HL Deb 13 April 1999 vol 599 cc622-4

3 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their latest estimate of the total shortfall in contributions to the United Nations by its member states; which member states are now most in arrears, and by how much; and what are the implications for those states in terms of the rules of procedure of the United Nations.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, at the end of 1998, the United Nations was owed over 2 billion dollars by member states. The United States was responsible for over 60 per cent. of that total. Under Article 19 of the United Nations Charter, member states with arrears greater than the total of their previous two years' dues may lose their vote in the General Assembly.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. However, at a time when it is becoming clear that, were the United Nations not to exist it would be necessary to invent something precious like it, does my noble friend agree that it is sad that the United States, as a permanent member of the Security Council, is not demonstrating its full commitment to the United Nations system? Can she assure the House that there is no danger that the failure to pay reflects a hidden policy within the United States; namely, to take attention away from the UN and to put it increasingly in the hands of NATO?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is lamentable that the United States has fallen so far into arrears, and in particular on the peacekeeping element of its budget. At the end of last year, the United States was some 976 million dollars in arrears on that aspect of the budget. It is worth pointing out that the United States administration's intention to address these problems was recently re-stated by President Clinton in his State of the Union address on 19th January. President Clinton has now presented his 2000 Budget for the fiscal year starting 1st October 1999. It includes a request for the repayment particularly of the 966 million dollars of UN arrears without conditions.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, does the Minister recall that in the gracious Speech the Government promised to give high priority to improving the finances of the United Nations? What specifically did they have in mind when they made that statement? Was it just pie in the sky, or are they actually achieving anything?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, I believe we are achieving on a number of issues. The European Union tabled a number of reform proposals before the election, in January 1996. Those have been vigorously pursued by Her Majesty's Government. We have seen the appointment of Miss Louise Frechette as Deputy Secretary-General in the United Nations. She has particular responsibility for examining these matters.

It is extremely important that we all attempt to raise these issues at whatever point we can with the United States—certainly with the administration, but also at the level of Congress Members. I recently raised it with the United States Speaker, Mr. Hastert, on 1st April this year. He was leading a cadre of Congressmen to this country. The Foreign Secretary has also raised the issue with Mrs. Albright. It is important that wherever we can, and that includes Members of this House, we make the point forcefully to our friends in the United States that they must pay their arrears.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, if the review is multi-faceted, what are the stumbling blocks to decision-making as regards the senior management group's review of reform?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, there has been some progress as regards reform. It is important that we do not paint an entirely black picture on the reform front in the United Nations. I mentioned Miss Frechette: and there have been improvements where the Secretary-General has had the ability to force those improvements through, notably greater co-ordination between different parts of the system in the United Nations and an improved top level management structure. Problems arise where there is a need for intergovernmental agreement as to how to move forward, and where some countries may perceive that their national interest is being compromised. It is in those areas that we find the major stumbling blocks.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is it not correct that the trouble probably lies in Congress rather than in the United States administration? With that in mind, and the realisation that there is a strong body of opinion in the United States that NATO is an effective body and the United Nations is not—whether or not that opinion is correct is another matter—this is a difficult matter to overcome. If it is not overcome, it suggests that the future of the United Nations might be in jeopardy.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we must recognise that there are a number of different. elements at work in the United States Congress. I have no doubt that the noble Lord is right and that some in Congress are indeed doubtful about the importance of the United Nations in terms of the United States' national interest. However, there are others who give priority to the abortion issue, which we must not lose sight of when considering the difficulties of the United States in paying the arrears. Those two points have come together in the United States Congress. The key problem is that those two groups, having united, have also presented conditions to the United States administration which the administration found impossible to see through in last year's budget. It is important that we recognise where the problems really lie and that we all take the opportunity to talk to Congressmen as well as to the United States administration and the Government about the position in which they are putting themselves, as well as the United States and the United Nations, in not paying their arrears.

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