PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 2003, 12:00am

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has asked the Hong Kong government to write off $1.16 billion it is owed for the upkeep of Vietnamese boat people on the grounds that the UNHCR is severely under-funded and that no country is willing to donate funds to a wealthy Hong Kong.

A pragmatic view is that the write-off is inevitable because the UNHCR cannot even finance its basic operation and that the Statement of Understanding related to the debt is not legally binding. Your leader ('Writing off an irrecoverable debt', May 22) says 'Hong Kong has for decades been among the world's richest cities, and it will remain so for a long time to come' and concludes that it is better to 'give up our claim to money we are never going to receive anyway'.

How can Hong Kong remain among the world's richest cities for a long time to come with an economy that is experiencing a structural budget deficit and has been hit hard by the financial crisis in 1997, the burst of the IT bubble in 2000, the effects of the September 11 attack in 2001 and the Sars epidemic in 2003, and has a low-skilled and under-educated workforce that faces a great supply of the same from the mainland at a much lower cost?

The view of international philanthropists and your leader about our wealth calls for some reality checks. Do we suggest 'comfort women' give up their claims for compensation because there is not any legally-binding statement of understanding on sex slavery at war?

So much for the financial and legal grounds. According to the UN, 54 of its 191 member states have not paid their budget dues in full. The unpaid contributions become US$2.1 billion if one adds the US$1.8 billion for peacekeeping, of which US$690.9 million is owed by the US.

The ethical question is: Will the UN be able to write off all the overdue membership dues the same way as Hong Kong is being asked to do? When nations pride themselves on international justice, global development and humanitarian aid using borrowed money under the banner of the UN, should they not be reminded that glory has a price tag?

The operation of the UN is very much based on multilateral respect for responsibility and obligation.

When the UNHCR makes an assertive case in defaulting dues, it also sets an example for member states to follow. I do not know who defaulted first, the UN (through its agencies) or its member states, but they are now clearly doing something in unison whose ultimate implications do not look optimistic at all.