Press Releases

    GA/AB/3495
    7 March 2002

    GROUP OF 77 AND CHINA URGE IMMEDIATE WITHDRAWAL
    OF CONFERENCE SERVICE CUTBACKS ANNOUNCED
    BY SECRETARIAT

    NEW YORK, 6 March (UN Headquarters) -- A serious issue that emerged in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) discussion this morning was the reduction in services announced by the Under-Secretary-General for Management in his information circular ST/IC/2002/13 of 28 February.

    The document was issued "to appraise staff members of a number of sharp cutbacks in services which will affect working conditions in the current biennium. The General Assembly, when it approved the programme budget for 2002-2003, reduced the real level of resources available to the organization by $75 million… The Organization does not have sufficient financial resources to maintain services for meetings, facilities, management and information technology at existing levels".

    Thus, according to the document, significant reductions "will be in effect until further notice". They include cuts in meeting services (the Secretariat will not service any weekend and night meetings other than those of the Security Council and the Assembly plenary); cleaning services; telephone support for software applications; pitcher water supply; and services provided by sound engineers and other contract personnel.

    Speaking on behalf of the "Group of 77" developing countries and China, the representative of Cuba requested that the cutbacks of all services directly affecting Member States be restored immediately. The measures described in the note were in contravention of General Assembly resolutions on the programme budget for 2002-2003 and the pattern of conferences, as well as financial rules and regulations of the United Nations. In its resolutions, the Assembly had rejected proposals to cut back services directly affecting Member States and regional groups, in particular conference services, as well as the functioning of such substantive departments as the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services.

    She added that the Assembly’s decision to reduce the level of resources for other specific operational requirements was apparently being used to justify reductions in meeting services and other areas vital to Member States. The circular sought to create an atmosphere in which the functions of the Assembly would be weakened vis-à-vis the other principal organs of the United Nations. It was totally unacceptable to the Group. The measures -- put in place without the Assembly’s approval and in contradiction of the general desire of the membership of the Organization -- had already resulted in reductions in meeting services. If the situation remained in place, the Group, as well as regional groups, would be directly limited in their ability to contribute to upcoming summits and meetings.

    The representative of Syria agreed that the reductions constituted an infringement of the authority of the General Assembly. The United Nations was working under belt-tightening procedures. As a result of cutbacks, delegates had had "to fight cold and sickness in the conference room" in the last few days, and it was comical that Member States had to come to meetings with their coats on.

    In response, Assistant Secretary-General for Programme Planning, Budget and Accounts and United Nations Controller Jean-Pierre Halbwachs said that not long ago, a budget of some $2.6 billion had been unanimously approved by the Assembly. In the budget proposal, the total amount requested by the Secretary-General amounted to some $2.7 billion. When he introduced the budget, the Secretary-General had made it clear that the Organization could not continue with less money. Further budget cuts would compromise the services expected of the Secretariat. The reductions made by the General Assembly were across the board and did not seem to have programmatic justification. The Secretariat had to live with the approved level of reductions.

    Also this morning, the Committee concluded its general discussion on various aspects of the budgets for 2000-2001 and 2002-2003, which included efforts to update the Integrated Management Information System (IMIS); construction of additional office space at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Ababa; standards of accommodation for air travel; documentation availability in six languages on the United Nations Web site; Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) documents and publications; and public information activities outside the Department of Public Information.

    In other business this morning, the Committee approved its programme of work for the current resumed session, on the understanding that adjustments would be made as necessary in the course of its work.

    Alida Ferrena-Mahmud, Chief of the Oversight Support Unit of the Department of Management, and Anton Bronner, Chief of the Travel and Transportation Service, responded to questions on standards of accommodation for air travel. Also responding to questions were Eduardo Blinder, Director of the Information Services Division, and Oluseye Oduyemi, Executive Officer of the Department of Public Information. Also taking part in the discussion was the representative of India.

    The Committee will continue its work at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 7 March, when it is expected to take up human resources management matters and begin its consideration of gratis personnel, honoraria, and conditions of service of judges of the International Tribunals and members of the International Court of Justice.

