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UN Budget vs. Rhetoric: Touting “Agenda for Peace” But Investing in Counterterrorism Instead?

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A new “Agenda for Peace” to be developed by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is the talk of the town at the United Nations. But one would be mistaken to think this is the only important game for those working on peace and security at the U.N. Hidden away in one of the many hundreds of pages of the institution’s annual budget request, which must be approved by all member States by the end of December 2022, is a proposal that could have significant implications for U.N. peace and security architecture. This proposal by the U.N. Secretary-General asks for a budget increase for the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism of 400 percent in 2023 and a total of 700 percent by 2024. The proposal is just the latest chronicle in the problematic rise of securitized counterterrorism in the U.N. system – and one that seems detached from other rhetoric coming from U.N. leadership on the body’s role in the world.

In September 2021, Guterres released his rhetorical plan for the future of the U.N. The “Common Agenda,” a report that looks ahead to the next 25 years, calls for an “inclusive, networked, and effective multilateralism to better respond to humanity’s most pressing challenges.” This is where the commitment emerged to produce a “New Agenda for Peace,” which will update the 30-year-old “An Agenda for Peace” written by the former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. This vision — to be completed in 2023 — would seek to identify major emerging challenges and re-imagine what role multilateral institutions can have in responding to such threats. Within the wider Common Agenda, counterterrorism was nowhere to be seen as a major U.N. priority. It was mentioned just once, in a longer list of potential actions to take in relation to reducing strategic risks in the New Agenda for Peace.

So why has a request for a huge increase in the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism’s budget taken place, when this does not appear to be a key part of the secretary-general’s vision? There are a few parts to this puzzle, involving a couple of U.N. budget requests, for the General Assembly Fifth Committee (responsible for administrative and budgetary matters) to consider.

Two UN Budget Requests

The Secretary-General has long called for a “quantum leap” in resources for the U.N.’s programs on Sustaining Peace. In April 2022, he followed this with a formal request for predictable support for the U.N. Peacebuilding Fund – which currently is entirely voluntary contributions. The proposal called for adding $100 million to the Fund annually from the U.N.’s regular budget (comprising assessed contributions from every state, based mainly on GDP) to support countries recovering from a conflict or experiencing the departure of a U.N. peace operation. The request received significant support from many countries most affected by conflict and insecurity, as well as from the Group of Friends of the Peacebuilding Fund (co-chaired by the U.K. and Sweden). Yet it did not receive consensus support — Brazil, China, and Japan, among others, were opposed — and therefore no resources were given to the Peacebuilding Fund to fill the clear gap identified by the Secretary-General. None of these objecting seemed to oppose the need to build peace, instead couching their opposition in technical concerns about procedures and mechanisms.

Compare this with the budget request in May 2022 for the 2023 operational budget, in which the secretary-general asked member states to increase their regular budget contributions for staffing in the Office of Counter-Terrorism (OCT) and to boost the office budget a whopping 700 percent over two years. The number of regular-budget staff positions would jump from 8 now to 33 in 2023, and 57 in 2024, giving this office twice as many staff on the regular budget as the U.N. Peacebuilding Support Office.

It is well-known that the Office of Counter-Terrorism is the fastest growing part of the U.N. system. But this did not occur through the negotiated central U.N. budget that requires all states in the General Assembly to agree. Rather, it occurred mostly via the deep pockets of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have provided huge resources that have allowed the office to have in excess of 150 staff total. This growth and wider U.N. counter-terrorism practices have been the subject of significant scrutiny from civil society, experts, and even some States. Despite all these resources, there is still very little evidence of U.N. OCT’s performance, oversight, or overall effectiveness.

There are rumors that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are wavering on renewing their substantial funding to U.N. OCT. This means the office could be about to run out of money. That would in some way explain the request to bring many staff members onto the regular budget. As some analysts have argued, this is the main precedent that could be cited for converting so many extra-budgetary positions in that office onto the regular budget. Others have speculated that funding pressure exists because these same donors are not in favor of allowing their resource contribution to be used to finance the office’s work on civil society engagement, gender issues, and human rights.

Yet importantly, none of this explains the potential disparity between the budget allocated to the U.N.’s main counterterrorism office and its main peacebuilding office – nor does it match the rhetoric of the secretary-general’s flagship proposal for his vision for the future.

What Comes Next?

While the next regular budget request for the Peacebuilding Fund will need to wait until 2023, the budget request for the Office of Counter-Terrorism is moving ahead. In the September 2022 assessment of the initial request for the OCT from the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) (a group of delegates from across the General Assembly membership), a few modifications were proposed. Instead of validating the full 33 positions requested, the ACABQ suggested 30 but noted that these should be “general temporary assistance positions” rather than established permanently on the regular budget, demonstrating a reluctance to unquestioningly rubber-stamp the formal growth of this office.

States now need to assess whether this really is a strategic investment of U.N. resources. On the one hand, the argument that the office should get an increase in predictable and sustained funding does make sense. The office is mandated to be a coordinating function for the U.N.’s work on counterterrorism, and some have argued that eight staff members do not allow for that coordination to happen in the way it should. But increasing this to 30 staff does not seem like normal growth trajectory.

In any case, some have argued that the unchecked growth of the OCT has gone well beyond the original mandate given to it in 2017, and that it should not fall to the regular budget to pick up the slack for ever-increasing staff levels. Moreover, there is still very little evidence of impact from OCT’s many programs. Providing significant resources before such evidence exists does not seem like a shrewd move for states wishing to see value for money in the U.N. system. And, as discussed above, it would seem that a precedent has been set by those states who opposed the Peacebuilding Fund on technical grounds that the work to improve internal systems must be done first, before a regular U.N. budget is granted.

Ironically, the Peacebuilding Fund, despite having its 2022 request for funding rejected, actually has a proven track record of success. It has significantly outperformed a system-wide target of funding gender empowerment efforts – 40 percent from the fund, compared with the 15 percent U.N. target. It is able to quickly allocate funding to places or situations in need of rapid peacebuilding and prevention efforts, and it has become a valuable partner for many civil society organizations. The proposal to bring some of the Peacebuilding Fund onto the regular budget was the right one, as the U.N. should have reliable resources to support countries experiencing transitions and stop them sliding back towards violent conflict.

Ultimately, for an outsider looking in, a U.N. budget that will make the Office of Counter-Terrorism twice as big as the Peacebuilding Support Office does raise eyebrows. It is important for member States to remember that rejecting the Secretary-General’s proposals for the Office of Counter-Terrorism does not equate to not supporting counterterrorism, as Eugene Chen has eloquently argued. In a world of financial constraint, it may instead mean that the proposal does not make strategic sense for other U.N. priorities, especially if the Office of Counter-Terrorism cannot show improvements in impact and accountability.

States should be clear in budget negotiations about standing up for values they claim the multilateral system represents. States that wish to see the U.N. strengthen its peacebuilding work and who see the Peacebuilding Fund as a key vehicle to do this should be alert to the risks of granting a huge regular-budget increase to simply provide more staff members in New York for the OCT. This is especially important as States that might not be supportive of human rights and the U.N.’s Sustaining Peace agenda are preventing investment in actual direct peacebuilding funds.

If member States approve the budget request for the Office of Counter-Terrorism, while at the same time stymying the Peacebuilding Fund’s support to communities recovering from conflict and fragility, that will be a sharp disconnect from the lofty rhetoric of the Common Agenda.

IMAGE: Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (L), Crown Prince, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, presents a check for $930 billion to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (R) following the signing of the Voluntary Financial Contribution Memorandum between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Nations to the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan at the United Nations on March 27, 2018 in New York.  (Photo by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images)

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