Wereldbeeld 2014 / jg. 38 / nr. 170 / Internationale Organisaties
Artikel 4 van 11

Negotiating UN Finances: the Functioning of the Fifth Committee of the UN General Assembly

Peter Maddens, Jan De Preter, Katrien Meuwissen

The Fifth Committee of the UN General Assembly (UN GA) is the committee that is responsible for administrative and budgetary matters. It is the place where member states act as legislators and shareholders to define the budget of the organization and to agree upon all administrative and human resources procedures of the world body. This is a complex political and technical undertaking.  It is neglected in literature and often misunderstood.  The whole process of budget negotiations, based on establishing the broadest possible agreement singles out the Fifth Committee decision making process in the UN context. Indeed, the functioning of the UNGA Fifth Committee reveals a power game and negotiation dynamics that are exemplary for the United Nations, as negotiations about financing in the Fifth Committee are in essence debates about authority, influence and ultimately control of the UN. While being burdensome, the process of reaching consensus in the Fifth Committee is also meaningful, as it opens up space for scrutiny of UN decisions taken in other UN bodies by the full membership of the organization.

On 7 October 2013, the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies,[1] the United Nations Association Flanders Belgium (Vereniging voor de Verenigde Naties – VVN)[2] and the UN Regional Information Centre Western Europe (UNRIC)[3] jointly organised a lunch lecture on the functioning of the UN GA Fifth Committee.  Jan de Preter, the former Belgian delegate to the Fifth Committee, shed light on the functioning of this body.

This text is largely based upon the lunch lecture. In a first section, we explain the technical basics of UN financing, we focus upon the construction of the UN budget and other relevant Fifth Committee’s procedures. In a second part, we ‘uncover the procedural veil’ and highlight the politics behind UN financing. Accordingly, this paper aims not only to clarify the budgetary work of the UN GA Fifth Committee, but has the intention to indicate its relevance for the functioning of the United Nations as a whole.

The Technical Aspects

Article 17 of the UN Charter provides the legal foundation for the UN’s financial organization:

1) The General Assembly shall consider and approve the budget of the Organization.

2) The expenses of the Organization shall be borne by the Members as apportioned by the General Assembly.

3) The General Assembly shall consider and approve any financial and budgetary arrangements with specialized agencies […] and shall examine the administrative budgets of such specialized agencies with a view to making recommendations to the agencies concerned.’

These short and simple legal provisions form the basis for the huge agenda and complex procedures of the UNGA Fifth Committee, resulting in an impressive outcome: almost half of all resolutions the General Assembly produces during one working year or session, are resolutions initially negotiated in the Fifth Committee.[4] These resolutions make the UN machinery run; they pertain to all administrative and budgetary matters that are necessary to make the world body function. The main focus of the Committee is therefore on human resources, audit and oversight, administrative rules and procedures (procurement, …), the different budgets of the UN and finally the apportionment of the expenses among member states (the famous “scale of assessment”, see below section 1.3).

With regard to the budget, the General Assembly considers the different budgets of the UN itself, i.e. the programme budget of the UN (the so-called ‘regular budget’), the budgets of the individual peace keeping operations, the budgets of ad hoc tribunals like Rwanda and Yugoslavia and any other temporary project approved by the Security Council or the General Assembly that requires a separate budget and ad hoc funding (like, for instance, the special budget for the renovation of the UN Headquarters in New York, the Capital Master Plan).

The Fifth committee has a de jure advisory role in the budgets of the specialized agencies of the UN (like WHO, ILO, UNESCO) and the budgets of the voluntary financed funds and programs (like WFP, UNDP, UNICEF, …) but these entities are de facto independently governed by their own boards, bodies and assemblies. Their relationship with the Fifth Committee is complex however, as member states that are not well represented in these boards try to tip the balance of power back to the GA and the Fifth Committee.  They claim these boards (that have a limited composition) are dominated by western donors that use their contributions to circumvent decision making in the General Assembly with its universal membership.

