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What price human rights?

by Vinodh Jaichand


Compared to the verbal commitment of world leaders to human rights issues, the amount of money actually allocated to human rights within the United Nations system is pitiful. “If the role of the United Nations, through the work of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, cannot be sustained, then any other system is also doomed to failure, irrespective of what form the ‘new and improved’ UN is going to take,” writes Vinodh Jaichand.


The United Nations has often been criticised as being an ineffective body. The Secretary General, Kofi Annan, called for a debate on the possible reform of the United Nations in September 2003 due to the deep divisions among member states on the use of force in response to security threats. During this past week there have been major discussions on reforming the United Nations so that it might be better equipped to deal with the larger challenges, including the Millennium Development Goals. The UN is often portrayed as an independent institution with regard to peace and security when, in fact, it is an instrument of its collective membership [Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, The Role of the United Nations in International Peace and Security 841 at 842]. While it operates under the rules of diplomacy, the UN has been expected to be the defender of human rights in the world.


With a membership of 191 states under its Charter, the United Nations is the main international institution tasked with protecting and promoting human rights. Within the United Nations system the office assigned the main responsibility for human rights activities is the High Commissioner for Human Rights who is expected to engage with governments on human rights issues nationally and internationally with the aim of improving their respect and practice.


In a report undertaken by the Joint Inspection Unit of the United Nations [Management Review of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (JIU/REP/2003/6) prepared by Armando Duque Gonzalez ], it revealed that despite the strategic importance of human rights for the United Nations system, which has been highlighted in numerous documents, the resources allocated through regular budget appropriations have not reflected such strategic importance.


Indeed, the resources assigned decreased in percentage and absolute terms from 1996 to 2001 and increased in absolute terms in the 2002-2003 biennium. In the latter period the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights budget amounted to 1.75 per cent of the United Nations total budget. From 1996 at no stage did the amount received ever rise above 1.79 per cent of the United Nations total budget. At the same time the lack of regular resources has been compounded by an increase in the number of activities undertaken by the Office which require special representatives, special rapporteurs and independent experts. Therefore the Office is heavily dependent on voluntary contributions from states to fund core and mandated activities that should remain within the regular budget.


As a result, any disruption in the voluntary contributions received has impacted negatively on the core, the mandated activities and the extra-budgetary ones. The General Accounting Office of the United States Congress criticized the trend, preferred by the wealthier countries including the United States, towards voluntary contributions from Member States to fund human rights and other United Nations programmes. It said that the practice had left UN agencies lacking in stability for long term planning and has harmed the morale of staff [UN Changes Get Blocked by Rifts, a Congressional Report Finds by Jess Bravin, Wall Street Journal].


Does the Income Match the Ambition?


Under the Charter of the United Nations all Member States have an obligation, arising from the international treaty they ratified, to pay a portion of the budget for the functioning of the organisation. Each State’s contribution is calculated on the basis of its share of the world economy according to an assessment formula which is reviewed on a regular basis. Once a budget is finalized all Member States review and approve the budget in the General Assembly which, since 1988, has been approved by consensus [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website].


The five largest contributors to the UN regular budget are USA ($341,4m or 22% of the total), Japan ($263,5m or 19,5%of the total), Germany ($131,9m or 9,8% of the total), France ($87,3m or 6,5% of the total) and the United Kingdom ($74,7m or 5,5% of the total.


The United Nations regular budget for 2002-2003 amounted to $2.6 billion and for 2004-2005 an amount of $3 billion has been proposed as a preliminary regular budget. [Poor Nations First to Pay Up Dues for 2003 by Thalif Deen, Inter Press Service, January 2, 2003]


The payment of the contributions, both regular and voluntary, to the UN has sometimes been treated by Member States as an undue burden for membership, or as a donation for which there must be some gratitude or leverage due, despite the transparency in the process under a treaty obligation. There are many reported instances of this type of reaction. A few examples, which are not intended to be exhaustive, will be raised at this point to illustrate this.


As a result of the last review of the budgetary allocations in December 2003 Japan had to pay 19.5 percent of the UN budget although it accounts for 13 per cent of the global economy, while the United States paid only 22 percent for 30 percent of the world gross domestic product. Japan was reported to have been angry and frustrated because it does not get enough “bang for its buck” compared to other contributors to the UN budget and expected a seat on the Security Council for its higher contribution [Squeezed Japan Threatens Cuts to UN Agencies by Thalif Deen, Inter Press, January 7, 2004].


The United States withdrew from UNESCO for nearly twenty years when the Reagan administration pulled out as a result of the then director-general alleged anti-US stance because he proposed a more balanced flow in the content of news between developed and developing countries. In early January 2004 Congress approved the payment of $71 million for the United States contribution to UNESCO. It is believed that UNESCO can be used effectively to promote more pro-western values in the educational systems of Arab countries [Foreign Aid Bill to Fund Controversial UN Agencies, OneWorld US, January 27,2004].


The lead writer of a UN report on freedom and governance is reported to have said that the United States threatened to cut off funds to the UNDP to the value of $100 million because it was unhappy with sections of the report which refer to the occupation of Iraq and the activities of Israel in the Occupied Territories [US Threatens UN Agency Funds Over Report-Writer by Jonathan Wright, Reuters, December 18, 2004].


