Opposition politicians in Parliament are suddenly expressing worries about Norway’s reputation at the United Nations. Just two weeks after the Norwegian head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Erik Solheim, was harshly criticized by UN auditors over his extensive and expensive travel, comes news that Norway is protesting how Solheim’s wife was passed over for another top UN job last spring.
The two cases are not directly related, according to newspaper Aftenposten, which has published stories about both. The critical audit about Solheim wasn’t released until early September, several months after his wife, Gry Ulverud, lost her bid to become assistant director general of education at UNESCO, the UN’s organization for education, science and culture. Ulverud has refused to comment on the conflict that has erupted since UNESCO announced on March 28 that Stefania Gianninni, a former education minister in Italy, got the top job instead.
The Norwegian government had supported Ulverud’s candidacy, and Aftenposten reported this week that it reacted strongly last spring when she didn’t get the job. At a meeting with UNESCO’s secretary general Audrey Azoulay in May, Norway was joined by other Nordic ambassadors in mounting a diplomatic protest known as démarche. It’s used in diplomatic circles to express dissatisfaction with the policies of other countries or organizations.
Cut funding to UNESCO
Norway’s dissatisfaction didn’t end there: Aftenposten also reported that Norway’s foreign ministry informed UNESCO on May 16 that it would reduce its annual contribution to UNESCO’s budget. Norway’s government minister in charge of foreign aid, Nicolai Astrup, has confirmed that Norway has cut this year’s funding to UNESCO by 25 percent, from NOK 80 million (USD 10 million) to NOK 60 million.
“International organizations can’t take Norway’s support for granted,” Astrup told Aftenposten. He tied the cut in funding for UNESCO to a lack of “good and open routines and processes.” Astrup claims the funding cut “isn’t about the Norwegian candidate not being chosen, but because we viewed the (employment) process as closed and messy. There was reason to react.” He said there also was “little openness” around the reasons for the decision that was made, to hire Gianninni.
Astrup stressed that Norway “is one of the countries (in the UN) that does not demand positions within the UN system in return for its support.” He added, though, that Norway, with just 5 million inhabitants, is the sixth-largest contributor to the UN, and tops the list on a per capita basis. “We should have more Norwegians in various parts of the UN system,” Astrup said. “There’s no doubt Norway is seriously underrepresented in the entire UN system.”
In June, UNESCO fought back, with Azoulay sending a letter directly to Prime Minister Erna Solberg to complain about the funding cut. Aftenposten reported that Azoulay, a former minister of culture in France, implied that Solberg must agree that international positions at the UN are made on the basis of ethics and competence-based recruiting and not political considerations. It was an “important principle” of multilateralism, she wrote, that financial contributions don’t automatically give the contributor a right to international positions.
The diplomatic conflict has raised eyebrows in Norway. “It’s really amazing that she (Azoulay) would send such a letter to an important financial contributor for many years,” Ole Jacob Sending, research chief at the Oslo-based foreign policy institute NUPI, told Aftenposten. At the same time, Sending noted that it’s very seldom Norway takes such a step in cutting funding: “This is ordinary among some other countries, but Norway has never operated in this manner. It’s a clear indication that the Norwegian government wants to put some power behind its demand for more influence and representation in the UN system.”
Astrup, from Solberg’s Conservative Party, claimed Azoulay should have sent the letter to him, instead of Solberg, since the funding falls under his responsibilities.
Now opposition politicians in Parliament are reacting as well. Anniken Huitfeldt, who represents the Labour Party on the Parliament’s foreign affairs- and defense committee, thinks Astrup was unwise to cut NOK 20 million from UNESCO’s budget. “This can damage Norway’s reputation,” Huitfeldt told Aftenposten on Wednesday, just as Norway is lobbying for a seat on the UN Security Council.
Huitfeldt noted that Solberg and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, like other Norwegian leaders before them, have been boasting that Norway is a “predictable and reliable friend” of the UN. Huitfeldt agrees that Norway is underrepresented at the UN, but disagrees with Astrup’s reaction: “UNESCO has its weaknesses and financial contributions should be tied to reform, but it’s wrong to tie a funding cut to one appointment.”
Knut Arild Hareide, the leader of the Christian Democrats who hold the powerful swing vote in Parliament, stressed that Norwegian funding should be based on evaluations of the organization, not the battle for positions. “It’s strange if the government (which needs Hareide’s support in Parliament) chooses to take money away from projects it views as important in order to send a signal like this. Norway has never had a tradition for that.” UNESCO has inferred that Gianninni was simply a better candidate to be head of educational programs than Ulverud. Astrup claims Ulverud was “highly qualified” for the job, having worked at both UNESCO and Norway’s education ministry for many years.
Conflict at Norwegian-led UNEP, too
It’s a case of remarkable timing that the conflict has raged just before the husband of the Norwegian candidate who was overlooked for the UNESCO job has landed in trouble himself. As head of UNEP, Ulverud’s husband Erik Solheim is one of the few Norwegians holding a top UN job. Solheim, a former leader of Norway’s Socialist Left party (SV), has already refunded the equivalent of NOK 50,000 to UNEP, after he failed to document travel expenses he has claimed, and he has promised to correct any other errors when the UN delivers its final audit. Solheim has justified his extensive travel, however, as a necessary part of his job.
Speculation had already risen that Solheim’s travel expenses and alleged lack of environmental guidelines for travel can also affect Norway’s reputation at the UN. Sweden and Denmark have already responded by withholding funding to the UNEP themselves, until the final audit is released.