A myopic Congress refuses to pay dues

15 March 1998

If there are persons who profess to think and even believe that the United Nations' present precarious financial position and prospects are not so serious then, think again and better believe that the problem is serious and requires urgent attention of its 185-member nations.

At the end of September last year unpaid dues totalled US $2.4 billion (RM. 9.8 billion) for the regular budget, peacekeeping and international tribunals, the bulk is owed by the only remaining superpower - the United States: US $1.3 billion (RM. 5.2 billion).

The much publicised Ted Turner's US $1 billion (RM. 4 billion) gift has not arrived and even after it has been paid it will not alleviate the organization's poverty. The fund is meant for specific purposes, for example, children's welfare, and not for regular expenditure. Ted Turner made his fortune through the Cable News Network (CNN) which he founded in 1980 to provide around-the-clock news service.

As long as 33 years ago, U Thant, the third United Nations Secretary-General and the only Asian to ever hold the post (1962-71) up to now, in a report to the General Assembly said that the financial position of the organization was "serious and merits the urgent attention and concern of its membership". It does seem that little has changed in three decades.

The UN's appropriations for the biennium 1998-9 is US $2.532 billion (RM. 10.3 billion), about US $76 million (RM. 304 million) less than the 1996-1997 appropriations. Of this, Malaysia's contribution is US $1.76 million (RM. 7.2 million) or 0.168%. However, we will have to pay more in future, 0.18% in 1999 and 2000.

Last year, 39 countries did not pay these dues, according to UNSecretary-General, Kofi Annan, in a letter he sent to the General Assembly, dated Feb 4. The big defaulters are Yugoslavia with a sum due of US $11.7 million (RM 46.8 million), Iraq US $7.043 million (RM 28.2 million), Georgia US $2.86 million (RM 11.4 million), Azerbaijan US $2.85 million (RM 11.4 million), Bosnia and Herzegovina US $1.08 million (RM 4.3 million), Moldova US $1.7 million (RM 6.8 million) and the smallest nations, Niger, US $5,700 (RM 22,800) and Costa Rica US $6,500 (RM 26,000) respectively.

As of Dec 31, last year 18 countries did not pay their contributions to the organization's regular budget Leading the defaulters were: The United States, US $373 million (RM 1.5 billion) Ukraine US $17.6 million (RM 70.4 million), Brazil US $16.7 million (RM 66.8 million), Yugoslavia US $ 10.6 million (RM 42.4 million), Iraq US $7.1 million (RM 28.4 million) , Belarus US $4.6 million (RM 18.4 million), Argentina US $4.1 million (RM 16.4 million), Israel US $3.8 million (RM 15.2 million), Iran US $3.7 million (RM 14.8 million), Georgia US $2.2 million (RM 8.8 million), Uzbekistan US $2.1 million (RM 8.4 million, Tajikistan US $1.9 million (RM 7.6 million), Azerbaijan US $1.8 million (RM 7.2 million), Latvia US $1.7 million (RM 6.8 million), Lithuania US $1.4 million (RM 5.6 million), Armenia US $1.4 million (RM 5.6 million), Moldova US $1.2 million (RM 4.8 million) and Kazakhstan US $1 million (RM 4 million).

By March 5, 41 nations paid in full their contributions to the 1998 United Nations Regular Budget with France leading the list: US $68,292,675 (RM 273 million); Russia US $30,213,251 (RM 120 million), Malaysia $1,766,764 (RM 7.1 million), Singapore US $1,756,218 (RM 7 million), Laos US $10,516 (RM 42,000) and Vietnam US $105,163 (RM 420,000). Thus far, only these four Asean nations have made it into the Honor Roll of 1998.

Annan has been lavishly praised by all and sundry, including US President Bill Clinton, for a job well done in averting a United States-led bombing of Iraq. Saddam Hussein agreed to allow the UNSCOM inspection teams to resume their work unimpeded including inspecting the sites of the eight presidential palaces hitherto out-of-bound.

Whether Iraq fully implements what it has signed remains to be seen. After all it is just a piece of paper and one can always wriggle out of one's commitment by cleverly insisting on the small print!

The Ghanian diplomat, I agree, has done an excellent job in Bangladesh. He has also now spent 15 months pushing various reforms at the UN which I know have produced good results even if he has not wholly earned respects from his critics. Like any big institution and government, the UN, too has its budgetary wastes, managerial problems and administrative horrors but he has done all he could since taking over the appointment in January last year.

If Annan had not gone on his important diplomatic mission to Baghdad he would have been in Washington for a second time within a year to plead with Congress to pay the US $1.3 billion (RM 5.2 billion) which the US owes the world body.

However, he visited Washington on Wednesday to meet Clinton and members of his administration, to discuss not only Iraq but also the debilitating problem of the US $1.3 billion (RM 5.2 billion) in back dues that the US owe to the UN. The US has not paid its UN dues in full and on time for some years. In 1995 it paid less than half of its total assessment. These gaps have never been closed.

Annan in an article in the New York Times (Monday, March 9) asks, and then answers himself. "Who benefits from a cash-starved United Nations? The aggressors of the world whose designs we seek to foil; the violators of human rights whose abuses we endeavor to curtail; the drug dealers and international criminals whose dealings we reveal; the arms merchants whose traffic in deadly weapons our conventions help to stop. Also impeded is our humanitarian work, against hunger, deprivation, the loss of homes and livelihood."

The Iraq crisis demonstrates how indispensable the UN can be in the areas of peace and security.

If it is not honoured, the agreement that Annan negotiated in Baghdad will allow UN weapons inspectors to expand their search for and to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction - an outcome that alternative courses of action might not have yielded

He asserts that the public becomes aware of UN contributions to conflict resolution only occasionally, when a crisis erupts that thrusts the UN onto television screens and newspaper headlines. Annan's recent trip to Baghdad was such an occasion.

However, institutional reforms are more difficult to portray to the public than crisis management. Under Annan's reform package, he has achieved an actual decrease in the UN budget down to US $2.53 billion (RM 10.12 billion) foe the 1988 and 1999 biennium. Nearly 1,000 posts have been cut outright, bringing the staff size below 9,000 and other jobs are being held vacant. Administrative expenditures are being cut 25% of the budget, from 38%.

Annan says there is a saying that all politics is local. But increasingly, all local politics has global consequence. And those global consequences, in turn, effect the quality of local life every where. So a renewed partnership between the UN and and the US is in the interest of both. But it has to be paid for.

As if to convince Washington further Annan paraphrases what Winston Churchill said to Franklin Roosevelt: "Give us the tools and we will do the job."

I could not agree more.

If. the US was right to insist that a piece of paper signed by Iraq could not be taken on trust, can the international community also not believe what the president of the United States says? Clinton has already promised three times that the US would settle its debts. The comparison may not be very the compelling, still the end result is the same: non-compliance on one hand and non-payment on the other.