High Stakes for the Secretary-General in Upcoming Fifth Committee Negotiations

The Fifth Committee of the UN General Assembly meets to discuss the proposed budget for 2016-2017. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

 The Fifth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly—responsible for administrative and budgetary matters—begins its annual consideration of the peacekeeping budget on May 7. The negotiating session is always highly contentious. Major financial contributors look to contain costs from the secretary-general’s budget request and others seek to maximize resources for their priorities, while all spar over human rights posts and other policy issues late into the night—often up to the very last minute.

This year, negotiations promise to be even more high stakes than usual—with far greater consequences not only for UN peacekeeping, but for the organization as a whole.

Crowding an already busy agenda, Secretary-General António Guterres has tabled ambitious proposals to restructure the UN’s peace and security architecture, reform the Secretariat’s administrative management system, and review the rate of reimbursement for peacekeepers—all of which delegates will consider alongside his $7.27 billion request for 13 missions (funding for the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan  and the UN Truce Supervision Organization, part of the regular budget, are decided in December). These proposals are intended to support the secretary-general’s multi-pronged effort to enable the UN to find political solutions to armed conflict, protect civilian lives, and support peacebuilding more effectively and with less loss of life by peacekeepers.

Peacekeeping Budget

Last June, major financial contributors succeeded in reducing the secretary-general’s initial budget request of $7.97 billion to $7.32 billion by significantly restructuring the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur, downsizing the UN Mission in Liberia (now closed), and transitioning from the UN Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH) to the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH). This year, the secretary-general has submitted a budget that mandates the expansion of troops in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Missions in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and Mali (MINUSMA) and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and enhances security following the Santos Cruz report on improving the security of UN peacekeepers—yet is marginally lower than last year’s approved total. The Security Council has also not significantly altered the mandate of or downsized other missions over the course of 2017. Both of these factors will complicate efforts to find significant cost savings in this year’s budget.

Peace and Security Reform

The secretary-general has proposed creating a new Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and a Department of Peace Operations to replace the current Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). The restructuring promises more regionally-integrated analysis and planning, continuity in expertise during transitions into, out of, and between peace operations, and improved technical assistance to UN country teams in countries without a peace operation in areas like analysis, justice, and security sector reform.

The secretary-general has won the political support of many member states, but some delegations have voiced lingering concerns, including how the reforms will translate into renewed attention to conflict prevention and sustaining peace and how “moving around boxes” at UN headquarters will improve mandate delivery in the field. Certain member states have also questioned why the merger of the regional divisions from DPA and DPKO into a single, shared regional structure would not reduce resource or staff requirements. While these can likely be sorted out, other countries—including at least one permanent member of the Security Council—have expressed more serious misgivings. These are likely related to the desire to preserve principles of non-interference in countries’ internal affairs, if not to check the influence of those permanent members that have traditionally led DPA and DPKO. Inside the UN Secretariat, there are also indications of anxiety among staff worried about how the reforms will impact their jobs—and at least a few pockets of more active resistance.

Management Reform

Responding to longstanding frustration with the UN’s Byzantine administrative rules and procedures, often criticized as better suited to managing conferences than complex field operations, the secretary-general’s report requests the Fifth Committee to delegate authority for financial, staffing and procurement decisions closer to the point of delivery. Greater delegation would give heads of UN missions, offices away from headquarters, and regional economic commissions greater ability to realign resources to evolving priorities. The proposals would simplify recruitment and enhance the mobility of staff, providing them with the right expertise when and where it is needed, and streamline procurement and logistics, which would expedite delivery of the most appropriate and cost-effective goods and services, including aviation, fuel, and rations. The report—a nearly 250-page, highly-technical document—further proposes realigning roles and responsibilities by creating a new Department of Operational Support (DOS), responsible for day-to-day administrative services and transactions for the whole of the Secretariat, including field operations, and a Department of Management, Policy, Standards and Compliance (DMPSC), focused on strategic guidance and oversight. In parallel, delegates will further consider the “Global Service Delivery Model” (GSDM) to consolidate and move transactional services like payroll to cheaper duty stations. These sweeping reforms aim to transform the UN into a “more nimble, effective, transparent, accountable, efficient, pragmatic and decentralized” organization.

Here, too, member states have questions and concerns—often legitimate—regarding appropriate financial safeguards, risk management, and accountability to accompany greater delegation of authority and decentralization. Some worry that dedicated support to field operations will be lost amid the Secretariat-wide focus of DOS, or that the risk-averse culture of the existing Department of Management will permeate the new DMPSC, diminishing the stated aim of a more “field-focused” organization. Reorganization under GSDM threatens to uproot hundreds of staff in New York, Geneva, Vienna, and elsewhere to new locations, causing deep anxiety. Given the complexity and volume of the secretary-general’s proposals, member states may also balk at the timing, arguing to delay—or only partly approve—implementation.

Troop Reimbursements

It is tempting to view the quadrennial consideration of the rate for reimbursing countries for their contributions of troops and formed police units as a sideshow to the other, higher profile items on the Fifth Committee agenda. The issue, however, is significant for troop and police contributing countries (TCCs/PCCs). After nearly a twenty-year interval without increase, member states struck a deal in 2012 by which monthly payments for troops have increased over the last four years to $1,410 per troop per month; TCCs and PCCs are likely to seek an increase amid mounting risks and higher causalities for their peacekeepers. Yet, troop reimbursement comprises nearly $1.5 billion of the annual peacekeeping budget, and major financial contributors will try to hold the line to prevent additional cost increases.

The convergence of these proposals in May and June will force difficult compromises among member states. Done well, a grand bargain could deliver both adequate financing to meet the operational needs of peacekeeping missions in even the most dangerous environments, and yield the most ambitious reconfiguration of the UN Secretariat since the creation of DPA and DPKO in 1992. This would transform the way the UN plans and implements crisis management. Together with the secretary-general’s efforts to reform the UN development system—aspects of which will also require Fifth Committee approval—these reforms have the potential to make the UN more responsive to today’s security, development, and human rights challenges.

Conversely, horse-trading among member states could equally deliver an outcome that results in a UN Secretariat that is more bureaucratic and inefficient, saddled with rules, structures, and resource allocations guided by political compromise rather than effectiveness. With so many priority issues for different member states and regional blocs on the table, Fifth Committee delegates can be expected to drive hard bargains, extracting concessions in exchange for pet priorities. Reaching consensus during the month-long session will test their diplomatic mettle. Doing so in a way that delivers a package of reforms that helps rather than hurts the United Nations will test their commitment to the organization and the purposes for which it was established.

A failure to secure approval for reform could weaken the credibility of the secretary-general, given the strong mandate for change he was elected on. But agreement on reforms that deepen dysfunction will weaken the credibility and effectiveness of the UN. Given the stakes involved, the secretary-general will need to follow the deliberations taking place in the basement of the Secretariat more closely than usual. Should he find that any emerging agreement among Fifth Committee delegates deviates so far from his vision on either peace and security or management reform that it would do a disservice to the UN, he should brief delegates on the likely consequences of their decision. If they prove unable to negotiate a more constructive deal, or unwilling to defer and give the secretary-general time to strengthen his case, he should consider withdrawing his proposals.

Jake Sherman is the Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.