    Background

    This morning, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) was expected to act on its programme of work for the first resumed session and conclude its general debate on several issues related to the programme budget for the biennium 2000-2001, as well as that for 2002-2003. Also before the Committee were revised estimates resulting from the strengthening of internal oversight services at the International Tribunals. (For more detailed information, see Press Releases GA/AB/3493 and GA/AB/3494 of 4 and 5 March.)

    Statements

    On organizational matters, the Committee’s Chairman, NANA EFFAH-APENTENG (Ghana) said that, based on his conversation with the Under-Secretary-General for Management, the Bureau was of the view that the current financial situation of the Organization might be presented to the Committee on Wednesday, 13 March. On an exceptional basis, the discussion on that presentation could take place on the following Friday morning. Before making that proposal, the Bureau had carefully examined other options and concluded that none of them would be acceptable, since the necessary preparations for the presentation would not be finalized before early next week.

    EVA SILOT BRAVO (Cuba), speaking on behalf of the "Group of 77" developing countries and China, asked why there was a change in procedure in dealing with the financial situation of the Organization.

    The CHAIRMAN said that the current session was only two weeks long, and time was needed to allow the Committee to consider the statement on the financial situation of the Organization before the end of the session. Otherwise, the matter would have to be taken up during the next resumed session. In the future, the usual format would be upheld. On the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) report, he added that because of the late issuance of the report by the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), the matter would be taken up on Monday, 11 March.

    ABDOU AL-MOULA NAKKARI (Syria) noted that no meeting had been scheduled to take up the issue of UNDOF. His delegation would like that matter to be considered during the current session. He was also increasingly worried that delegations seemed to be at the mercy of the Secretariat as far as the programme of work was concerned. Some of the delays in document issuance seemed to be deliberate. He wanted the Under-Secretary-General for Management to be informed about his dissatisfaction with the situation as far as the publication of documents was concerned.

    Ms. SILOT BRAVO (Cuba) reminded the Committee that her delegation had also expressed concern over the late issuance of documents. She wanted to know when the remaining ACABQ reports would be presented to the Committee.

    RAMESH CHANDRA (India) made a proposal regarding the scheduling of the meeting on the financing of MONUC.

    The Committee then decided to approve its programme of work for the first part of the resumed fifty-sixth session on the understanding that adjustments would be made, as necessary, in the course of the session.

    The Committee then took up the thirteenth progress report on the Integrated Management Information System (IMIS).

    Mr. NAKKARI (Syria) said his delegation would comment on the item in informal consultations.

    The Committee decided to conclude its general discussion on the item.

    Turning to the construction of additional office space at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Ababa, the Committee also decided to conclude its discussion on that item.

    The Committee then took up the item on the standards of accommodation for air travel.

    ALIDA FERRENA-MAHMUD, Chief of the Oversight Support Unit of the Department of Management, responded to questions previously posed on standards of accommodation for air travel. Regarding reductions in the costs for exemptions, the costs had indeed decreased over the years, mainly due to controls in administrative oversight. However, there was no such control over exceptions granted for people travelling on medical grounds. Those exemptions must be granted. The travel of ex-presidents of Member States varied from year to year and there was no control to bring down the costs in that category.

    Regarding the request to identify the names of individuals, she said that reports of the Secretary-General on standards for air travel were prepared annually, according to relevant General Assembly decisions and resolutions. The reports contained information on designation, itinerary and additional costs involved. Like most reports, they did not contain the names of individuals, particularly for exceptions based on medical grounds, as that practice would impinge on the privacy of those travelers. The Secretariat did not wish to identify travellers by name, but stood ready to accommodate other requests of the General Assembly.

    ANTON BRONNER, Chief of the Travel and Transportation Service, responded to queries on the reimbursement of tickets purchased away from United Nations Headquarters. He said the Office of Central Support Services made every effort to use lowest airfares from New York. When made aware of local airfares the Office authorized the traveller to purchase the ticket and be reimbursed. Local United Nations offices could also be used if the fares were available to travel agencies in that country. The traveller was then reimbursed during his or her stay at Headquarters, if all the necessary documentation was presented at the time. The time allowed to process claims had been reduced in the last year. Some delays had occurred, either due to missing documentation, or because authorization for local purchase of a ticket had been given after the ticket was sent. In such cases, the travel claims might require additional clarification which could lead to delays. He requested delegates to bring to the Secretariat’s attention cases where lower airfares were available locally, so that authorization could be given and the United Nations could take advantage of the resulting savings.

