The United States is reportedly planning to withdraw all financial support from the United Nations’ key human rights bodies – the Human Rights Council and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) – and from the UN agency that provides humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees. [AP; CNN] John Bolton, the current U.S. National Security Advisor and former Ambassador to the UN, indicated the Trump administration wants to limit the work of the Human Rights Council, which it has accused of anti-Israel bias. [AP] In July, the U.S. gave up its seat on the Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental body that monitors human rights around the world. [IJRC: HRC] Similarly, the U.S. earlier reduced its funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), as part of an effort to influence the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [Foreign Policy: UNRWA]
The U.S. is currently the largest contributor to the UN’s regular budget, and also makes substantial voluntary contributions to OHCHR and UNRWA. [AP] While the outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, stated that the funding cuts would not be “fatal” to OHCHR, any reduction in financial support will certainly affect the UN’s work on human rights and refugee assistance. [Washington Post: OHCHR] These developments follow a series of recent U.S. withdrawals from several other significant international commitments, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Iran nuclear deal, and Paris Agreement. [IJRC: Paris Agreement; NY Times: Iran Nuclear Deal; Washington Post: TPP]
Impact on the UN’s Human Rights Work
The outgoing High Commissioner has stated that OHCHR “will continue to survive” if the U.S. carries out Bolton’s threat. [Washington Post: OHCHR] Nevertheless, the UN Secretary General said that large cuts in U.S. funding would “make it impossible for the UN to continue all of its essential work.” [NY Times: Budget Cuts] This includes the UN’s human rights work, which is one of the three pillars of the UN system. [NY Times: Budget Cuts] See OHCHR, What We Do; OHCHR, Funding and Budget.
The Human Rights Council and OHCHR carry out much of the UN’s human rights work. The Human Rights Council monitors, discusses, and takes action to address human rights violations around the world. See IJRC, Human Rights Council. It has created special procedures to closely follow and report on 44 thematic areas of concern and on conditions in 12 countries. The Council also established the Universal Periodic Review, whereby each UN Member State’s human rights record undergoes a peer evaluation every four years. Though this political organ certainly has shortcomings, its processes have advanced the normative framework and the international community’s responsiveness to human rights crises in critical ways. For its part, OHCHR both acts as the secretariat for the Human Rights Council and its subsidiary mechanisms and for UN human rights treaty bodies, and carries out its own human rights promotion and protection work, including through various in-country offices. See OHCHR, What We Do.
The reported aim of the U.S. reducing its financial support of the UN is to shrink its human rights work. [AP] Last month, the U.S. withdrew from its position on the UN Human Rights Council, which is one of the primary human rights bodies within the UN responsible for assessing Member States compliance with their human rights obligations. [IJRC: HRC] The U.S. is the first country to ever voluntarily leave the Human Rights Council Civil society members have expressed concern that the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council will weaken the Council’s ability to promote and protect human rights. Additionally, the U.S. retreat leaves an opening for further cuts; China and Russia, in particular, have also been eager to reduce the UN’s human rights work. [Foreign Policy: China; Foreign Policy: Russia]
OHCHR and Human Rights Council’s Funding
OHCHR and Human Rights Council receive funding from two primary sources, the UN regular budget and voluntary contributions from Member States. See OHCHR, Funding and Budget. The UN regular budget amounts to about 40 percent of OHCHR’s funding, and the voluntary contributions from Member States and other donors provide the remainder. See id. OHCHR acts as the secretariat of the Human Rights Council and maintains responsibility for supporting Human Rights Council programming. See UN General Assembly, Programme budget for the biennium 2018–2019, UN Doc. A/72/6/Add.1 (2018), ch. II; OHCHR, What We Do.
The UN regular budget is determined by a vote of the UN General Assembly every two years. See OHCHR, Funding and Budget. Every UN Member State, including the U.S., has an obligation to contribute to the UN regular budget. See Charter of the United Nations (adopted 26 June 2945, entered into force 24 October 1945) 1 UNTS XVI, art. 17. The amount that each Member State contributes to the UN regular budget, commonly referred to as an assessed contribution, is calculated based on the size and strength of each country’s economy. See UN General Assembly, Regular budget and working capital fund; UN General Assembly, Resolution 70/245, Scale of assessments for the apportionment of the expenses of the United Nations, UN Doc. A/RES/70/245, 23 December 2015, para. 6.
Each State’s possible contribution is capped at a maximum of 22 percent of the UN regular budget, while the minimum that a Member State may be obligated to contribute is .001 percent. See id. The U.S. contribution is set at 22 percent. See id. [Washington Post: Cut] The U.S. cannot directly withdraw financial support from OHCHR and Human Rights Council; rather, it will reduce its assessed contribution by the proportion that corresponds to those entities’ portion of the UN regular budget. [AP]
Despite the importance of human rights in the UN system, OHCHR receives a small portion of the UN regular budget. See OHCHR, Funding and Budget. For example, the 2018-19 budget only allocated 3.7 percent of the total to OHCHR. See id. OHCHR’s allocation from the UN regular budget has remained consistent over the past several years while its workload has continued to increase, for example with the Human Rights Council’s creation of several new special procedures (independent experts to monitor and report on human rights conditions). See id.
Due to its increased obligations and limited resources from the UN regular budget, OHCHR has relied more heavily on voluntary contributions from Member States. See id. The U.S. has been the largest voluntary donor to OHCHR in the past three years. See OHCHR, Our Donors. It contributed more than 20 million dollars in 2017, approximately 4 million more than the next largest voluntary contributor. See OHCHR, Voluntary Contributions to OHCHR in 2017. However, Member States may, and often do, earmark voluntary contributions to OHCHR for specific programmatic areas. See OHCHR, UN Human Rights Report (2017), 84. Only 8 million dollars of the U.S.’s 20 million in voluntary contributions in 2017 was not earmarked. See id. The remainder of the U.S.’s contribution was specifically set aside for OHCHR’s Humanitarian Trust Funds and OHCHR’s Field Offices. See id.
UNRWA has, since 1950, provided humanitarian assistance to Palestinians displaced in the 1948 conflict and their descendants, approximately one-third (1.5 million) of whom live in refugee camps. See UNRWA, Palestine Refugees. Its work is funded largely by voluntary contributions and, in part, by the UN regular budget. See UNRWA, Who We Are. The U.S. has historically been the single largest contributor to UNRWA. [CNN] The agency, which provides medical care, schooling, and other essential services for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. See UNRWA, What We Do. UNRWA described the U.S. decision to withdraw funding as a “politicization of humanitarian aid” and “radical departure” that was unrelated to its performance, but that leaves it with a critical budget shortfall. [UNRWA: Open Letter] It thanked other governments and donors for their additional contributions, and shows of support, that have allowed UNRWA to continue its operations thus far. [UNRWA: Urgent]
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