It has to be noted that member states that want to contribute on a voluntary basis to the UN (most often in the field of development and humanitarian assistance) are entirely free to do so outside the scope of Article 17 of the UN Charter and the procedures of the Fifth Committee.  Over the course of the last 70 years, the share of these voluntary contributions has grown and become much larger than the assessed or compulsory contributions to the UN.  The fact that many UN entities are entirely or largely dependent upon voluntary contributions has given rise to a political debate between member states on how these voluntary contributions should or should not be used.  Some entities like  the UN Funds and Programs (WFP, UNICEF, UNDP, …) have always been entirely financed through voluntary contributions; other entities like OHCHR, UNRWA are integral part of the programme-budget but rely on voluntary contributions for their ever increasing operational activities.  This debate also pertains as to the purview of the Fifth Committee with regard to the management and control of these voluntary contributions.  In the perception of western donors, they should be managed outside the politicized framework of the  Fifth Committee.  Large developing countries and emerging economies, on the other hand, claim that by keeping voluntary contributions outside the realm of the General Assembly, western donors are trying to circumvent the legislative organs of the UN.

The UN and all its agencies and funds spend about $30billion on an annual basis.  The  Fifth Committee is directly responsible for more than 1/3rd of this amount, the remaining part is managed by local boards and committees.  This is a large amount of money that continues to grow, as member states continue to call upon the UN for different mandates and activities.  Since 2008 and the wake of the financial crisis, we see a small decline in voluntary contributions, while regular contributions continue to grow.  In the last 15 years the UN has undergone a dramatic operational expansion in a wide range of fields, from human rights to development.  Most notable however, has been a fourfold increase in peacekeeping activities of the UN.  A field that continues to grow with, in 2013-14 alone, new operations in Mali and the Central African Republic while maintaining and continued presence in countries like DRC, South-Sudan etc.

The relationship between this increasing demand on the one hand, and the growing pressure on western member states’ budgets due to the international financial and economic crisis on the other hand, has been very controversial over the last five years and has been defining for the agenda of the  Fifth Committee.  Especially the United States has a very turbulent history vis-à-vis the UN budgets.  The US is by far the largest contributor, granting up to 22% of the UN regular budget, and almost 30% of peacekeeping missions. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the US has also a determining role in the approval of new mandates.  At the same time it has very clear opinions on what the UN should spend and how it should spend it, often led by a hostile Congress and/or an Administration that is not always “pro-UN”.  This financial and political cocktail makes UN Reform by far the most contentious issue that can be discussed in a Fifth Committee context (see below section 2.3).

The UN Programme Budget

The UN programme budget covers expenses for core UN activities through the three pillars of the United Nations: peace and security, development and human rights (see scheme below). The programme budget covers expenses for overall policy-making, political affairs, international justice and law, cooperation for development, human rights and several administrative activities.  As said, peacekeeping missions have their own budgets.   As is the case for any administration or civil service, the lion share of the UN programme budget goes to expenses such as salaries and allowances of staff, transport and communications, office equipment, conference services, interpretation and translation and other running costs. The regular programme budget finances the costs not only of UN headquarters in New York, but also of its main offices (in Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi and regional commissions (in Addis Ababa, Amman, Bangkok, and Santiago)[5] as well as more than sixty UN information offices in various countries across the world[6]. Considering the number and geographical scope of the UN’s offices and the variety of its functions, the budget is relatively small. In recent years, the UN regular budget expanded, as the number of special political missions and human rights activities has increased along with those of UN reforms (management and control structures being enhanced, information systems strengthened and UN agents better trained).  Almost 20% of the budget is spent in so-called special political missions.  These are field missions without a military component, often in post-conflict areas. The largest special political missions are UNAMA (Afghanistan) and UNAMI (Iraq).  These missions are approved by the Security Council.

