Financially Strapped Geneva Multilateral Organizations and U.S. Priorities

Is multilateralism bankrupt? It may be in financial danger, but it still has value. Although the U.N., certain of its specialized agencies and similar institutions are strapped for cash, the recent interest in International Court of Justice case between South Africa and Israel shows that the U.N. and international law continue to have value beyond dollars and cents.

The United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) closed its doors from December 23 through January 15. The closure was not just for the holiday season. In a mail sent to collaborators, UNOG’s Secretariat wrote that “faced with deficits in its ordinary budget” and “faced with the impact of increased electricity this year,” the large building complex would be shut down for the first time in its history. (Already in October, limited lighting, use of escalators, and reduced heating had gone into effect.)  The 1,600 staff were told to work from home. Also in Geneva, the director general of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced that 2024 field operations would be reduced by 16 percent for its activities in around 100 countries. Layoffs were estimated at 4,000 jobs. And the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported a shortfall of $600 million for 2023.

One should not lament Geneva’s overall financial situation. Several local multinational corporations have had outstanding 2023 results. But UNOG’s, ICRC’s and UNHCR’s financial difficulties do raise questions about the inequality between these private-sector companies and financially strapped multilateral/humanitarian organizations. With wars raging in Ukraine and Gaza and global climate change affecting millions around the world, this would seem a very opportune moment to support the public-sector U.N., ICRC, and UNHCR, among others.

And we’re talking about chump change. The United Nations overall budget was $3.396 billion for 2023. UNOG’s part was $77.7 million. The ICRC’s budget after reduction was just over $2 billion. UNHCR was down $600 million.

Compare these public international organizations’ figures with some private multinational corporations in Geneva: Glencore paid out $7 billion to shareholders after record profits for its coal and trading division. Global energy trader Vitol posted 2023 record profits of $15 billion. Trafigura, a commodities trader, posted a record net profit of $$7.4 billion for the twelve months up to September 2023.

While many corporations have profited from the war in Ukraine and other conflict situations, over 50 countries have not paid their obligatory dues to the U.N. as of December 12, 2023. The United States is one of them.

According to some, the United Nations has always been in some crisis. But this time seems more serious. Richard Gowan wrote in Foreign Affairs: “[D]iplomats at UN offices in New York and Geneva say that this crisis feels different – and that its effects could spread beyond Israel and the Gaza Strip to the UN itself… Over the last year…the UN has seemed more rudderless than ever, unable to respond to crises ranging from violent flare-ups in Sudan and Nagorno-Karabakh to the coup in Niger. Security Council diplomats say that tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine – the topic of scores of fruitless UN debates since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – are undermining discussions of unrelated issues in Africa and the Middle East.”

While Gowan’s comments deal with peace and security and the U.N.’s New York headquarters, the financially strapped organizations in Geneva’s crises deal more with field operations involving human rights and humanitarian aid, certainly no less important.

In addition to its financial difficulties, the U.N. has been in the news concerning South African charges against Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague. The relation between the financial crisis and the Court case shows an asymmetry between money and legitimacy. While the multilateral system may be suffering financially, it is not bankrupt in legitimacy and authority.

South Africa, with several other countries, has brought charges against Israel for genocide and failure to prevent genocide. The media usually ignores the U.N. and multilateralism. Unusually, this case has had traction. (According to activist and prosecutor Reed Brody, the hearings were like the “World Cup for international lawyers.”) Those following the hearings implicitly recognized the importance of the ICJ, the principal judicial organ in the United Nations system. (For the moment, the Court is being asked to decide on provisional matters. The final decision could take years to decide.)

The heightened interest in the Israel vs. South Africa case is a tribute to the role of the United Nations system. The fact that Israel is appearing before the Court shows that it accepts the Court’s jurisdiction with all the inherent risks to its reputation. Most important, beyond the moral or legal aspects of the case, one could speculate that the hearing has influenced Israel’s scaling back its operations in Gaza. The fact that Israel has had to defend its actions publicly should not be underestimated.

In comparison, the United States has not always appeared before the Court. Since 1986, it no longer accepts the Court’s general jurisdiction and only participates on a case-by-case basis where jurisdiction is foreseen in a treaty. The appearance of the two parties before the Court and the media attention are affirmations of the legitimacy of the United Nations’ system.

More generally, how has the United States reacted to the crisis of multilateralism and Israel’s actions? Not only has the United States not paid its U.N. dues (it remains the U.N.’s largest overall contributor), but its unwavering support of Israel undermines international law. At a press conference in Tel Aviv, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the South African case “meritless.” He also said it “distracts the world.” The rule of law distracts the world? Who is Antony Blinken to decide that the case is “meritless”? Is the U.S. declaring a verdict before the seventeen international judges rule? Can one imagine how the U.S. will react if the judges do decide that Israel is committing or failing to prevent genocide? Even further: Will the United States ultimately be held responsible for providing material and financial support to a country committing or failing to prevent genocide? How will it react to that?

For those worried about what the world will look like if Donald Trump wins the presidential election in 2024 with his proclaimed rejection of “the ideology of globalism” and embrace of “the doctrine of patriotism,” the comments by Blinken, the financial struggles of the U.N., ICRC and UNHCR are all indications that multilateralism may be on life-support well before the November 2024 election.

Interest in the South Africa/Israel case testifies to the force of the U.N. More is at stake in Geneva than lights on at UNOG or ICRC and UNHCR staffers’ worries about being laid off. The qualitative role of the U.N. and international law is not quantifiable. The United States was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations. Will it also be instrumental in its demise? Paying dues, supporting international law and multilateralism are not “meritless.”

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.