Fifty-sixth General Assembly
16th Meeting (AM)
FIFTH COMMITTEE BEGINS CONSIDERATION OF CONFERENCE SERVICES, COMMENDING
MORE RATIONAL USE OF SITES, CONCERNED AT PROBLEMS IN LANGUAGE AREA
UNHCR Representative Outlines Measures
For Improved Verification of Implementing Partner Expenses
New technologies would be adapted to address the conference servicing needs of the Organization, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) was told this morning as it took up its agenda item on the United Nations pattern of conferences.
The Under-Secretary-General of the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services, Jian Chen, said that with resources kept at maintenance level, his Department sometimes had to settle for what was possible –- not what was desirable. To make the most of its limited resources, however, the Department was considering a multi-pronged approach which would consolidate existing projects and give priority to promising ones. “Although we cannot be a technology leader, we will endeavour to lead in the adaptation of technology to our special needs”, he said.
The representative of Belgium, on behalf of the European Union and associated States, also supported the systematic use of new technologies. Major impetus must be provided in the area of remote interpretation, as it offered an answer to the recurrent problem of interpreters’ excessive travel costs. The Union also welcomed the successful implementation of the electronic documentation transmission system, and the forthcoming total accessibility of that system in the six official languages of the Organization.
On the Department’s proposed programme budget for 2002-2003, the representative of Iran (speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China) doubted whether the modest increase of some 2 per cent over the previous biennium would adequately address the Department’s needs. The Group was concerned by the chronic problem of late issuance of documentation, and reiterated the need for strict compliance with the six-week rule for issuance of documentation. In that regard, he called upon the Department to redouble its efforts to improve coordination with author departments and to resolve the constraints that gave rise to the low rate of compliance with the six-week rule.
The representative of the United States could not support increasing the Department’s budget in the next biennium, as simply providing more money would not solve problems with conference servicing. The Department had been called upon to
perform a delicate balancing act between meeting the needs of Member States and performing its mandates within its budget. This year, the Department appeared to have failed in that -– its most fundamental task -– as it had exceeded its budget by some $8 million. As a large portion of the cost overrun could be attributed to a number of large-scale special sessions that the Department had to service lately, she questioned the need for so many special events. With greater discipline by Member States and the institution of proposed changes, however, the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services could function effectively at its current level of funding.
During the debate, speakers also welcomed the fact that the overall utilization factor of conference services during 2000 had exceeded the 80 per cent benchmark. Several speakers were encouraged by the creation of a permanent interpretation service at the United Nations Office at Nairobi, as it was the only United Nations centre in the developing world. Among other issues addressed this morning were the rational use of meeting time, enhanced coordination and reduction of excessive vacancy rates in language posts.
Reports before the Committee were also introduced by the Chairman of the Committee on Conferences, Abdelmalek Bouheddou; the Director of the Information Technology Services Division, Eduardo Blinder; the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), Conrad S.M. Mselle; and the Editor-in-Chief of the United Nations Chronicle, Ramu Damoradan.
As the Committee concluded its general discussion of the Board of Auditors’ reports, statements were made by the Controller of the Division of Resources Management of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Gunilla Hesselmark; and the Director of External Audit and Chairperson of the Audit Operations Committee, Marieta Acorda of the Philippines.
Ms. Hesselmark, said it was the first time in the UNHCR’s history that a qualified audit opinion had been delivered on financial statements amounting to some $43.5 million. While she was aware of the need to improve interaction between the UNHCR and implementing partners, the auditors had not suggested that there was anything irregular about the expenditures. It was a question of the long delay in the receipt of adequate reporting information. Actions had been taken to reduce the amount by some 50 per cent, and the whole sum would be cleared within five months.
Also addressing the Committee were the representatives of the Russian Federation, Kenya, Argentina, China and Belarus.
The Committee will continue its consideration of the pattern of conferences and the visitors’ experience at 10 a.m. Thursday, 25 October.
The Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) met this morning to continue its consideration of reports of the Board of Auditors. [For background information, see Press Release GA/AB/3467 of 22 October.] It was also expected to begin consideration of a series of reports on the United Nations pattern of conferences.
The report of the Committee on Conferences for 2001 (document A/56/32) summarizes that body's work and contains recommendations on pattern of conference issues. [Some of these are presented below.] Annexed to the report are the draft revised calendar of conferences and meetings of the United Nations for 2002, and a draft calendar for 2003.
