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UN’s Financial Troubles Jeopardize Critical Human Rights Work

Investigations into Abuses in Sudan, Ukraine, Syria, and Elsewhere at Risk

Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 24, 2019. © 2019 Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP

A cash crunch and hiring freeze at the United Nations threaten to hinder UN human rights investigations in places like Sudan, Ukraine, and Syria.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned UN member countries on January 25 that if those with outstanding dues do not pay up soon, the UN will be broke by August. In the meantime, the UN would take various cost-cutting measures, including reducing the number of meetings and lowering energy expenses at UN headquarters. The UN’s regular budget for 2024, which doesn’t include peacekeeping and some other UN activities, is US$3.6 billion.

The United States owes the most but continues to make partial payments. According to UN sources, the US owes $1.1 billion to the UN’s regular budget for 2023 and 2024 plus additional arrears. The Biden administration wants to pay, but Congress has not passed a budget that would allow it to do so. “The Biden administration is committed to working with Congress to ensure that the US fully pays its dues to the UN,” said Chris Lu, US ambassador for UN management and reform.

The US isn’t the only member country that has been slow to pay – 50 others hadn’t paid as of the end of 2023. China, the second biggest contributor, didn’t pay its dues until November, which exacerbated the UN’s liquidity problems.

UN management was forced to impose a hiring freeze last year. All UN departments are affected, including the handful of human rights investigations, most of which have relatively small staffs and budgets. For example, the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission for the Sudan, established four months ago has a one year mandate to investigate widespread atrocities, but still lacks investigators to carry out the mission. And while the freeze is supposed to allow exceptions for hiring essential staff, UN officials and diplomats told Human Rights Watch there was confusion about how to get those exceptions.

Delegations from China, Russia, Cuba, and others have been trying for years to defund UN human rights work in the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee, which oversees the budget. Their attempts in December to block funding for investigations into grave human rights abuses in Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Russia, Nicaragua and elsewhere failed.

The UN leadership and member countries should ensure that the UN’s human rights teams have funding and staff to fulfill their mandates. And governments that haven’t paid their assessed contributions should pay up. 

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