Washington: India set the cat among the pigeons by forcefully asking why the United Nations had failed to compensate some of the world’s poorest countries for peacekeeping missions.
What countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda are owed for sending thousands of peacekeepers is 100 to 200 times more than what they owe the UN in annual contributions – a shocking state of affairs by any metric. The Indian representative said the arrears had become “a scourge”.
The UN peacekeeping budget is short by a whopping $2 billion, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told member states in a January 11 letter. The biggest culprit by far is the United States, which owed $776 million to the peacekeeping budget as of January 1.
Speaking up for some of the worst affected countries that contribute troops for UN missions, India called the current situation “unsustainable”.
The compact on peacekeeping – the rich pay for the services of the poor in some of the most dangerous conflict zones – is essentially broken and needs urgent attention, India’s permanent representative to the UN Syed Akbaruddin told member countries.
His argument resonated well all around because on the issue of peacekeeping, India’s voice matters. Historically, India has contributed the largest number of troops for peacekeeping, suffered the maximum casualties and participated in the most number of UN missions to date.
“It is very disconcerting that the UN has only perhaps two months of cash available” for peacekeeping operations, Akbaruddin said in his “extempore intervention” last Wednesday.
The shortfall directly impacts countries like Ethiopia, which provided the maximum number of troops in 2018 with 7,597 soldiers, and Rwanda, which sent the third largest contingent with 6,528 troops to UN missions. The UN owed them $30million and $20 million respectively.
These amounts are equivalent to 100 years of Ethiopia’s own assessed contributions to the UN budget and about 200 years of Rwanda’s. Every member country pays into the UN’s general budget based on a complex formula using GNP, external debt and per capita income among other economic indicators.
The UN assessed Ethiopia’s annual bill at $278,823 for 2019 and Rwanda’s at $83,647. Incidentally, Rwanda in on the UN’s “honour roll” because it has already paid its dues for 2019.
But the UN hasn’t kept its side of the bargain and failed to reimburse many countries for peacekeeping. The UN pays $1,428 per soldier per month, a figure approved by the General Assembly. Peacekeeping assignments are both prestigious and financially lucrative – when there is money.
Not being reimbursed for months on end is “an enormous burden to bear” for developing countries and solutions must be found, Akbaruddin said. He reminded the secretary general that if a country fails to pay its annual contribution for two years, it loses its vote at the UN, but when the UN doesn’t pay a member country for what amounts to a 100- to 200-year default, there is no sense of urgency.
Akbaruddin made it a point to clarify that his intervention was not on behalf of India, but more to point out a structural problem which tends to get ignored in all the noise in and around the functioning of the UN. It goes without saying that India can sustain non-reimbursement – it was owed about $55 million in 2017 and topped the list with $62 million in 2016 for peacekeeping – better than many other countries.
India’s advocacy for Ethiopian and Rwandan peacekeepers appeared to be a stand against an obvious injustice, but it was also a friendly signal to the larger community of African nations. Coalition-building is the name of the game at the UN in today’s constantly moving reality. Africa has increasingly come under Chinese sway.
But for India to speak loudly on peacekeeping arrears knowing that the United States, a strategic partner, is the main culprit is also noteworthy. In the recent past, India has teamed up with the US on several issues, including on key procedural votes to help Washington out.
But in this case, interests are different and non-aligned. The US is responsible for 28% of the $6.7 billion budget for peacekeeping. It currently owes about $776 million to the peacekeeping budget and $381 million to the regular UN budget.
President Donald Trump in particular and the Republican Party in general have derided the UN as a bloated, unwieldy organisation in dire need of reform.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s former UN ambassador, announced last March that the US would pay only 25% of the peacekeeping budget instead of 28% because “one country should not shoulder more than one-quarter of the UN peacekeeping budget”.
There was no agreement on a 25% ceiling for a country when Haley raised the issue, which means there will be a 3% shortfall going forward from smaller US contributions. But the US has to still pay its past dues calculated at 28%.
While reforms demanded by the US are worth considering, diplomatic observers say, the 14 peacekeeping operations currently underway are also mandated by member countries and must be carried out, and participating countries compensated.