetoed the legislation on grounds that it was inappropriately linked to an unrelated abortion issue. Instead, he signed a separate bill allowing the United States to pay just enough to retain its voting rights in the UN General Assembly. In June 1999, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, proposed a bill that would allocate the necessary funds to pay back US debt in exchange for reforms in the UN management structure and an overall reduction of the US share in the UN budget.

Although Helms's legislation passed, failed negotiations for the implementation of reforms left the United States in the same situation as it had been the previous year, barely a week away from losing its vote in the UN General Assembly-but not its Security Council seat-because of accumulated back dues.

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