Regarding use of conference-related services, the Committee on Conferences notes that the overall utilization factor for 2000 had exceeded the benchmark
of 80 per cent. Geneva Office utilization had increased by 3 per cent, whereas for the Vienna Office it had decreased by 5 per cent. Nairobi had increased by
16 percentage points to 100 per cent.
Optical Disk System
According to the Secretary-General's report on re-engineering of the optical disk system (document A/56/120), the current 10-year-old system needs to be updated because technological changes have made it obsolete and expensive to maintain. Under these circumstances, a project was launched in early 2000 to
re-engineer it on the basis of up-to-date technology and standard Internet browser and disk media storage. The new system is to be delivered in two phases: the first involves a change to the new platform without altering its functionalities, while the second one provides for language support functions.
The report states that the development of the first phase was completed in February 2001: the new software and converted database were installed on new servers, and the testing began. By 22 June 2001, the parallel old and new operations were to be in use, and the old system was to be discontinued by
10 August. Non-Roman language support function is expected to start its operations in December 2001.
Conference Facilities at Nairobi
Regarding conference facilities at the United Nations Office at Nairobi, the Committee had before it a report of the Secretary-General (document A/56/133), according to which the restructuring of those facilities has resulted in improved utilization of the conference services. Among recent developments are the creation of permanent interpretation services and the Division of Conference Services there. Steps are being taken to coordinate the rational use of the office’s human and financial resources, which include efforts to attract more meetings to the Nairobi facilities.
In his report, the Secretary-General notes that the trend for 2001 is encouraging. While the establishment of an interpretation team, operational as of January 2001, could not have had an effect on meetings statistics for 2000, the report states that the area of non-calendar meetings shows a dramatic increase beyond the total number planned for the biennium, thanks to the promotional efforts of the Nairobi office among United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations. The Nairobi interpretation team is becoming a regular feature at United Nations conferences in Africa and elsewhere, and the creation of the Division of Conference Services is another welcome step towards wider geographical coverage of the Organization’s activities.
The document contains detailed listings of meetings held in Nairobi and services outside of the city in 2000 and the first six months of 2001, as well as information on the implementation of the programme budget for Nairobi for 2000-2001. The calendar of conferences for February 2001 demonstrates the cost-saving effect of the team in Nairobi for the regular budget in terms of temporary assistance.
The Secretary-General’s report on remote interpretation (document A/56/188) reviews the background, organization and implementation of the second full-scale experiment in remote interpretation conducted by the United Nations. The first such experiment was conducted in 1999, when a two-week session in Geneva was provided with interpretation in six languages from Vienna. Afterwards, due to technical and scheduling difficulties, an attempt to repeat the experiment with Geneva-Nairobi in May 2000 was unsuccessful.
The second experiment was held during 16 meetings of the Commission on Sustainable Development at the United Nations Headquarters this year, with the interpreters working from booths situated in the same building, but away from the actual location of the meetings. During the experiment, the satellite link remained stable and provided good quality of sound and video transmissions. However, the lines used for the transmission of video signals require further attention, for interruptions were experienced during the meetings.
As for the assessment of the experiment, the report notes that only
23 completed questionnaires were received from the participants: 14 from persons using the English channel, and nine from users of other languages. Interpretation into English was required very infrequently during the session, for most of the statements were made in that language. While no complaints were received during the session, the rating of interpretation quality by the non-English speakers was much less favourable.
For many interpreters who took part in the experiment, the echo presented a problem throughout the two weeks, as did a disorienting lack of synchronization between sound and image. The interpreters believed that they had provided an acceptable level of service, but striving to maintain high professional standards under adverse conditions took a toll on the team.
From the financial point of view, savings in interpreters’ travel expenses could be counterbalanced by additional costs, the report states. For instance, in addition to the staff that would normally service the meetings, it was necessary to redeploy and recruit some support staff. Additional salaries and overtime costs amounted to $32,700. While most of the equipment used in the experiment was already available in-house, additional equipment was purchased at a cost of $51,800. Installation and usage costs were also involved. Since satellite services can be expensive, remote interpretation should not be considered if extra capacity has to be obtained commercially.
The report concludes that, although progress has been made, the two experiments have been only partially successful. Currently available technical and human resources are not sufficient for effective simultaneous interpretation. There can be uncertainties and trade-offs between the volume of the data and the stability of transmissions, and interpreters trained to work onsite cannot perform with the same efficiency when they work remotely. Under these circumstances, future advances in videoconferencing and communications must be continually assessed to determine whether they can offer solutions to technical problems of remote interpretation. Potential financial advantages and additional flexibility offered by remote interpretation justify further work along these lines.
Interpretation Services to Meetings of Regional Groups
The Secretary-General's report on the provision of interpretation services to meetings of regional and other major groupings of Member States (document A/56/213) contains statistics on the matter for the period of July 2000 through June 2001. The Assembly has mandated the Secretariat to make provision in its requests for resources for the servicing of such groups, while at the same time maintaining its decision that services should be provided on an ad hoc basis, in accordance with established practice. That means that no servicing capacity is to be specifically allocated for that purpose. According to the report, the percentage of regional and group meetings provided with interpretation in New York has risen steadily from 84 per cent in 1998-1999 to 90 per cent for the current period. Overall, for all four duty stations, 92 per cent of the requests for interpretation were met.
Vacancy Rates in Language Services
The report of the Secretary-General on excessive vacancy rates in language services at some duty stations and issues relating to the recruitment of language staff (document A/56/277) provides an analysis of the current vacancy situation in language services at all duty stations. It shows an overall improvement and a decrease in vacancy rates at all duty stations with chronic vacancy problems. The report describes a "proactive" approach, which has alleviated vacancy problems. Vacancy rates remain excessive at some duty stations, however, showing the limited impact of mobility incentives for language staff. A streamlined procedure for the lateral transfer of language staff is being introduced. The report also describes actions taken to fill vacancies in the recently established Interpretation Section at the United Nations Office at Nairobi.
The report analyses recruitment difficulties, both language- and function-specific, and reviews possible causes for decreasing yields of competitive language examinations. Noting the success of past and current training activities, the Secretary-General proposes reinstating the training programme for interpreters established in 1974. That programme, which was suspended in 1992 because of financial constraints, had a success rate of more than 90 per cent. It was offered to candidates from competitive interpreter examinations whose overall scores were lower than the passing score, but high enough to warrant their selection for a period of intensive in-house training in preparation for the next competitive exam.
Conference Services at Bangkok and Addis Ababa
The Committee had before it a report of the Secretary-General on the utilization of United Nations conference centres in Bangkok and Addis Ababa (document A/56/293). Noting a lack of sufficient operational guidance in the management of conference centres, inadequate staff structures and insufficient financial resources, the Assembly, in resolution 55/222 of December 2000, requested the Secretary-General to explore options to increase the use of the two conference centres. The report includes information on actions taken, future plans and remaining constraints.
On the Bangkok conference centre, for example, the report says the fixed configuration of meeting rooms in typical United Nations style does not meet the requirements of non-ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) events. To maximize commercial use of the centre, one of the large conference rooms would have to be converted to a multi-purpose room with flexible seating arrangement at an estimated cost of some $273,000.
Encouraging trends in the use of the two conference centres continued in the first half of 2001, the report says. With improvements in the economies of the two regions, and given the quality of services provided by the centres, many non-United Nations event organizers are becoming repeat customers. Since the facilities in Bangkok and Addis Ababa are still relatively new, they will continue to diversify their services and attract more non-United Nations events.
Availability of Documentation
The Committee had before it a report of the Secretary-General (document A/56/299), which compiles information from intergovernmental bodies on the availability of pre-session documentation. A more comprehensive report will be presented following completion of the biennial cycle of meetings. In resolution 55/222 of December 2000, the Assembly invited intergovernmental bodies to review with author departments the availability of documentation for the proper functioning of those bodies. Pre-session documentation is supposed to be available in all official languages six weeks before the opening of a session.
An initial analysis shows that distinctions can be made between the various organs and the degree to which their work is affected by the availability of pre-session documentation, the report says. Bodies meeting as and when required are affected differently than those meeting according to set timetables with pre-set agendas. The level of coordination between the secretariats and bureaux of intergovernmental bodies, on the one hand, and the Secretariat and conference services, on the other, can significantly impact the availability of documentation. Reduction in the number of reports can also contribute to timely issuance of pre-session documentation.
Submission of Documentation
A report of the Secretary-General on submission of documentation consistent with the six-week rule (document A/56/300) describes measures taken by the Secretariat to strengthen responsibility and accountability in the submission of documentation. Measures include programming and monitoring of the submission process, regular meetings of focal points for documentation and planning meetings with substantive departments and bureaux of intergovernmental organs. Suggested actions to remedy the late issuance of documentation include processing late submissions, introducing shorter periods in the reporting cycle, submission of addenda to update information and adjusting the programme of work.
