HL Deb 12 October 1998 vol 593 cc699-701

3.8 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What initiatives they are proposing to take to address the financial problems of the United Nations organisation.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, there is already a comprehensive European Union package of proposals under active consideration in New York. We played a leading role in its formulation. The package is aimed at returning United Nations finances to a predictable and sustainable state while making the level of individual contributions more equitable. The Government will continue actively to pursue those proposals, working in particular to develop more effective sanctions against those who do not meet their international legal obligations.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouraging news. Does she agree that the largest defaulter is the United States whose unpaid bills now amount to 2.5 billion dollars, in consequence of which resources must be diverted from peacekeeping to pay for administration? Are those of us who regard themselves as friends of the United States not best placed to do some straight talking and to point out that they cannot continue to invoke the United Nations when it suits their book but walk away from the table when the bill arrives?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course, the cash crisis is of very considerable concern. At the end of September the United Nations was owed 2.5 billion dollars in total in unpaid dues by 149 member states. The United States' share of this considerable sum is 1.5 billion dollars. The noble and learned Lord is right that the friends of the United States must raise this matter very clearly with them. It is worth saying that this issue is raised regularly by our ambassador in Washington; it has been raised by the Foreign Secretary; I, having day-to-day responsibility for our relationships with the United States, have raised it; and it has also been raised by the EU troika and within G8. We are attempting to ensure that we approach the United States often and robustly on this issue.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, pursuant to the important Question raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, I ask a rather more specific point. Given that Article 19 of the UN Charter revokes the right to vote in the UN General Assembly of any nation which falls more than two years behind in its UN payments, do the Government believe that Article 19 should be invoked if the United States continues to fail to pay its 1.5 billion dollar arrears?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we should like to see Article 19 of the United Nations Charter applied more strictly, and that was part of what we put forward in the European Union financial reform proposals to which I referred. However, it is worth noting that technically the United States is not in breach of Article 19 because its arrears do not currently amount to two years of its payments. Article 19 is next due for review in January 1999. Whether the United States loses its vote will depend on the payments it makes before that date. I hope that that clarifies the position for the noble Lord.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, we commend the Government and the European Union for the initiative they have taken. Can the Minister say where she stands on the issue of conditionality being attached to the payment of subscriptions, such as those recently attached by the US Congress to payments to the International Monetary Fund? Finally, will Her Majesty's Government make strong representations to Washington in view of the scale of the humanitarian crisis that is emerging in Asia and Russia, which is bound to make still further demands on United Nations agency funding?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope that I have made the conditionality point clear. Perhaps I may state unequivocally that it is Her Majesty's Government's position that member countries should pay what they owe and that they should pay it promptly. On 28th April the United States Congress passed an omnibus spending Bill which, among other things, would authorise payment of 926 million dollars United Nations arrears over three years. However, that legislation, as I am sure the noble Baroness knows—and I believe that this is the matter to which she is referring—includes unrelated abortion provisions which the administration said would cause President Clinton to veto the whole of the finance Bill. That is the current position in the United States. Her Majesty's Government are clear that that kind of conditionality cannot be applied. Nations must pay what they owe, when they owe it.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to my noble friend for the very full and perhaps unprecedentedly frank account of the matter which she has just given. Do the Government share the conviction of many of us that, if the United States were forced to leave the United Nations, that would be the gravest disaster which could happen in world affairs, bearing in mind that many people, myself among them, believe that the greatest single cause of World War II was the fact that the United States was absent from the League of Nations throughout? The risk of a repetition of that would, I hope, lead the Government to measures of moderation as well as the sanctions which she has suggested.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not think that what I said was unprecedented. I recall saying some very similar, unequivocal things on the payment of arrears in the past. Of course, it is beyond thought that such an eventuality as the noble Lord indicates should arise. The United States is a very substantial paymaster in the United Nations. I stress that the United States is not alone in being in arrears: 149 countries are currently in arrears. I also reiterate that technically the United States is not in breach of Article 19 at the moment and we must hope that that remains the case through the United States starting to make more payments to the United Nations.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what reasons the United States gives in its conversations with her, her colleagues and officials as to why it is in arrears with its United Nations payments?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, those to whom I speak wish that the United States were not in arrears. I hoped I had fully explained to the House that it is the United States Congress and the way that Congress has passed the omnibus spending Bill that is the problem here. I believe I am right in saying that there are many members of the United States administration who would very much like the full payments owing to the United Nations to be made.