The regular UN budget is set every two years and the process leading up to the approval of the budget is top heavy and very bureaucratic.[7] The UN Secretary- General (SG), being the UN’s ‘chief administrative officer’ (art. 97 UN Charter), is responsible for preparing the budget. The very first step in the budget process, is the SG’s submission to the Fifth Committee of a proposed level of the next biennial budget. This very rough estimate of the amount of resources the SG plans to request is approved by the General Assembly in the “outline resolution” the year before the year in which the budget will be considered in detail by the Assembly. The outline is, therefore, presented to the GA in the last trimester of the first year of the biennium. The budget process, therefore, starts up to 40 months before the end of the cycle to which it pertains. In today’s fast-paced world, this is a problem that requires reflection. Next, the proposed programmed activities of the UN (the mandates) are submitted to the Committee for Programme and Co-ordination (CPC)[8]. The CPC is an intergovernmental committee that consists of 34 members and is charged with the coordination and the review of all programs and mandates that fall under the umbrella of ECOSOC and the General Assembly[9].  The report of the CPC has to be approved by the General Assembly.  Once approved, the Secretary-General proposes a budget that in his view matches the programs (hence, the UN “programme budget”).  The SG’s proposal is sent to another expert committee, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ). The ACABQ provides recommendations on the proposed budget from a financial perspective.   ACABQ is composed of 16 members appointed by the General Assembly on the basis of broad geographical representation.  The ACABQ members function in their individual capacity.[10] Belgium delivered an ACABQ member from 2008 to 2013; Ambassador Peter Maddens.[11]  The ACABQ advises the member states not only on budgetary issues, but on all relevant administrative questions and issues. Taking into account the recommendations of CPC and ACABQ, the UN GA Fifth Committee finally considers the proposed budget, more than 12 months after the first discussion on the programmes in CPC, and 6 months after the introduction of the SG’s proposal to the ACABQ.

According to article 18(2) of the UN Charter, UN GA decisions on budgetary questions are considered ‘decisions on important questions’ that have to be approved by two-thirds majority of the UN GA members present and voting. Nevertheless, in practice, the Fifth Committee generally adopts resolutions by consensus among its 193 member states after lengthy discussions and question and answer debates.[12] The adoption of the UN budget in the plenary is then mostly a formality, as the Fifth Committee budgetary decisions are usually adopted without changes.  It is this whole process, based on establishing the broadest possible agreement that makes the Fifth Committee decision making process special in the UN context.

The UN Peace Keeping Budget

Increasing costs related to complex UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs) led to the creation of a special account for PKOs in 1956.[13] At the turn of the millennium, the PKO budget amounted to 5 billion US dollars, a fourfold increase since the establishment of the UN. [14] Over the past ten years, the PKO budget further increased substantially.  In 2014 there are 16 peacekeeping missions with a total budget amounting to 7.54 billion US dollars. The UN has more than 100,000 troops (“blue helmets”) in the field and almost 17,000 civilian staff members.  A peacekeeping mission is mandated by the Security Council, but the budget is approved by the General Assembly, upon a proposal by the Secretary-General and with consideration of the recommendations of ACABQ – as is the case for the UN programme budget.

Peacekeeping is the most costly task of the UN.  Every peacekeeping mission has a separate budget.  Smaller missions (UNMIK[15], UNFICYP[16]) have a price tag of $40-60 million on an annual basis.  Large missions’ (like MONUSCO[17]) price tags amount to $1.5 billion per year. The mandates of peacekeeping missions have grown increasingly complex over time. From simple demarcation between parties, they have grown into complex missions that are not only responsible for peacekeeping, peace building and sometimes even peace enforcement, but are entitled with specific tasks in the field of policing, human rights, the rule of law and good governance. Another feature of these budgets is their volatility as missions open and close on a continuous basis[18].  Also: the budget cycle is completely different – a peacekeeping budget runs for 12 months, from July to June; while the regular budget has a biennial character and runs from January to December.

The fact that peacekeeping missions as such are created and mandated by the Security Council while the budgets are approved by the General Assembly creates a very interesting dynamic (see below section 2.2).  Peacekeeping is full of risks and the management of these budgets is one of the main responsibilities of the Fifth Committee.

