The Fifth Committee: A Last Line of Defense
Numbers define where priorities lie. When it comes to public spending, budget allocations play by the same rules as any political process: they reveal the importance placed on certain issues, they reflect national priorities, and provide accountability for citizens, who want to know how their taxes are spent. Inside the United Nations, this intertwining of money and politics becomes particularly evident in the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly, the organ that deals with administrative and budgetary matters and where resolutions and mandates become concrete and actionable. Unfamiliar to many people, the Fifth Committee fulfils one of the UN’s most vital functions. The EU Delegation’s team explains how it works!
“How Member States allocate their funding is a revelation of their political priorities”, explains Thibault Camelli, Head of Section, Fifth Committee, at the EU Delegation. “Paying a contribution to the UN, or even negotiating one, is essentially a political action beyond a financial obligation”, he adds. “Mandates given to UN bodies need resources to be implemented, but not all countries agree to those resources: defunding a mandate is the ultimate way to undermine its implementation. As a result, the Fifth Committee is often the last line of defense for UN Mandates."
In this context, budget negotiations become an indicator of geopolitical dynamics, echoing many of the discussions that take place in other spaces.
For the EU, the key priority is to ensure that all mandates are adequately funded, including the human rights pillar, which also includes issues like gender equality or humanitarian assistance. As a result, the EU and its Member States have become one of the Secretary-General’s most trusted allies to ensure that mandates are funded appropriately and all voices are heard.
It is in the Fifth Committee where the EU must fight the last battle to ensure that human rights, gender equality, women peace and security (WPS), among others, are not left out from political discussions. Every year, the budget for these activities is under attack by a small group of countries that do not share our commitment to human rights. “We fight so hard not because a few more dollars will make a huge difference, but to ensure that the human rights pillar retains its important place in the structure of the UN”, asserts Axel von Schwerin, Deputy Head of Section.
How does the Fifth Committee work?
Even though negotiations take place in New York, the main decisions on the budget are based on requests by UN entities, including programme managers in the field.
The EU principles of solidarity and burden-sharing
With the biggest collective GDP in the UN system, the EU is also the largest contributor, representing about 24 percent of the whole UN regular budget (peacekeeping missions are funded through a separate budget, see below). In the eyes of the General Assembly, the 27 Member States that comprise the EU act as a bloc and speak with one voice, yet each of them is an individual UN member with own priorities.
The EU Delegation plays a key role in finding a common EU position that can be defended in the Fifth Committee. “We want to avoid prescribing the position of EU Member States upon entering negotiations”. “It is our role to get them together, hear them out and find a shared message that unifies them”, explains Katarina Salaj, Political Attaché at the Delegation.
Another key element that guides the work of the EU Delegation is the principle of burden-sharing, by which delegates from the 27 Member States organize in teams and communicate the outcomes of their discussions to the others, who agree to defend a common EU position. “This process is a great step forward and manifests the common foreign policy of the EU”, emphasizes von Schwerin. The burden-sharing teams are also an asset to coordinate with our traditional allies, called the “likeminded countries”: its common position gives the EU more weight and allows it to be more assertive in promoting its 27 Member States’ priorities.
Since not all EU Member States’ missions have equal human resources, the principle of burden-sharing also allows smaller countries to follow the resolutions and make their voices heard. “We are aware of how important it is for some Member States to know that a trusted team of experts is defending their goals and priorities. These are the values of trust and solidarity that define the EU and guide our work”, explains Salaj.
Shifting priorities in the midst of COVID-19
As millions struggled to adapt to the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN also had to swiftly adjust to this new reality. Travel and mobility were reduced, prompting a dramatic shift in the resources to ICT—Information and Communications Technology—as programme managers switched to remote work. More resources were also allocated to the communications department, including to address the growing scourge of disinformation and misinformation around the virus.
For the EU Delegation, the overarching priority this year was to ensure that there would be enough funds to implement the mandates in the COVID-19 context. The UN budget for 2021 is the largest ever adopted by the General Assembly. “With so much uncertainty weighing on the shoulders of the Secretary-General, we needed to make sure that he would still be able to deliver on the mandates”, remarks Camelli.
Another victory for the likeminded, spearheaded by the EU, has been the funding for the human rights pillar, one of the most contentious issues of the budget. Not only have the EU and its allies managed to stop the erosion of human rights mandates for this year, but they have exceeded their expectations and secured more resources for this programme than recommended by the UN’s Advisory Committee (ACABQ).
Yet, not all outcomes have been satisfactory. The budget for 2021, for instance, did not fully reflect the support of the EU for the Secretary-General’s reform agenda, an ambitious and comprehensive plan aimed at transforming the UN into a more effective, streamlined and accountable organization. The EU will continue to support and defend these reforms through various means and negotiations, notably so in the upcoming session that will tackle the reform of the human resources policies in the UN.
A look back at history: why do peacekeeping missions have a different budget?
To fully understand the relevance of the work of the Fifth Committee, one must understand the reasons why the League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN, failed in the 1920s. Most people focus on the political developments that followed its creation, yet the underlying cause of the failure of such an ambitious project was the lack of agreement on how to finance it.
Building on this experience, one of the first decisions taken in the early 1940s—before the UN was established—was that all Member States of the new organization would pay a contribution to fund its activities and mandates. At first, there was only one budget—one type of contribution to the UN. However, when the first peacekeeping operations were created, all Member States realized that the cost of those missions—which grew in number over time—was so significant compared to the budget of the UN itself that it made sense to isolate them. In recent years, the funding for these operations has come up to $6 billion—almost double the regular budget of the UN.
The first two peacekeeping operations deployed by the UN—the Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in the Middle East and the Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP)—are the only ones embedded in the regular budget of the UN. All other missions created after the mid-1960s have a separate account and budget.
Last year, numerous delegations — including the EU — asked the Secretary-General to stop printing reports for the Fifth Committee because they were very voluminous and are available online in all UN official languages. The Secretariat indicated that this decision alone would allow the UN to save a quarter-million dollars each year.