To improve the submission of documentation, a concerted effort on the part of Member States and the Secretariat is necessary, the report says. While steps are being taken in the Secretariat to coordinate the preparation of reports at an earlier stage and to improve the monitoring of their submission for processing, intergovernmental organs and Member States can help by limiting their requests for documentation.
United Nations Chronicle
The Committee also had before it a report of the Secretary-General on the implementation of recommendations regarding the United Nations Chronicle (document A/56/339). In April 2000, the Assembly requested the Secretary-General to report to it on the implementation of an earlier decision that the Chronicle -- the Organization's "flagship publication" -- be issued four times a year in all the official languages of the Organization. Until 1986, the Chronicle was published 11 times a year in all six official languages. Because of the financial situation facing the Organization that year, however, a decision was made to reduce the publication to once every three months. Subsequent to that, the financial crisis of 1996 prompted the Department of Public Information (DPI) to suspend the Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish editions of the publication.
Following the Assembly's decision in 2000, the DPI began to explore options to resume publication of the Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish editions, the report says. The Department sought to produce a pilot edition in each of the four languages to assess the costs and feasibility of resuming regular production of those language editions within its approved budget. The Department concluded that as it would take a long time to typeset, proofread and design the layout, the edition would lose its value. With that in mind, resource requirements of some $1.3 million have been included in the Department's 2002-2003 proposed programme budget submission.
United Nations Web Site
Also before the Committee was a report of the Secretary-General on the continued multilingual development, maintenance and enrichment of the United Nations Web site (document A/AC.198/2001/8). In its resolution 55/136 B, the Assembly encouraged the Secretary-General to continue his efforts to develop the United Nations Web sites in all official languages of the Organization, and requested him to develop proposals for consideration by the Committee on Information at its twenty-third session. To date, six proposals have been presented to that Committee, each of which has involved the allocation of additional resources.
While further proposals could be developed, given the constraints imposed by a zero-growth budget, much of the future development of the Web site will depend on policy decisions by the Assembly to make official documents available in all languages free of charge, the report says. While mindful of the need for language parity, the Secretary-General says it would be a disservice to Member States to continue to develop proposals that entail significant expenditures. The required administrative and budgetary support continues to be the minimum support necessary for any realistic progress.
In a related report (document A/56/475), the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) says that its first report on the 2002-2003 proposed programme budget provides detailed commentary on many of the above issues. The Advisory Committee notes, however, that the reports on the availability of documentation for the proper functioning of intergovernmental bodies and the submission of documentation consistent with the six-week rule could have been consolidated into one report. The availability of documentation for intergovernmental bodies cannot be considered without also considering compliance with the six-week rule.
Regarding the United Nations Chronicle, the ACABQ notes that resource requirements of some $1.3 million have been included in the 2002-2003 proposed programme budget for publication of the Chronicle four times a year in all six official languages. It recommends that the relevant intergovernmental bodies carry out a critical assessment of the utility of the publication in general, including the demand for the Chronicle in the various languages, the merits of online distribution and the method of its publication and printing.
The ACABQ welcomes progress made in re-engineering of the optical disk system and encourages the Secretariat to continue to work towards unrestricted and free access to the system for all accredited non-governmental organizations. The availability of the system should be advertised as widely as possible, at United Nations Headquarters and regional offices, as well as in the United Nations information centres.
Regarding the issue of remote interpretation, an application with enormous potential, the ACABQ encourages continued exploration of the feasibility of large-scale remote interpretation. Technical problems related to remote interpretation are not insurmountable. The ACABQ urges the Secretariat to intensify its efforts to find solutions to those problems, as well as to issues related to the working conditions of interpreters. It requests the Secretariat to report on the question at its fifty-seventh session.
Regarding excessive vacancy rates in the language services at some duty stations, the ACABQ recommends approving the training initiative for interpreters for an initial period of one year, subject to submission of information on the results of training activities, the continuing need for the programme, and related financial arrangements. The Advisory Committee also requests that information be provided to the Committee on comparative costs of commercial translation and current arrangements for contractual translation at the United Nations. Information on the experiences of Member States should also be included. The question of assuring quality control must also be addressed.