    Ms. SILOT BRAVO (Cuba) requested that the Secretariat’s clarifications be made available to the Committee in writing.

    The Committee then concluded its discussion on the item.

    Under the agenda item on the programme budget for the current biennium, Mr. NAKKARI (Syria) said that according to the report before the Committee on the issuance of documents on the United Nations Web site, documents should be available there simultaneously in all six official languages. However, in practice that was not so. There was a contradiction between the document and the practice.

    Mr. CHANDRA (India) supported an earlier proposal by the Group of 77 that the report on public information activities should be considered during the fifty-seventh session, within the framework of consideration of the comprehensive review of the Department of Public Information.

    Responding to questions, EDUARDO BLINDER, Director, Information Services Division, said that he believed all documents were now available simultaneously on the Optical Disk System (ODS) in all official languages. He would verify that information, however.

    Regarding document availability on the United Nations Web site, he said that it was a different matter. At present, the documents were copied to the Web site from the ODS to be made available, based on their category and content. They were not openly available to the public, because by the terms of General Assembly resolution 51/211 of 1997, documents are made available to the public on the "fee-for-service" basis. The report before the Committee had proposed that such restrictions be lifted. That would make it possible to link the Web pages directly to the ODS system, making all documents currently stored in the ODS available through the United Nations Web site.

    OLUSEYE ODUYEMI, Executive Officer of the Department of Public Information, said that all the comments and concerns expressed in the debate on information activities outside the DPI would be taken into account during the ongoing comprehensive review of public information activities.

    Responding to inquiries from several delegations about the Secretary-General’s report containing Joint Inspection Unit comments on publications, he said that it would be presented in the context of a new report, which had been requested by the Fifth Committee regarding a review of all United Nations publications and information materials. That would help to avoid duplication. The preparation of that report was given high priority, and it would be presented at the next session of the Assembly.

    Mr. NAKKARI (Syria) said that according to the latest resolution on the pattern of conferences, no document should be published on the Internet or the ODS without it being simultaneously available in all official languages. Had the Secretariat taken measures to comply with that resolution? Regarding the report on the review of public information activities outside the DPI, he said he had hoped that the document would also shed some light on the languages used in the implementation of public information activities. He was concerned, because on the Internet site of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), for example, most information was published in English, although the target audience of the Commission was Arabic-speaking. The report should have provided information in that regard.

    Mr. CHANDRA (India) said that he was aware of the efforts to streamline the publications of the Organization. Once the comprehensive review had been concluded, the DPI should be requested to take into consideration the concerns about duplication of publications and the need to better streamline their production.

    Mr. BLINDER added that effective 4 February, a full multilingual version of the ODS system had been implemented. The technology was in place, and the documents should be available in all official languages. He would further verify that information and get back to the Committee.

    Ms. SILOT BRAVO (Cuba), speaking on behalf of the Group of 77, expressed deep concern at the note of the Secretary-General sent to Permanent Missions regarding intended support service reductions. The measures described in the note were in contravention of resolution 56/254, whereby the General Assembly approved the proposed programme budget for 2002-2003, resolution 56/242 on the pattern of conferences, the financial rules and regulations and other relevant Assembly resolutions. In those resolutions, the Assembly rejected proposals intended to cut back services directly affecting Member States and regional groups, in particular conference services, as well as the functioning of substantive departments such as the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services.

    The need for adequate conference services to meet the increasing work demands of the Organization had been a traditional priority for the Group. The manner in which the note was presented and the intended areas of reductions gave the impression of an inappropriate reaction to cuts in the budget. It seemed that the Assembly’s decision to reduce the level of resources for other specific operational requirements was being used to justify reductions in meetings services and other services vital to Member States. Since the Assembly’s work was carried out in its plenary as well as in its Main Committees, the Group could not agree with any attempt by the Secretariat to draw a distinction between the work of the General Assembly plenary and the work of its Main Committees. Any failure in servicing the meetings of the Main Committees would have a compromising effect on the work of the Assembly. The circular sought to create an atmosphere in which the functions of the Assembly would be weakened vis-à-vis the other principal organs of the United Nations. That was totally unacceptable to the Group.

