In the early morning of July 4, the Fifth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly finally reached agreement on the 2018-2019 peacekeeping budgets and a package of reforms to restructure the UN. The deal followed two months of negotiations, and came four days after the expiry of last year’s budgets left missions in financial limbo. While deep divides were overcome by UN member states to approve the $6.69 billion budget, these negotiations portend further contestation over budgetary and policy considerations in the months ahead.
The peacekeeping budget approved by member states encompasses 12 peacekeeping operations and the UN logistical support operation in Somalia. It is nearly $580 million less than the amount requested by Secretary-General António Guterres, and $122 million less than that recommended by the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), which traditionally provides a baseline for negotiations. The UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) faced the most significant reductions, along with the Support Account used to finance staff backstopping. The budget also reflects a modest increase of $18 per person per month in the rate of troop reimbursement to $1,428, adding approximately $20 million to the annual peacekeeping budget.
However, the significant overall budget reduction comes with several caveats, as it only includes six months of operating costs for the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and excludes support to presidential and legislative elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by MONUSCO. A further six months budget for UNAMID, to be submitted later in the year, and the cost of election support in DRC, could together push the total back towards $7 billion.
One of the most contentious aspects of the budget negotiation was proposed cuts to human rights staff, as reported by Foreign Policy and the New York Times. The secretary-general proposed a total of 471 human rights posts, of which China proposed to abolish or not establish 35 posts and Russia called for a 50 percent cut to the human rights budget. While both countries have demonstrated a hostility to human rights at the UN, the targeting of human rights positions has also proven a reliable negotiating gambit against which to stake other interests, particularly with European countries. In the end, the Fifth Committee approved all but six human rights-related positions, affecting MONUSCO, the UN Support Operation in Somalia (UNSOS), and UN headquarters. In a similar maneuver, Russia proposed cutting the entire budget for environmental activities. In exchange for backing off, Russia got what it wanted: minimal reductions to the air operations budgets, much of which goes to Russian commercial contracts to provide service in missions.
In a decision that will change the face of the UN’s peace and security architecture in New York, the committee approved the secretary-general’s proposals to create a new Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and Department of Peace Operations (DPO), effective January 1, 2019. The two departments will share a set of geographic divisions responsible for both political analysis and operational oversight of field missions. The secretary-general’s vision was accepted with changes, however.
Yielding to strong demands by African member states, the committee created an additional regional division for Africa, up from three. Yet the decision, which seems intended to protect a senior director-level post, will likely not address concerns that the assistant secretary-general responsible for Africa will have sufficient bandwidth to both oversee the seven peacekeeping operations and eight special political missions on the continent, and maintain a focus on conflict prevention and analysis in non-mission environments.
In a fit of micromanagement, the Fifth Committee also blocked the transfer of the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) to DPO, undermining the idea of a department of “peace operations.” Resistance came from the United States and Japan, who argued that the designation of a lead department should be based on clear criteria. While some will see an effort by the US to maintain the influence of the current Department of Political Affairs (DPA), which is led by a US national, the decision was more likely influenced by concern that the move would strengthen calls for special political missions to be funded from the UN peacekeeping budget. DPA had already managed to maintain most special political missions (SPMs) during interdepartmental negotiations during the formulation of Secretary-General Guterres’ proposal, whereas the US, together with the other permanent members of the Security Council, has long sought to avoid moving SPMs to the peacekeeping scale, as it pays a smaller share of the cost of the UN regular budget.
In relative terms, the biggest loss was to the augmentation of the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO). Member states rejected transferring three posts—out of a total of seven requested posts—from elsewhere in DPA and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Different motivations were at play—some member states, including China, are wary of peacebuilding and the Sustaining Peace agenda, while others are opposed to using the Support Account, which funds backstopping for peacekeeping, for this purpose.
The secretary-general also received approval for the reorganization of the administrative and management system governing the secretariat, UN offices away from headquarters, and field missions, replacing the Department of Management and Department of Field Support with a new Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, and Department of Operational Support, along with the creation of a new consolidated Office of Information and Communications Technology. The reforms aim to address duplication of effort, reorient policies designed for non-mission settings to better fit the needs of the field, consolidate and streamline budget formulation, procurement, and other administrative functions, as well as address piecemeal delegation of authority, empowering managers and decision-makers.
Yet, it remains unclear whether member states are willing to go far enough to address longstanding frustrations with the UN’s inefficient, risk-adverse administrative bureaucracy. An immediate decision on consolidating human resource functions in a single department was deferred pending a “comparative assessment” later this fall, reportedly at Singapore’s insistence, when the General Assembly will also consider revamping human resources procedures—arguably the biggest challenge facing the UN. The Fifth Committee will also closely scrutinize any proposed amendments to the financial and staff regulations, which will be necessary for overhaul the UN’s recruitment and mobility procedures. Similarly, decisions on consolidating transactional support functions—including payroll, payment of entitlements, and travel—under the Global Service Delivery model, were deferred until the fall amid stiff resistance from affected member states, like Uganda.
With continued drawdown, transition, and closure of peacekeeping missions in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Haiti, and now Darfur, the overall peacekeeping budget continues to fall from a high of $8.57 billion in 2014-2015. Financing for human rights, environmental initiatives, and peacebuilding activities that ease the transition to UN country teams are growing more contested, as are overall debates on collective burden sharing. This session of the Fifth Committee saw member states posturing and positioning ahead of what will be extremely contentious negotiations this fall on the budgetary scales of assessment, amid a growing share for China and vocal US demands to pay less. Likewise, realizing Secretary-General Guterres’ vision to make the UN “more nimble, effective, transparent, accountable, efficient, pragmatic and decentralized,” remains a work in progress—but the reforms approved by the Fifth Committee are a significant step forward.
Jake Sherman is Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI).