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UN: Peacekeeping

Volume 712: debated on Monday 6 July 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have capped the United Kingdom’s payments to the United Nations peacekeeping assessment; and to what extent that decision takes account of those payments being an international legal obligation.

My Lords, we have not capped the UK’s payments to the UN for assessed payments, since these are legal obligations, but as part of the 2007 CSR settlement for conflict funding from 2008 to 2011 the call on the Treasury reserve for peacekeeping is currently set at £374 million annually. Therefore, when assessed UN peacekeeping costs rise, the overall UN conflict budget has less funding available for discretionary conflict prevention activity. To help mitigate this, this year the FCO, DfID and the MoD provided an additional £71 million for discretionary conflict activity.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and for confirming that we are indeed standing by our international legal obligations. Does his Answer not lead him to regret or reconsider the decision to put assessed peacekeeping contributions into the same pot as discretionary spending, with the result that, if the UN—as, alas, all too often happens—does more in-year, or the British exchange rate moves in the wrong direction, the squeeze will be exclusively on discretionary spending? Is this not a case for reconsidering this, and reverting to a situation where the peacekeeping assessment, if it overspent in-year, was met under a formula known—after my noble friend Lord Armstrong—as the Armstrong formula, meaning that it came out of the contingency reserve, and the discretionary spending was ring-fenced?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very powerful point. There is no doubt that when we engage in multilateral peacekeeping, which is often more cost-effective than a direct bilateral operation of our own, we are engaged in meeting a national security goal, as my noble friend’s report again confirmed just last week. Therefore, on the face of it, it appears anomalous that multilateral activities are subject to this cost control in a way that bilateral ones are not. However, the Treasury understandably feels very strongly that to control public spending it is important to set targets in an area like this and hold the department—in this case, the FCO—accountable for that.

My Lords, is there not a case for separating out the contributions the Government have to make to international organisations, which, as the Minister emphasised, are legal obligations, from departmental budgets? Particularly for those departments such as the FCO that have very small budgets, our multilateral legal obligations can end up squeezing out other departmental needs if the exchange rate moves against us or if there are particular needs in peacekeeping.

My Lords, the noble Lord is completely correct, and this year has demonstrated that fact, as we have ended up spending a lot more on peacekeeping. We have gone into the budgets of the FCO, DfID and the MoD to make up the shortfall created by just the squeeze he describes. Yet even with that, we have seen discretionary spending having to fall. It has been an expensive year for peacekeeping and a bad year for currencies. I hope that the Government will keep the noble Lord’s point under review.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of the simulation exercise carried out by the Carnegie foundation after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which concluded that a timely intervention could have prevented that enormous loss of life. Do these sorts of consideration enter into the Government’s thoughts when they look at the costs; namely, that a timely intervention might save finance and enormous human suffering in the longer term?

My Lords, I reassure my noble friend that I have been absolutely adamant in decision-making across government on peacekeeping that the political, security and strategic arguments for a peacekeeping operation must always prevail and that we must work out how to pay for it subsequently. Otherwise, we would have a terrible inversion of the priorities we must have when moving on peacekeeping operations. The best comparison to Rwanda today is Somalia, where at the moment we believe there is not a case for an immediate UN peacekeeping operation. However, were that moment to arrive, it would have an entirely damaging and deleterious effect on an already overstretched peacekeeping budget.

My Lords, we all know that the Treasury is desperately short of funds for these purposes, however worthy. As the noble Lord indicated, when the currency goes down and the pound is weak, things become very much more difficult. However, when and if the happy time comes when funds become more available for international contributions, will he bear in mind the need not only to meet our UN obligations but to push more funds in the direction of the Commonwealth, which is grievously short of funds, and yet is carrying out a range of operations across the globe which help maintain peace and promote and protect this country’s interests as well?

My Lords, I, too, acknowledge the important role of the Commonwealth, particularly in conflict resolution and mediation, which has headed off conflicts which might otherwise have later called on UN peacekeeping forces. I remind the noble Lord that we have recently increased our share of the Commonwealth budget from 30 to 31 per cent.