United Nations (Finances)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st May 1963.

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Photo of Mr John Woollam Mr John Woollam , Liverpool, West Derby 12:00 am, 31st May 1963

We have had Questions in the House on this subject, but I think, although I have not searched the records, that this is the first full debate that we have had on the subject of the United Nations finances. Whether or not this is so, there will certainly be many more debates on this matter in the years to come.

I have selected this subject with another object in mind. I thought that the Foreign Office would welcome an opportunity to say something about the immediate crisis in the financial circumstances of the United Nations. It also gives me, as a back bencher, an opportunity to speak on some of the longer-term problems involved; and if the debate can serve those two purposes—giving both the Government and back benchers this opportunity—it will be an unusual coincidence.

I will not spend a great deal of time on the factual, statistical background. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State will say something about that when he replies to the debate. I can summarise the position by making three statements: first, that about 112 million dollars is now owed by the member States; secondly, that those member States which are up to date in their contributions are most reluctant to pay anything more; and, thirdly, that 10 member States face the loss of their voting rights this year if they continue in arrears. The Soviet Union faces the loss of its voting rights next year and France the loss of its rights the year after that.

If all these things came to pass, three of the five permanent members of the Security Council would be without voting rights. That is a short, handy summary of where the financial crisis has led us. I suppose that one policy would be simply to let the member States concerned get away with their arrears and for those who have paid up to pay more. The other approach is to say that we should suspend their voting rights, whatever the consequences to the United Nations, even though that would not bring in their subscriptions which are in arrears. In that case the member States which have subscribed would still have to pay more.

Thus it seems that, either way, those who have paid up fully will probably have to pay more. Either way, there is a real political dilemma to be faced. I have expressed the matter in this way to show how the financial crisis contains within it a political crisis; and at the centre of that crisis, which has caused the immediate financial crisis, is the question of the rôle of the existing peacekeeping forces, such as those in the Congo and Gaza, and the future finance to support them.

I have studied the many formulas which are current on how the extra contributions can be found and I have concluded that, at the end of the day, we will simply have to pay more. The various formulas put forward may help to spread the burden more equitably here or there, but it seems likely that the major member States will have to pay more.

The question of voting rights is a diplomatic matter rather than a financial one. It does not affect the financial problem, certainly not in the long term, so I will pass no view on that aspect because I am not well enough informed or instructed on the full diplomatic consequences of deciding to suspend the voting rights of certain member States. For this reason, I turn to the long-term financial dilemma which the immediate financial problem has presented.

As a result of our experiences in past years with the peace-keeping forces we know that, if we decide to launch any more of them to meet a crisis, they will almost certainly face opposition from one or more of the member States. If that position arises, and we must accept it, then, automatically, there will be some form of financial crisis as to how to finance the cost of those peace-keeping forces which are not fully approved of by all the member States. I have seen that situation referred to—and I think that it is a very good phrase—as a politically motivated deficit. That is what we now have and it is what we will get in the future no matter where the crisis arises, or where the peace-keeping forces may have to go.

If our experience tells us that this is likely to happen and if, at the same time, member States none the less go ahead with another peace-keeping force to meet a crisis, they will have been put on notice that probably they will have to pay more than their standard contribution, so to speak, and that at the end of the day, as now, they will probably have to bale out the United Nations when it comes to contributions.

I find myself driven on quite inexorably by the logic of that to the fact that in the long term the United Nations must obtain a source of finance of its own which will give it some independence and, to put it in the opposite sense, not be within national control. Unless that happens, the crisis which we have now will always occur again whenever a duty is put before the General Assembly to do something about a minor outbreak of war somewhere in the world. In the long term, we have the problem of how to achieve the financial independence of the United Nations.

First—and there is a Motion on the Order Paper on this subject and I hope that other hon. Members will speak on this matter—we have a voluntary approach, voluntary peace-keeping funds, voluntary security taxes which could be instituted because they would have a persuasive value and be of an educative value and because they would simply set an example of things which might yet evolve in decades to come.