    The Group also believed that the intended measures disregard the importance of current procedures for the provision of conference services and other services to Member States, she said. The measures that had been put in place "with immediate effect" -- without the Assembly’s approval and in contradiction to the general desire of the membership of the Organization -- had already resulted in reductions in meetings services and in the cancellation of several meetings of the Group, which were now being restricted to regular working hours. The Group was also concerned about the negative impact of arbitrary cutbacks in the fulfillment of all mandated programmes and activities of the Organization because of the zero nominal growth and zero real growth policies.

    If the situation remained in place, the Group, as well as other regional groups, would be directly limited in their ability to contribute to upcoming summits and meetings, she added. The Group urged clarification on the matter by an appropriate authority from the Secretariat as a matter of priority, and requested that cutbacks of all services directly affecting Member States be restored immediately. The issue should be discussed further in the informal consultations under agenda item 123, proposed programme budget for 2002-2003, so as to take appropriate decisions.

    Mr. NAKKARI (Syria) agreed with the Group of 77’s statement and said that the temperature in the conference room was somewhat better then yesterday. In the last few days, delegates had had to fight cold and sickness in the room. The United Nations was working under belt-tightening procedures, and it was comical that Member States had to come to meetings with their coats. It seemed that restrictions in financing had led to restrictions in temperatures. Was the temperature equally cold in other parts of the building?

    The intended reductions were an infringement of the authority of the General Assembly, he continued. It was strange for administrative instructions to be issued in contravention to General Assembly mandates, unless the Secretariat now led the Organization and Member States had no role to play. The document was objectionable from A-Z and rejected by his delegation. The Group’s statement required extensive discussion.

    Responding to comments from the floor, Assistant Secretary-General for Programme Planning, Budget and Accounts and United Nations Controller JEAN-PIERRE HALBWACHS said the situation was simple. Not long ago, on the basis of the budget review and the unanimous recommendation of the General Assembly, a budget of some $2.6 billion had been approved. The Secretary-General and the Secretariat had to live within that level. In the proposed programme budget and other papers reviewed by the Committee, the total amount requested by the Secretary-General had amounted to some $2.7 billion. When he introduced the budget, the Secretary-General had made clear that the Organization could not continue with less money. Further budget cuts would compromise the services expected of the Secretariat. The reductions made by the General Assembly were across the board and did not seem to have programmatic justification. The Secretariat had to live with level of reduction.

    Ms. SILOT BRAVO (Cuba) said the issue required detailed analysis. The Group, which represented a large part of the membership, must be given a specific response. Some thought must be given to the impact of decisions taken by Member States on the budget. Services to Member States must be safeguarded. Conference servicing and other support services were areas where the General Assembly clearly indicated that it did not want to see direct cuts. The cuts were having a direct impact on the functioning of the General Assembly and coordination in the regional groups. In the preparatory process for important summits taking place this year, the problem was taking on a political dimension. Furthermore, it was difficult to say that at the outset of a budget exercise resources for provision of services to Member States were not available. Perhaps that could be said at the end of a budget exercise. At the beginning of a biennium, she doubted the intention behind the cutbacks. The Group asked for the immediate restoration of services affecting the proper functioning of the Organization, and in particular the Group of 77.

    Mr. NAKKARI (Syria) said that the Committee had benefited from the input of the Budget Division during the budget negotiations. The measures included in the circular should have been relayed to delegates at that time. The proposed reductions had come at a later stage and in a selective manner. The level of resources for General Assembly Affairs had been nearly the same in the last couple of budgets. A comparison between departments and sections should be conducted, as it would indicate whether there was a financial shortage in General Assembly Affairs. The comparison would enable delegates to have a clear understanding of the selectivity of the reductions. In the budget discussions, there had been an agreement that reductions would be horizontal. An explanation in writing was needed so that the Committee could see the rationale behind the intended reductions.

    In the absence of comments on the revised estimates resulting from strengthening the role of internal oversight services at the International Tribunals, the Committee then concluded its general discussion of that matter.

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