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3 January 2013 - Established in 1945, at the end stages of World War II, the United Nations General Assembly serves as the world body's principal policy-making and deliberative organ, providing a forum for multilateral discussion of the full spectrum of international issues covered by the UN Charter.
The Assembly makes a big splash every year in late September when world leaders come to UN Headquarters in New York City to present their views about pressing world issues over a number of days, in what is known as the General Debate.
However, the issues and themes under discussion by the General Assembly lend themselves to more effective discussion in smaller settings covering different topics. So, once the Debate is over, the General Assembly’s six Main Committees select their officers and get down to dealing with the items on the Assembly’s agenda – in 2012, the Assembly had nearly 170 items on it, most of which were carried over from previous years.
All Member States take part in each of the Committees’ discussions and the agenda is divided up thematically. The issues are debated, corresponding resolutions are voted on and then forwarded to all UN Member States – in the so-called General Assembly Plenary – for a final decision.
Here, in the fifth of a series providing a snapshot of the Main Committees, the UN News Centre takes a look at the Fifth Committee.
Every year, like clockwork, United Nations Headquarters in New York observes a number of rituals.
Among them is the General Debate in September with its caravans of diplomats winding their way through the traffic-clogged streets of Manhattan to the UN complex where they hear keynote – and sometimes controversial – addresses by their Heads of State or other senior representatives in the General Assembly.
But, away from these limelight events tied to the Assembly are the lower-level debates at that body’s Main Committees – one of which is the relatively anonymous and yet vital Fifth Committee, which focuses on administrative and budgetary issues and which meets multiple times a year and often late into the night, as the diplomatic negotiations continue amidst intense and sometimes difficult exchanges.
It was two o’clock in the morning one December day when a German delegate, Deputy Ambassador Miguel Berger of Germany, found himself at precisely one of these extended sessions, amid sleep-deprived diplomats seeking an ever-elusive consensus.
“Some of them fell asleep, probably aided by the food and drink, and that made the consensus finding much easier because the number of delegates was reduced towards three, four, or five o’clock in the morning,” he said in an interview with the UN News Centre.
The Fifth Committee is an exception among the Assembly’s six Main Committees. Unlike its counterparts, where consensus is not required on any resolutions, the Fifth Committee’s members are required to agree as a whole in order to pass the UN’s biennial budget.
“It’s a bit like the negotiations that you have with trade unions. You need at least one night session where you negotiate to the point of exhaustion so everybody can sell the result as the best result possible,” said Mr. Berger, who is serving as the Fifth Committee’s Chair this year.
“If you achieve a result at three in the afternoon, everyone would say: ‘You could have done better.’ If you do it at six o’clock in the morning, then everyone believes that you’ve done your utmost to get it,” he added.
The Fifth Committee’s work comes at the end of a long chain of bureaucratic checks and balances, kicked off, primarily, by the UN Secretariat’s own budget report containing recommendations for spending and reform. The report then trickles down to the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, also known as the ACABQ, which the UN describes as “a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly,” and consists of 16 members appointed by the Assembly in their individual capacities.
This ACABQ scrutinizes the budget submitted by the Secretary-General to the General Assembly and ultimately advises the Assembly concerning any administrative and budgetary matters referred to it. Following this, the budget report arrives in the Fifth Committee’s hands where the financing minutiae are debated, dissected and, ultimately, agreed upon.
“Quite often, the discussion is on how [things] can be done. We are looking to deliver on the mandates, to ensure that we do so efficiently, ensure that budget planning is financially sound, and to ensure that we introduce the necessary reforms and implement them,” Mr. Berger said.
“At the end,” he continued, “it comes down to everything is taxpayers’ money, so we have to be very careful how we spend that money and make a collective effort to do that in the most economical and effective way.”
The considerably more complex technical function of deciding which country pays what to the UN budget is decided by another body, the Committee on Contributions, which meets every two years to review the so-called scale of assessments. It uses a formula that factors in a country’s population, its wealth measured by gross national product and other economic considerations. No country pays more than 25 per cent of the UN budget; and, assuming there are no other factors which could affect payment, even the smallest country has to pay 0.01 per cent.
Twice a year, the Secretariat details which countries have paid their assessments on time and in full – more along the lines of an honour roll, rather than a ‘name and shame’ list. A country that falls behind by two years can lose its right to vote in the General Assembly.
Separate from the main UN budget is the peacekeeping budget, which is about three times more than what is known as the ‘regular budget.’ The current peacekeeping budget is around $7.5 billion. “Overall if you compare with some national budgets, I think it’s a good situation,” Mr. Berger noted.
With a broad range of issues on its plate, the Fifth Committee devotes its focus to budgeting and human resources matters in alternating years, spreading its negotiating over three separate sessions over the course of the year, with the first beginning each October. Those issues which do not require immediate consideration often remain on the agenda and are postponed to the first part of the resumed session, which is normally held for a period of three or four weeks in March, depending on the workload. The Committee then resumes its work for a period of four weeks in May to consider the administrative and budgetary aspects of the financing of peacekeeping operations and any other questions or items that the Committee needs to consider.
In the 2011 session, the UN biennial budget was agreed upon, while the 2012 discussion was centred on human resources issues.
“UN staff is key for the Organization’s work, for the implementation of the mandates,” Mr. Berger confirmed, noting that 75 per cent of the UN budget is, in fact, committed to staffing-related expenditures. “So everything that has to do with staff and human resources is of the highest importance for the Fifth Committee.”
However, amid continuing international financial insecurity and growing calls for austerity in many Member States’ national assemblies, the buzzword for the Fifth Committee’s 2012 discussions on human resources was ‘reform.’
Mr. Berger noted that the Secretariat, in particular, was driving the reform initiatives on many important issues, including the concept of staff mobility which, he said, was a “very important” topic of concern for the UN’s overall functioning.
“The basic idea is that the staff have a kind of rotation, like diplomats do, every three, four, five years, and so that as part of your career development, you get new experiences, you learn new things,” he said.
But he conceded that the process involved in moving away from the current mobility set-up was a slow and convoluted one and that Member States were still studying the particulars. Questions over the specific details of the new plan have been proliferating: Would UN staff be required to rotate from duty station to duty station – New York to Bangkok, Geneva to Nairobi? How long would rotations last? How long would staff be required to stay in so-called hardship locations?
While the matter of streamlining the UN’s sometimes clunky administrative apparatus into a more well-oiled one remains at the top of this year’s agenda, the issue of budgeting, particularly at a time of global austerity, inevitably remains at the back of everyone’s minds.
“I think there are very important initiatives that the Secretariat is undergoing which will allow this Organization to be more transparent and more modern and will also put the UN in a position to deliver more. And that, I think, is what we want to see.”