On that, I concede two points in advance. I concede that the voluntary approach to this problem can never hope in the near future to raise the amount of money required, and I concede, also, that in the near future voluntary contributions would not alter or ease the nature of the political problem which lies behind this financial problem.

Secondly, it is suggested that the United Nations should find revenue resources by forms of surcharges or charges, such as postal surcharges or charges on items of international travel interest, such as passports. This is clearly getting nearer to the point and nearer to major sources of revenue. But it has the drawback that it is a source of revenue which is still wholly within national revenue. There is nothing distinctive about it and it gives no permanent independence to the United Nations, unless some variation can be found of which I do not know and which would leap over that difficulty.

Last, I come to the thing which interests me most, and I stress again that this is long-term thinking. It is the possibility of assigning to the United Nations exploitable natural resources which could be held to be outside national boundaries. This, I stress again, is long-term but I hope that hon. Members will not think that it is far-fetched. There is something of a distinct possibility here that in time important sources of revenue could be found by this approach. I will take one example and leave it at that.

The example which I should like to mention concerns what happened in July, 1962, in the Gulf of Mexico, where geological domes were discovered which were exactly similar in character to those to be found in the coastal waters of Texas and Louisana. These have already been subject to commercial exploration by petroleum companies and already judged to be accessible in the technological sense of the word, despite the fact that these domes, of which there are about 21, lie at least 400 miles from the coasts of both Mexico and America and at a depth of at least 2,000 fathoms. We have something which, prima facie, is not national in the sense in which the man in the street or on the top of the Clapham bus would regard it. We have something here which might be regarded as being of international or United Nations interest.

This possibility should be explored. We would have to settle first the somewhat ambiguous legal status which still exists concerning any such natural resources which lie at such a distance from national boundaries. In the example I have mentioned, the United Nations would have to negotiate with America and Mexico and they would have to give up any claims which they might make on the Convention on the Continental Shelf. I was fascinated by the constitutional thinking which lies behind this Convention—that sovereignty claims to the Continental Shelf can occur in proportion to advances in technology.

This is a proposition which medieval philosophers would have enjoyed. It is part of Article I of the Convention, which is described as the "elastic clause" and national States would obviously have to consent to give up whatever rights they thought that that Article and clause gave them. Following that, however, the General Assembly would be free to pass a resolution saying, for example, that seabed resources beyond a given distance ceased to be within national jurisdiction. Once we have reached that legal position, we are in the field of commercial possibilities.

My last point on this matter is that I am not arguing that the United Nations should go into business. I am only arguing that if these things are assigned to the United Nations it could then handle them in the way in which many national States handle such things, for example, by auctioning leases, or leases of rights, and by negotiating royalty payments. The commercial implications would then be handled in the normal way of any other natural resources within a national boundary.

I have argued the case a little hastily because I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak in this short debate. It seems to me that this is a distinct possibility and not totally farfetched. It is, admittedly, a matter which stretches far into the future, but if anything came of it there would be a clear and major break-through in the evolution of the financial independence of the United Nations.

I have to admit that I have argued as though no one could question either the premise or the conclusion that the United Nations ought to have some financial independence. I know only too well that that point of view would be questioned by many people. They would say that the United Nations should not be independent, that it should not have an endowment fund, as it were, that it should not be in any different position from a national Government, and that all its revenue should come from member States and that it should be answerable to them and within their control in that they should vote the revenue and the money.

Those are weighty and respectable points of view which go right to the root of this matter. Either one can conceive of the United Nations having some financial independence, or one cannot conceive that it was ever intended or should ever come about or that the United Nations should not always be within the control of and totally dependent on the nations who constitute it. I reject that point of view. Already, in the constitution of the United Nations there is a political veto exercisable in the Security Council. I am sure that what has arisen was never intended—a financial veto exercisable in the General Assembly. if we do nothing about the financial veto—and something can be done about it if my arguments and their logic are accepted—then the two together, the political veto in the Security Council and the financial veto exercisable in the General Assembly, between them, in time, will cause all of this wonderful surge forward in peacekeeping forces simply to fade away and peter out, and we will be right back to where we were before 1945.