The focus on UN funding sharpens when we consider what payments are owed to the organisation by major debtor countries. The United Nations and all its agencies and funds spend about $10 billion each year or about $1.70 for each of the world's inhabitants. Many Member States have not paid their full contributions and have cut their contributions to the UN's voluntary funds. As of November 30, 2004, Members arrears to the regular budget topped $695 million, of which the United States alone owed $530 million, which amounts to 76 percent of the regular budget [Global Policy Forum]. The other Member States who owe money in the top five include Japan, Ukraine, Brazil and Argentina.


Are There Sufficient Resources?


To place these figures in some kind of context the regular budget of the United Nations in 2005 is the same as the largest single donation by the United States in 2004 to Israel for $3 billion in mostly military assistance [Foreign Aid Bill to Fund Controversial UN Agencies”, OneWorld US, 27 January 2004]. There have been numerous proposals for alternative ways to fund the work of the United Nations. Proposals include instituting a global tax on currency transactions, while others propose environmental taxes and taxes on the arms-trade. However, Member States responsible for the highest contributions are reluctant to reform the system, fearing they would lose political leverage [Global Policy Forum].


For the cost of the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent attempts to rebuild that society, calculated at $150 billion and rising each day, the United Nations could have fully funded global anti-hunger efforts for 6 years or a world-wide AIDS programme for 15 years, or ensured that every child in the world was given basic immunization for 50 years [National Priorities Project]. Certainly, that amount of money could assist numerous countries, including the countries in South East Asia affected by the Tsunami where the UN has called for some $950 million in short term-aid for the purpose of rehabilitation [Officials gather in Jakarta for tsunami aid talks, International Herald Tribune, 6 January 2005] Indeed, based on the current operations of all the work of the United Nations from regular and voluntary contributions, the amount being spent on the invasion of Iraq would operate all the United Nations programmes for at least 14 years.


Aid Relief in Focus


How does one measure the cost, in actual dollar terms, of one life whether that person is the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights in Iraq or a child born in a tree during the floods in Mozambique? The loss of one is impossible to quantify, yet the rescue of the other can be measured in the cost of fuel and operation for the helicopter and personnel involved in the mission. Human rights and humanitarian action are often intertwined because if the victims do not survive the right to life or the right to food, as components of individual human rights, is meaningless. Both lives are equally valuable, no doubt, and are invaluable in dollar terms. Perhaps my inquiry is misdirected because the more appropriate question in many of these cases would be: What is the cost of not intervening? Should the cost be measured only in terms of a reaction to things gone wrong or should they be gauged by proactive measures which can prove too costly later?


We often calculate the cost of remedial action in the aftermath of one or other humanitarian intervention. Hurricane Katrina reversed the trend of the United States as an aid receiving country from the perceived view of an aid dispensing one when it received offers of aid in cash and kind valued at one billion dollars from about 100 countries and international organisations. Amongst them was Sri Lanka with a donation of $25 000 and $1 million cash offers from Bangladesh. The recent South East Asia Tsunami disaster saw an outpouring of public assistance through record public donations which have forced many governments to revise their aid packages. The British government found itself playing catch-up with public sentiment. The public donated more than 100 million pounds. According to John Pilger, in the New Statesman of 6 January 2005, both Bush and Blair increased their “first driblets of “aid” only when it became clear that people all over the world were spontaneously giving millions and a public relations problem beckoned.


The three states which provided the highest aid for South East Asian Tsunami victims were Australia ($765 million), Germany ($ 665 million) and Japan with $500 million. The United States government came in fourth with $350 million with the American public reported to have raised over $200million. The complete rebuilding of the South East Asian countries is projected at around $200 billion. Journalist John Pilger observed that the United States and Britain were giving less to the Tsunami victims than the cost of a Stealth bomber, or a week’s occupation of Iraq. The bill for George Bush’s presidential inauguration party would rebuild much of the coastline of Sri Lanka [The Other, Man-Made Tsunami by John Pilger, New Statesman, 6 January, 2005 ].


It appears that the United States is sometimes of the view that it carries the major portion of the burden without the credit for doing so. In January 2000, Senator Helms in an address to the UN Security Council argued that: “The UN lives and breathes on the hard-earned money of American taxpayers,” and he resented the “lack of gratitude” shown to the United States [Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, The Role of the United Nations in International Peace and Security, 841 at 850] The objective facts however do not sustain that view based on Gross Domestic Production (GDP). The European Union provides over 36 percent to the United Nations budgets. Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom contribute nearly as much as the United States, $910 million against the $920 of the United States. The combined GDP of these countries is 21 per cent of the world total as opposed to 30 per cent of the United States. If the formula for burden sharing at the United Nations, which we observed earlier has been voted on by consensus and reviewed regularly, is skewed, then the affected countries ought to propose another which is more equitable.


The facts cited do not support the view that the promotion and protection of human rights is as important for Member States because the practice of payments of contributions to the United Nations does not match the ambition or the rhetoric of protecting human rights. If the role of the United Nations, through the work of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, cannot be sustained then any other system is also doomed to failure, irrespective of what form the “new and improved” UN is going to take. No amount of diplomatic practice can rescue it either. No system for the protection of human rights can function without a minimum of resources. Compared with the resources for other concerns, the resources needed for enabling an international mechanism for the protection of human rights to function are less than minimal at 1.79 per cent of the total regular budget. Even then, the minimum is not made available for expenditure [Marc Bossuyt, International Human Rights Systems: Strengths and Weaknesses, 47 at 5].


That is a very high price to pay for human rights.



Vinodh Jaichand is from the Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland, Galway Reprinted with permission.


Posted  October 05, 2005

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