Introduction of Reports, Statements
The Chairman of the ACABQ, CONRAD S.M. MSELLE, first introduced that body’s report (document A/56/436) on the Board of Auditors’ financial reports, reiterating that a biennial audit of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would give that body more time to implement the auditors’ recommendations. In particular, such practice would facilitate timely submission of documentation by implementing partners. The UNHCR would continue to produce annual reports, but its accounts would be closed after 24 financial months, as opposed to the current practice of closing them after 12 months.
He said that audit was an important accountability tool, ensuring that funds provided by Member States were used as intended and that projected results had been achieved. He went on to describe the results of the latest audit and added that such issues as refusal of access to accounting records and improving financial accountability needed to be urgently addressed. A change should be made in the format of reporting on the implementation of the Board’s recommendations. The Board was requested to concentrate in its reports on the extent to which its recommendations have been implemented and on their impact. The Secretary-General’s reports also should focus on actions taken and results achieved.
VLADIMIR A. IOSSIFOV (Russian Federation) took note of the documents before the Committee and expressed satisfaction that important work had been done during the period under review. It was important for the Secretariat and various divisions to implement the recommendations of oversight and supervision bodies, including the Board of Auditors. He believed that definite progress had been made in that respect within 15 organizations mentioned in the implementation report. He also noted that six organizations had managed to considerably increase the implementation of the auditors’ recommendations with respect of the 1996-1997 biennium. He also supported the opinion of the ACABQ that, in future reports, special attention should be given to actions directed at implementation of recommendations and the degree to which they were implemented, instead of describing how various bodies intended to do that. Reasons for delays should also be provided, as well as their analysis. In that context, it was necessary to increase the responsibility of the directors of programmes.
GUNILLA HESSELMARK, Controller and Director of the Division of Resource Management of the UNHCR, said she was encouraged by the supportive statements made in the Committee yesterday. The Board, for the first time in UNHCR’s history, had delivered a qualified audit opinion on financial statements amounting to some $43.5 million. The UNHCR took the matter seriously. While she was aware of the need to improve interaction between the UNHCR and implementing partners, there had been no suggestion by the auditors that there was anything irregular about the expenditures. It was a question of the long delay in the receipt of adequate reporting information. In that regard, the UNHCR had introduced a package to combat the situation. One action was to include the issue as a specific measurement of management performance in the objectives and appraisals of senior managers. Actions had been taken to reduce the amount by some 50 per cent, and the whole sum would be cleared within five months.
Regarding the non-development of the integrated information support system, she said the new management had decided to suspend the development of the system until it was able to assess the overall design and to ensure compatibility with the Corporate Operating Model that was currently being defined. The introduction of modern systems was high on the agenda of the new management. Regarding the size and statistics of refugee populations, the UNHCR had planned to use more modern tools, including upgraded registration management systems and the distribution of training modules. Three specialized UNHCR field registration experts would provide help in the field. Regarding the issue of a biennial audit, the UNHCR would continue to discuss the question. Its new management would look closely at the area of biennial audit and also at a more holistic follow-up approach. There was also a need to improve reporting on achieved results and prioritization.
MARIETA S.F. ACORDA, Director of External Audit, Philippines, and Chair of the Audit Operations Committee, responded to delegations on behalf of the Chairman of the Board of Auditors. She said the Board was pleased to note the Committee’s continued interest in its work and its support of issues surrounding the qualification of the audit opinion on UNHCR’s financial statements. The Board was also grateful for the Committee’s support for its recommendation concerning the need to strengthen UNHCR’s oversight and monitoring mechanisms at the local level, and the need to limit expenditure levels to the level of expected income.
She noted the concern expressed by various speakers on the need for expeditious implementation of the integrated systems project. Regarding the appropriateness of the UNHCR engaging in projects not related to its mandate, the Board would assess the level of coordination of the UNHCR with other organizations in deciding to implement projects. On the implementation of recommendations, the Board would address that concern following coordination with the administration.
Pattern of Conferences
As the Committee turned to its agenda item on the pattern of conferences, the Chairman of the Committee on Conferences, ABDEL MALEK BOUHEDDOU, introduced the report of that body (document A/56/32). He said that the Committee had adopted by consensus all recommendations contained therein. The Committee had recommended that every effort be made to avoid simultaneous peak periods at various duty stations, and welcomed the efforts to promote more effective coordination towards that end. It recommended the draft calendar of conferences and meetings for 2002-2003 for adoption by the General Assembly. Among other issues addressed by the Committee were the optimal utilization of conference resources; the use of conference facilities in Nairobi, Bangkok and Addis Ababa; remote translation; provision of interpretation services to the meetings of regional and other major groupings of Member States; documentation and publication-related matters; language services recruitment; and information technology.