The Scale of Assessment

The regular budget is funded through assessed (obligatory) contributions from all UN member states (art. 17, para. 2 UN Charter), based on the principle of “capacity to pay”.  Accordingly, every three years each state’s assessment rate is calculated on the basis of its share of global national income (GNI), with a number of mitigation measures that are negotiated among member states.  The poorest countries in the world pay only a contribution of 0.001% to the UN, whereas the richest country in the world has a maximum contribution of 22 per cent GNI (the US contribution).[19] The most significant correction to the “naked” GNI numbers is afforded largely to developing countries through the “low per capita income adjustment”[20].  This means that also large developing countries – even if they represent a large share in the world economy (like Brazil, China, India) – get a rebate based on its low per capita income. The current US ceiling of 22% was negotiated in the year 2000 by the US under the leadership of the late Ambassador Holbrooke. At the time, the US had built up arrears in its contributions to the UN, due to restrictive legislation by the US Congress. The political message was simple: the US could start reimbursing its arrears (that posed serious financial problems to the UN) if the US ceiling would be lowered from 25% to 22%[21].

These considerations imply that countries like Brazil, China and India, but also the US, pay a share that is lower than their actual share in the world economy, while Japan and the more affluent Western European member states are contributing more to the UN than their actual share in the world economy.

It is clear however that the balance is shifting and that countries like China, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia and Russia continue to see their contributions rising while Germany, UK, France and Japan see their share declining. Still, only 35 countries pay 92% of the UN contributions, but the fact that this balance is changing has a certain effect on the overall power game of the UN.


Scale 2000-2003


Scale 2009-2012


Scale 2013-2015

USA 22% 22% 22%
JAPAN 19.629% 12.530% 10.833%
GERMANY 9.825% 8.018% 7.141%
UK 5.568% 6.604% 5.179%
BELGIUM 1.136% 1.075% 0.998%
CHINA 1.541% 3.189% 5.148%
BRASIL 2.231% 1.611% 2.934%
RUSFED 1.200% 1.602% 2.438%
INDIA 0.343% 0.534% 0.666%
MEXICO 1.093% 2.356% 1.671%
TURKEY 0.440% 0.807% 1.328%


The scale of assessments for peacekeeping was originally identical to the regular budget. In 1973, however, the UNGA adopted a new formula, under which the Permanent Members of the Security Council pay a premium, rich countries pay the same rate towards peacekeeping as they do towards the regular budget and the developing countries get a discount.[22] The reasoning is simple: permanent members of the Security Council approve the mandates and thus have special responsibilities in the field of peace and security.  Member states like Belgium, Japan and Germany pay the same share for peacekeeping, as they do for the UN programme-budget. The fact that most troop contributing countries are developing countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uruguay, Egypt, Brazil) has created a perceived division of labour whereby poor countries provide troops and rich countries provide money. This of course creates serious tensions within the Committee, as troop contributing countries request higher remuneration rates which is then refused by the western countries. Western countries like the USA oppose these higher rates not only because of budgetary reasons, but also because they argue the level of training, equipment and capabilities of many troops is substandard to what they claim in their agreements with the UN.

  UN Program Budget 2013 UN Peacekeeping Budget 2013
USA 22.000% 28.399%
France  5.593%  7.219%
RUSFED  2.438%  3.147%
China  5.148%  6.645%
UK  5.179%  6.685%
Belgium 0.998% 0.998%
Poland 0.921% 0.2763%
Mexico 1.842% 0.368%
Turkey 1.328% 0.265%
Brazil 2.934% 0.586%
India 0.666% 0.1332%


The Politics of the UNGA Fifth Committee

The budget process of the UN Fifth Committee captures the essence of multilateral diplomacy and decision-making in a UN organ composed of 193 Member States. Despite the voting procedure specified in article 18(2) UN Charter, the Fifth Committee’s working methods privilege detailed discussion and debates in order to find a compromise among all the UNGA members. Voting on budgetary matters is avoided, and the Fifth Committee negotiations follow a consensus ethic. Negotiations in the Fifth Committee are thus long protracted, leading many to consider its working methods are flawed. While being burdensome, the process of reaching consensus in the Fifth Committee is also meaningful, as it opens up space for scrutiny of UN decisions taken in other UN bodies by the full membership of the organization.

