The Secretary-General’s Budget Outline and the human rights pillar: responding to a “global scandal”

by the URG team Blog, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

Next month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will release his Budget Outline for the biennium 2016-2017. This will provide a preliminary estimate of the resources required for each of the fourteen parts of the UN’s regular budget. The Budget Outline is a crucial moment in the long process that will eventually end with the General Assembly’s adoption of the programme budget for 2016-2017 sometime next year. Indeed, to a large extent the Budget Outline has a determinative influence over the shape of the final UN budget. While analysts and commentators often focus on political discussions between states in the General Assembly’s 5th Committee, the reality is that those negotiations make only slight changes to a cake that is already well on the way to being baked. This understanding is particularly important for the UN’s human rights pillar, which remains critically underfunded compared to the security and development pillars.

Drafting the Budget

A UN programme budget covers a two-year period beginning in January of an even-numbered year. The drafting process commences two years before the budget comes into effect, hence the current consideration of the 2016-2017 biennium.

The process begins with the publication of a Strategic Framework early in the first drafting year, which constitutes the principal policy directive of the UN over the budget period in question. It has two parts: a Plan Outline giving the key objectives and priorities of the United Nations as a whole (released 31st March for the 2016-2017 biennium and online here), and a Biennial Programme Plan for each of the UN’s twenty-eight different programme areas (Human Rights is Programme 20, and its programme plan, released 14th March, can be found here). The two parts of the Strategic Framework are eventually adopted by the General Assembly at the end of the year and consolidated into a single document.

The Strategic Framework forms the basis for the Secretary-General’s Budget Outline, normally released in the second half of the first budget-drafting year. According to the rules governing the programme aspects of the budget, the Budget Outline must contain the following elements:

(a) A preliminary estimate of the resources required to accommodate the proposed programme of activities during the biennium;

(b) Priorities, reflecting general trends of a broad sectoral nature;

(c) Real growth, positive or negative, compared with the previous budget;

(d) The size of the contingency fund expressed as a percentage of the overall level of resources.

As with the Strategic Framework, the Budget Outline is considered by a number of UN committees and bodies before eventually being endorsed by a General Assembly resolution at the end of the year. The figures contained within are likely to change somewhat during this time.

The Proposed Programme Budget for the Biennium is then prepared by the Secretary-General over the year immediately preceding the biennium in question, on the basis of the Strategic Framework and Budget Outline from the previous year. It is issued in multiple parts, one for each of the fourteen sections of the budget. These are reviewed by the Committee for Programme and Coordination, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) and the 5th Committee of the General Assembly, before being approved by the Assembly in plenary at the end of the year. The parts are then compiled into a single Programme Budget document.

The process for drafting the 2016-2017 Programme Budget is summarised in the table below:

Human Rights: A Financially Weak and Unequal Pillar

Human rights is one of the three pillars of the UN, alongside security and development. The ‘Promotion of Human Rights’ was also listed as one of the eight priority areas for UN activity in each of the last seven Strategic Framework Plan Outlines, which together cover the period 1998-2015. Nevertheless, as has been previously discussed in this blog, the growing global importance and profile of human rights has yet to be reflected in the UN’s regular budget – only around 3% of which is allocated to promoting and protecting universal freedoms. Observers such as Michael O’Flaherty, vice-chair of the URG, have called this situation a “global scandal”, especially when one considers that states in the Human Rights Council are placing more and more demands on the UN’s human rights machinery, and in particular on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

For example, in 2013, 63 texts (59% of the total) adopted by the Human Rights Council had programme budget implications (PBIs), and 40 required additional resources that were not already provided for in the UN’s regular budget, a number that has increased steadily since the Council’s founding in 2006. This money has to come from somewhere, and more often than not it is provided by voluntary contributions from UN member states. Such funding is not only inconsistent and unstable, but also threatens to undermine the OHCHR’s independence.

More and more, states themselves are recognising this problem. During the interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner at the June 2014 Human Rights Council session, diplomats from all regions of the world spoke up in favour of increasing OHCHR’s regular budget funding. For example, the Ambassador for Norway stated that “it is increasingly important to focus on the chronic underfunding of the human rights pillar,” the Ambassador for Botswana stated that “greater funding from the UN budget is…crucial”, the Ambassador for Indonesia (on behalf of ASEAN) stated that “the fact that the human rights budget receives just three per cent of the regular budget while the OHCHR seems increasingly reliant on the voluntary contributions…requires our serious attention,” and the Ambassador for Uruguay said “we reiterate our concern over the negligible percentage of the UN budget (just 3%) which today is dedicated to human rights”.

Human Rights and the Budget Outline

The release of the Secretary-General’s Budget Outline is one of the key moments in the UN’s budget drafting process, as it is the first time that an estimated figure is proposed for each of the budget’s fourteen parts. While these figures inevitably change over the long process of committee review and detailed budget drafting that follows, the final quantities are almost always in the same ballpark as the original estimates. For example, ‘Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs’ was allocated an estimated $348.3 million in the 2014-2015 Budget Outline, and eventually received $353.1 million in the final Programme Budget, a change of only 1.4% over 18 months of negotiation. In effect, once the Secretary-General specifies an estimated figure in the Budget Outline, it becomes difficult for that figure to change substantially.

The Secretary-General’s methodology for coming up with preliminary estimates for the various budget areas takes as its starting point the approved level of resources from the previous biennium. These figures are then adjusted to deduct one-off expenses, add costs for the continuation of new posts created during the previous biennium, and account for inflation and exchange rates. As a percentage, these adjustments tend to be fairly small: for example, the final 2012-2013 appropriations for ‘Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs’ were $326.6m, and the Secretary-General’s preliminary estimate for 2014-2015 was $348.3m, a change of 6.6%.

While prima facie it makes sense to ground future budget estimates in the figures used in the past, there is a significant problem with the Secretary-General’s methodology: by adjusting only for newly created posts, it ignores other continuing activities mandated by states in the General Assembly, Human Rights Council and other UN bodies, during the previous biennium.

The result is a situation in which member states of bodies like the Human Rights Council can task UN machinery (such as OHCHR) to undertake regular activities without the UN’s regular budget (re)allocating the resources necessary to do so. As these activities pile up, a funding crisis inevitably results, and UN bodies are forced to rely on unpredictable voluntary contributions from states to continue doing what states have explicitly instructed them to do.

In its report on the 2014-2015 Budget Outline, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), acknowledged this failing, writing that:

‘…the Committee reiterates its previously expressed concerns about the need to go beyond incremental budgeting and to evaluate and consider the entire quantum of resources necessary to carry out the programmes and activities mandated by the General Assembly and other organs.’

It also stated that: “…the effectiveness of mandate implementation will remain the paramount consideration”.

It is clear from the above that if states and other stakeholders (including OHCHR itself) are serious in their wish to increase the regular budgetary allocation to the UN’s human rights pillar, they must focus their efforts on the very start of the budget process – by influencing the Secretary-General’s Budget Outline. To do so, they must impress on the Secretary-General the importance of drafting an Outline that takes into account the ACABQ’s concerns, and is more reflective of the “entire quantum of resources necessary to carry out the programmes and activities mandated” by states. Only then can human rights become a strong and equal pillar of the United Nations.


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