UN Human Rights Bodies May Curtail Work Amid Funding Shortage

Jens Modvig, Chair of the Committee against Torture
Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Governments’ failure to fully fund the United Nations now threatens the work of the UN human rights treaty bodies that review States’ compliance with their human rights obligations, making it likely that six of the 10 bodies will have to skip the sessions they have planned for later this year. [OHCHR Press Release; IPS] The chairs of the human rights treaty bodies have responded to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ notice of the funding shortfall with their own letter, also addressed to the UN Secretary General, highlighting the urgency of the situation and urging UN leaders and Member States to avert the impending crisis. [OHCHR Press Release] Experts warn that without the necessary funds, protections for global human rights will be dangerously reduced. [IPS] These cuts come at an especially sensitive time for the protection of human rights, as observers note the rise in right-wing and authoritarian governments, shrinking space for civil society, and a backlash on women’s rights. [IPS] While the OHCHR did not identify the specific reasons for the funding shortfall, the UN has recently warned of a funding shortage caused by the Member States’ chronic failure to make their assessed dues on time and in full, causing the UN to use up its reserves at a time when its largest contributor, the United States, is reducing its contributions. [UN News; IPI Global Observatory; IJRC]

Impact of the Funding Shortage

According to Jens Modvig, Chair of the Committee Against Torture, the severity of the funding shortage for 2019 presents “unprecedented consequence[s].” [The Globe Post] The lack of funds to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is likely to force six of the treaty bodies to cancel their last session this year. [OHCHR Press Release] Additionally, these bodies may be forced to forego certain aspects of their work, including the review of State reports and interactive dialogues that have already been scheduled, ongoing country-monitoring efforts, and the consideration of individual complaints alleging human rights abuses. [The Globe Post; OHCHR Press Release] In addition to the treaty bodies, other human rights mechanisms, including various fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry that conduct vital work on human rights monitoring and accountability will be similarly impaired by the reduction in resources. [IPS]

Modvig also stressed the importance and legally binding nature of the treaty bodies’ work, as well as Member States’ obligations to ensure these treaty bodies are able to fulfill their mandates – which are based on international human rights conventions that Member States have signed and ratified – by paying their dues in a timely manner. [The Globe Post]

UN Finances

Each UN Member State has an obligation to pay a share of the UN budget, known as “assessed contributions,” based on a calculation that accounts for the size and strength of each State’s economy. See id. As of May 20, 2019, only 98 of the 193 UN Member States have paid in full their assessed contributions. See UN General Assembly, Committee on Contributions. While approximately 75% of Member States typically pay their dues in full by the end of the year, the UN’s financial strain has worsened since 2016 as the total amount owed by Member States – and especially the United States – has grown, causing the UN to exhaust its reserves last year. See generally, Internet Archive, General Assembly of the United Nations, Committee on Contributions; Financial Situation of the United Nations: Statement by Jan Beagle, Under-Secretary-General for Management, 16 Oct. 2018; UN, Prompt, Full Payment Key to Carrying Out United Nations Mandate amid ‘Precarious’ Cash Position of Regular Budget, Top Management Official Tells Fifth Committee, 16 Oct. 2018; Global Policy Forum, US vs. Total Debt to the UN.

The United States, one of 95 governments that have not paid their 2019 contributions, owes the largest amount. See UN Secretariat, Assessment of Member States’ contributions to the United Nations regular budget for the year 2019, UN Doc. ST/ADM/SER.B/992, 24 December 2018; UN General Assembly, Committee on Contributions. States that maintain a debt equal to one year’s contributions for at least two years may lose their vote in the General Assembly. See General Assembly of the United Nations, Arrears in the payment of contributions (Article 19). The Trump administration has intentionally sought to cut U.S. contributions to the UN and specifically to its human rights work. [Foreign Policy; IJRC]

Human Rights Funding in the UN System

The OHCHR receives approximately 40 percent of its budget from funds allocated under the UN’s regular budget, with the remaining majority of its funds provided by Member States on a voluntary basis. See OHCHR, OHCHR’s Funding and Budget. The amount of funds from the UN’s regular budget reserved for human rights work is just a small fraction of the overall budget – 3.7 percent ($201.6 million USD) of the regular budget for the 2018-2019 cycle. See id. This figure is a significant reduction in funding from previous years, which increases the strain on an already tight budget given that official human rights mandates continue to grow in scope and size, and is not sufficient for the OHCHR to fulfill its mandate. See id.

For 2019, the OHCHR determined that it needed $321.5 million USD in addition to what was allocated from the UN regular budget in order to effectively respond to the assistance requests that it has received. See OHCHR, OHCHR’s Funding and Budget. This amount includes $20,702,000 USD for the operation of the UN treaty bodies –  $14,473,000 USD from the regular budget and $6,229,000 USD in extrabudgetary resources, or voluntary contributions. See OHCHR, United Nations Human Rights Appeal 2019 (2019), 26.

As of April 30th, OHCHR has received only $85.5 million in voluntary contributions, falling far short of the $187.1 million it collected in 2018. OHCHR, Our donors. It is significant that the United States, one of the largest contributors, has yet to pay its assessed contribution to the UN for 2019 and, thus far, has made a voluntary contribution to the OHCHR for 2019 that is more than $18 million lower than in 2018. See UN General Assembly, Committee on Contributions; OHCHR, Our donors; United Nations Human Rights, Voluntary contributions to OHCHR in 2018.

Other Human Rights Funding Crises

The often precarious nature of funding for international human rights bodies was highlighted in 2016 when a regional oversight body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), nearly had to take drastic measures to keep operating. [IACHR Press Release] In that situation, the IACHR’s inability to secure funding nearly caused it to cancel its ordinary period of sessions and lay off almost half of its staff. [IACHR Press Release] The relatively quick mobilization of State donors in response to its urgent request for resources allowed the IACHR to continue its work. [IACHR Press Release]

And, in the late 1990s, the U.S. risked losing its General Assembly vote when its debt to the UN mounted amid a domestic political debate around U.S. support for the international organization it helped establish, in San Francisco, in 1945. [NYT: Arrears] At the time, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan referred to the U.S. debt as a “debilitating problem” that benefitted “violators of human rights whose abuses we endeavor to curtail.” [NYT: Kofi Annan]

UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies

The United Nations human rights treaty bodies are committees of experts created to monitor governments’ implementation of the UN human rights conventions. See IJRC, UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies. The 10 human rights treaty bodies undertake a large portion of the oversight and development of international human rights law, and they each cover a specified area of human rights protection under their respective treaties. See id. The committees include: the Human Rights Committee; the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; the Committee Against Torture; the Committee on Migrant Workers; the Committee on Enforced Disappearances; the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; the Committee on the Rights of the Child; the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. See id.

The committees review and assess States’ implementation of their human rights obligations, provide greater clarification and guidance on the law contained in the relevant treaties, and – in the case of eight bodies – decide individual complaints concerning alleged human rights violations. See id. These bodies hold approximately two to three sessions per year, when the committee members convene to conduct their work and which serve the additional purpose of providing an opportunity for civil society organizations to voice their concerns and raise awareness of human rights issues in front of their governments and the rest of the world. [IPS]

Additional Information

For more information on the UN human rights treaty bodies, and the UN human rights system, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To stay up-to-date on international human rights law news, visit IJRC’s News Room and subscribe to the IJRC Daily.