In theory, all 193 member states have an equal say in the deliberations of the Fifth Committee, and each of the UN members has veto-power to block the adoption of a resolution by consensus. This method of work allows member states to try to influence budgetary decisions in line with their particular self-interest. Generally, however, states tend to negotiate in political and regional groups. These group dynamics are not specific to the Fifth Committee, but reflect conventional “North-South” group dynamics that are visible throughout United Nations bodies.

Political Dynamics with Regards to the UN Programme Budget

Generally, the negotiation dynamics in the Fifth Committee revolve around finding compromises between, on the one hand, the  group of largest contributors (‘the West’) and, on the other hand, the numerically largest group (‘the South’). The southern voice in the Fifth Committee is in first order represented by the G77+China.[23]  This group brings together developing countries that are often the subject of the UN’s economic, social and political support activities. Accordingly, the G77 stresses in Fifth Committee discussions  that each of the new mandates of the UN should be adequately funded, and pleads for incremental budgeting of the UN. The western group – being composed of many of the UN’s major contributors such as the US – in contrary, pleads for a more cautious budgetary policy and often argues that new demands will have to be met within the budget. Furthermore, the western group of countries would like to see the assessed contributions of emerging economies like Brazil and China increase in order to bring it better in line with their expanding GNI.  Of course, and given its size, the US has a special place in the equation.

The US is the only country apportioned the maximum of 22% of the UN regular budget. When Washington decides not to pay its dues in full and on time, this can have a major impact upon the UN’s operational capacity.  Accordingly the US disposes of significant leverage, the so-called ‘power of the purse”, during Fifth Committee negotiations. It is (at least to an important extent) because of this significant negotiation leverage that US diplomats in 2000 managed to set the UN’s regular budget ceiling at 22% (coming from 25%), even if this portion is well below their GNI share.[24] Furthermore, the US seems to be the only country inclined to use the power of the purse to pursue political goals within the UN. The combination of that inclination and the size of its contribution makes the US a formidable “player” on the Fifth Committee. If the US decides to withhold its contributions for two consecutive years or more, the political and financial pressure on the SG and the Organization becomes tremendous. No other member state has this power nor the political inclination to use contributions as a political tool or weapon.

As a group, the EU could in theory have the same kind of clout. It’s collective contribution is higher than the US’s, it negotiates as one block and its member states are in principle represented by the EU Delegation in New York. However, because of the highly political and also “sovereign” nature of the debate (the taxpayers of the member states contribute to the UN, not the EU as such) EU member states want to participate in the negotiations, thereby opening the block up for divisive tactics and hence diminished clout. Specific EU Member states have specific interests: the Nordic countries are traditionally in favour of a well-financed UN while Germany has a more strict budgetary approach; France and the UK have special responsibilities as permanent members of the UN Security Council; Austria and the Netherlands host a number of UN institutions in Vienna and the Hague.  Belgium has traditionally played an active role in Fifth Committee issues, thereby trying to bridge the traditional European commitment towards multilateralism with the call for prudent budgetary practice and sound management to create a more effective and efficient UN.

As indicated, debates about financing in the UN Fifth Committee are ultimately debates about authority, influence and control of the wider functioning of the UN. In the context of the regular budget negotiations, this especially comes to the fore when the budget for the UN Secretariat is discussed. Almost every member state has a particular stake in the budget (whether it wants to support a specific country office, strengthen the human rights dimension of the UN or expand the budget of UN radio broadcasting in Kiswahili). This turns the budget negotiations often into a very chaotic process sometimes compared to what is known as the “garbage can model of negotiations”[25].  This model was launched in 1972 to elucidate processes of decision-making in what can be termed as “organized anarchies”, which are defined by 3 characteristics: “problematic preferences” (it is not always very clear what member states actually want, some representatives or permanent missions want to “achieve something” for the people at home), “unclear technology” (the consensus-based approach creates chaos as to the rules, structure and process of the negotiations) and “fluid participation” (different actors are involved in different decisions, not all member states are interested in the overall budget, many of them are only concerned about those elements that are perceived as a direct concern or priority to them).

The Fifth Committee has developed its own dynamics to solve this conundrum. First, the group dynamic (EU, G77, CANZ,[26] …) has proven to be an effective tool in terms of prioritization and leadership.  Priority-setting within the group is a political exercise on its own that precedes formal negotiations, and every group has a number of leaders (based on the member state they represent and on personality) who negotiate on behalf of the group and who are also accountable to the group in terms of results reached.

Secondly, the Fifth Committee has rarely stand-alone negotiations. Resolutions and issues tend to be packaged to facilitate wheeling and dealing.  Fifth Committee negotiators tend to package a number of issues (for instance on the budget, the human resources of the UN, procurement-issues, … sometimes up to 20 resolutions) whereby in the final 72 hours of negotiations a number of issues and demands can be dropped or maintained in order to achieve an overall outcome that is equally (un)satisfying to all parties involved. The adage that foreign policy is all about priority setting is particularly true for the Fifth Committee.

Political Dynamics with Regards to the UN Peacekeeping Budget

The same dynamics apply to the financing of the peacekeeping budgets. However, peacekeeping is the most costly activity of the UN. Accordingly, debates in this context are especially illustrative of the power struggles between states according to their individual and group interests. As pointed out above (section 1.2), decision-making power regarding the establishment of peacekeeping missions lies in hands of the Security Council, with significant power for the five permanent members (P5) that each dispose of a veto right. The decision-making power of the P5 is also reflected in financial terms, as each of the permanent members are apportioned the biggest share of contributions according to the PKO assessment scale. Obviously, P5 members play thus also an influential role in the context of Fifth Committee budgetary negotiations.

Importantly, however, decisions on PKO budget –contrary to the approval of PKOs – need to be approved by the full membership of the UN GA. Consequentially, the negotiations of the peacekeeping budgets in the Fifth Committee provide an outlet and opportunity for different groups to articulate and pursue their priorities, not only in relation to the technical aspects of budgets and finance, but also concerning broader debates about international peace and security. As decisions in the Fifth Committee are principally based on consensus, this in practice gives smaller states also the power of veto. While this seldom occurs, the process of reaching consensus in the Fifth Committee opens up space for scrutiny of peacekeeping by the full membership of the organization. Again, negotiation positions diverge according to a South-West divide; while the West (the main donors) highlight the need for more effectiveness of peacekeeping operations, the South (the major troop-contributing countries) in the first place require sufficient budgetary means to ensure support for UN troops. This dichotomy that is created by group dynamics is of course worrisome for the senior management and member states alike as it has the potential to undermine the so-called peacekeeping partnership that implies that every member state should bring its share to the peacekeeping table.

The issue of UN Reform

Every time there is a financing crisis at the UN, the issue of UN Reform emerges.  UN Reform is a constant demand by a coalition of western member states, led by the USA. These member states put pressure on the Secretary-General to reform the UN and to create, inter alia, a more lenient human resources policy, cheaper back office functions, a more mobile workforce, a more effective use of human resources etc. There is however little clarity as to what reform might entail in practice as both proponents of a stronger UN and those who want to reduce its scope and role claim reform as their own territory.

One of the most comprehensive set of reform proposals is Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s report “Investing in the United Nations” from March 2006. Most of the recommendations made in this report are still valid, notably because the General Assembly never managed to agree upon the most fundamental proposals.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as well has made the Reform of the UN as one of the top priorities of his second mandate; his slogan is “doing more with less”, understandably under influence of the global financial crisis. This time as well member states have proven to be extremely divided on the issue. The G77+China states that UN Reform will undermine the legislative prerogatives of the General Assembly and allow richer and “powerful” member states to exercise more influence on the UN senior management behind the back of the  Fifth Committee.  The western countries indeed claim that the Secretary-General and other senior managers need more flexibility to manage. They denounce the micro-management of the Fifth committee and consider this micro-management to be at the origin of the perceived inefficiency and dilatory bureaucratic practices of the UN. They want to give more flexibility to the UN, and downgrade the role of the Fifth Committee.  In the view of the western group, the Fifth Committee is deficient  and they believe a reform could lead to more effective and streamlined administrative processes and a more effective use of the budget and the financial means that member states put at the disposal of the UN.  G77+China has a more legalistic view and claims that all mandates approved by the main organs of the UN need to be sufficiently financed with due respect for the existing budgetary and financial rules and regulations, i.e. under authority of the Fifth Committee.

This does not mean that nothing has happened over the course of the last 10-15 years. The world is changing rapidly and member states continue to count on the UN for new and evolving challenges.  There has been a serious effort to reform the human resources of the UN through a number of recent resolutions (inter alia by introducing a system of managed mobility between functions and different geographical duty stations). The field of peacekeeping is constantly evolving with ever more complex tasks that cannot be matched by mere peacekeepers alone; the UN needs highly specialized capabilities and capacities in the field. Truth is that these and other changes have happened in spite of the Fifth Committee rather than thanks to the Committee. This of course, partly explains the negative image the Committee has in a number of western capitals and parliaments.


This policy brief purported to shed light on the arcane functioning of the UNGA Fifth Committee, with eye for both its technical organisation (part I), and the ‘politics’ behind UN financing (part II).

The UN’s budget and apportion of the budget is based on article 17 of the UN Charter. The basic regulatory framework laid down in the UN Charter is further elaborated through numerous UNGA decisions leading to complex and technical rules that determine the financing of the UN in detail. The budget of the UN encompasses different budgetary branches, each of which is subject to varying apportioning rules. The most significant budget lines within the budget of the Organization are the programme budget of the UN, and the UN peacekeeping operations accounts. The financial burden of the UN is largely determined according to the ‘capacity to pay’ of UN member states. Accordingly, developing UN Member States (mostly states from the ‘South’) contribute less than their more wealthy counterparts (mostly countries from the ‘West’). In the context of peacekeeping operations, permanent members of the Security Council (which decide upon the initialisation of such operations) and the richer countries pay a premium, while the developing countries get a discount. Recent budgetary discussions often revolve around apportioning more proportionally financial burdens upon the shoulders of emerging economies (such as China, Brazil, India or Russia) whose GNI substantially increased over the past years.

Budget discussions in the Fifth Committee reflect UN wide power dynamics and essentially revolve around issues of authority, influence and control of the wider UN organisation. The debates and discussions that take place in the Fifth Committee are a reflection of real concerns and interests that are intimately connected to wider tensions in the international community. In the context of the programme budget negotiations, the wider political relevance appears for example when the UN Secretariat’s budget is negotiated. A demarcation line becomes clear between the Western and Southern groups of states: while Southern states generally underline the intergovernmental nature of the UN and thus want to stipulate the Secretariat’s budget in detail, Western states are more in favour of a higher degree of flexibility for the Secretariat, and are thus willing to give the UN Secretariat more room for manoeuvre as long as the Secretariat also enhances its efficient functioning. Accordingly, the ‘nitty-gritty’ financial negotiations in the context of the Fifth Committee significantly delineate to what extent UN reform proposals can become reality. Debates on financing  peacekeeping operations also aptly illustrate power dynamics between states according to their individual and regional group interests. While the political decisions to initiate PKOs lie mainly in hands of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council, consensus dynamics in the UNGA Fifth Committee (deciding upon the PKO budgets) open up space for scrutiny of UN peacekeeping by the full membership of the organization.

The financing of United Nations is a much misunderstood and overlooked area, even within the UN. We hope that this short policy paper will trigger interest to further explore and analyse the Fifth Committee’s functioning, including attention for its relevance across the wider UN system.



[1] http://ghum.kuleuven.be/ggs/ .

[2] http://www.vvn.be/ .

[3] http://www.unric.org/en/ .

[4] For an overview of the Fifth Committee’s resolutions and decisions, see:


[5] For more information on the work of the regional commissions, see: http://www.regionalcommissions.org/ .

[6] For an overview of the existing UN Information Centres, see: https://unic.un.org/ .

[7] For the rules governing the programme budget process, see: UN GA resolutions 41/213 of 19 December 1986, Annex I;  UN GA resolution 42/211 of 21 December 1987; UN GA resolution 58/269 of 23 December 2003.

[8] General Assembly Decision 42/450.

[9] Established b

y ECOSOC resolution 920 (XXIV) of 3 August 1962 and was given its present name by ECOSOC resolution 1171 (XLI) of 5 August 1966. For more information, see: http://www.un.org/en/ga/cpc/47/about.htm .

[10] ACABQ composition and functions are governed by the provisions of GA resolutions 14 (I) of 13 February 1946 and 32/103 of 14 December 1977 and rules 155 to 157 of the rules of procedure of the Assembly. For more information, see: http://www.un.org/ga/acabq/ .

[11] For a full overview of ACABQ members by year, see: http://www.un.org/ga/acabq/members.asp .

[12] The legal basis for this practice is found in  UN GA resolution 41/213 of 19 December 1986, para. 7: ‘Considers it desirable that the Fifth Committee, before submitting its recommendations on the outline of the programme budget to the General Assembly in accordance with the provisions of the Charter and the rules of procedure of the Assembly, should continue to make all possible efforts with a view to establishing the broadest possible agreement;’ (emphasis added).

[13] This was decided upon in the context of the UN Emergency Force Mission which was dispatched to the Suez Canal, Sinai and Gaza. UN GA resolutions 1000 (ES-I) of 5 November 1957 and 1001 (ES-I) of 7 November 1957.

[14] The UN Report of the Secretary-General, ‘Investing in the United Nations: for a stronger Organization worldwide’, A/60/692 of 7 March 2006.

[15] United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo. For more information: http://www.unmikonline.org

[16] United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. For more information: http://www.unficyp.org.

[17] United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For more information: http://monusco.unmissions.org/.

[18] Note for example that in 2013 UNMIT (Timor-Leste) and MINURCAT (Chad) closed, MINUSTAH (Haïti) andUNMIL (Liberia) was drawn down, while increased activity and budget was provided for MINUSMA (Mali), MONUSCO (DRC) and UNMISS (Sudan).

[19] UN GA resolution 67/238 determines the scale of assessment for the period 2013-2015. See also: http://www.un.org/en/ga/contributions/budget.shtml.

[20] See: A/RES/67/238 of 11 February 2013, para 5(e).

[22] UN GA resolution 3101 (XXVIII) of 12 December 1973.

[23] For more information on the G77, see: http://www.g77.org/doc/ . Note that while China and Russia are not aG-77 member they closely cooperate and align with G-77 positions.

[24] For a detailed account of these negotiations from a US perspective, see: S. Nossel, ‘Retail Diplomacy –The Edifying Story of UN Dues Reform’, The National Interest, Winter 2001/2002, pp. 94-105.

[25] M. D. Cohen, J. G. March and J. P. Olsen , ‘A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice’, Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 1,  March 1972, pp. 1-25, particularly pp.1-3 & 9-13.

[26] Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


  • Peter Maddens
    Ambassador Peter Maddens, a career diplomat, is currently the director for global economic issues at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels. Between 2008 and 2013 he was a member of the UN Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, ACABQ.

  • Jan De Preter
    Jan De Preter is a Belgian diplomat, currently working at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels, where he deals with multilateral development policy. Between 2009 and 2013, he was posted to the Belgian Mission at the UN in New York where he was the Belgian delegate to the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly, responsible for management and financial issues of the United Nations, UN management and UN Reform. Please send comments to: jan.depreter@diplobel.fed.be

  • Katrien Meuwissen
    Katrien Meuwissen is onderzoeker aan het Instituut voor Internationaal Recht en Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, KU Leuven.

Deel dit item

Druk artikel af