In particular, the Committee recommended developing an effective accountability and responsibility system within the Secretariat for effective delivery of conference services and for ways of enhancing the timely availability of documentation to Member States, he said. Having welcomed the reduced vacancy rate for language services, the Committee recommended that top priority be given to filling vacant interpreter posts at the United Nations Offices at Vienna and Nairobi. It also expressed concern over the low yield of some competitive language examinations, and the fact that successful candidates often refused offers of employment made by the Organization. The Committee recommended reinstating an in-house training programme for interpreters. It also suggested that in future budget submissions under General Assembly affairs and conference services, publishing be separated from interpretation and presented as part of translation and editing.
In his introductory statement, JIAN CHEN, Under-Secretary-General of the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services, said the Department had just undergone changes in the senior management team. The transitional period was further compounded, at least for the current session of the Assembly, by the 11 September crisis. Despite those difficulties, he assured the Committee of his Department’s ability to provide conference services to the satisfaction of Member States. The Department placed much emphasis on coordination, because the case for pooling limited and scattered resources was strong. Citing the recent Conference on Racism as an example, he said that a combination of planning and servicing capacities had contributed to making the utilization of conference-servicing resources more cost-effective. As part of its global approach, the Department had always borne in mind the need to improve the utilization of conference facilities at the United Nations Office at Nairobi.
The proposed calendar of conferences and meetings illustrated the importance and timeliness of enhanced coordination, he continued. In 2002, nine meetings would be held away from Headquarters. The Department intended to build on the practices already in place, such as workload sharing in translation, staff loans and interpretation, and lateral transfers of language staff.
On the issue of documentation, he reiterated the view of the Secretary-General’s reports that it was a matter of joint responsibility shared by relevant Secretariat departments and Member States. On the part of the Secretariat, he believed it appropriate to make a comprehensive analysis of the causes of late submission and the resulting financial implications, develop a comprehensive accountability and responsibility system, and adopt a multifaceted approach towards a multifaceted problem. A number of measures had been initiated towards that end, including increased interaction between the Secretariat and intergovernmental bodies, establishment of focal points and convening of planning meetings.
Turning to the servicing of meetings of regional and other major groupings of States, he reported that, for the past year, 100 per cent of requests for facilities alone had been granted. In a major improvement over previous years,
92 per cent of requests for meetings with interpretation had been met -– the highest percentage ever attained. The Department was also looking at how the conference centres in Bangkok and Addis Ababa could be better utilized. Considerable efforts were being made to encourage staff to move to duty stations afflicted by excessive vacancy rates. In order to recruit more qualified staff, the Department was switching to jointly held language examinations for different language functions in the hope of establishing pools of successful candidates. Training activities that had been discontinued some years ago had been
re-established on a limited scale.
Regarding the use of technology, he said that with resources kept at maintenance level, sometimes the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services had to settle for what was possible -– not what was desirable. Over the years, some projects, including some document-related ones, had proven to be quite successful, while others (such as voice recognition) had shown only the rudiments of success. To make the most of its limited resources, the Department was considering a multi-pronged approach, which would include consolidation of existing projects so as to give priority to the promising ones. “Although we cannot be technology leaders, we will endeavour to lead in the adaptation of technology to our special needs”, he said.
EDUARDO BINDER, Director of the Information Technology Services Division, introduced the report of the Secretary-General on the re-engineering of the optical disk system. The re-engineered optical disk system would have full multilingual support covering all six languages. Users would be able to search using any of the six languages. On 4 September 2001, following close monitoring, the old system was shut down. Resources were then shifted to undertake full multi-language support. The transition from a closed to an open system would be done gradually, ensuring acceptable performance of the system. The official documents system was central to information technology strategy and would remain a key vehicle for external and internal information delivery.
RAMU DAMODARAN, Editor-in-Chief of the United Nations Chronicle, introduced the report of the Secretary-General on that publication. Since 1995, with the advent of the Internet, the Chronicle’s entire format had changed. It was no longer a record of events but a forum for discussion of relevant issues to the Organization. The time had come to embark upon the United Nations Chronicle in the six languages, and there were two possible ways to do that. One was through external publication to external vendors with a sustainable financial base. The second option was to co-publish with one outside publishing house in the four relevant language areas to produce a publication in a format and quality commensurate with the original in New York. Discussions were continuing, and it was difficult at present to estimate costs for the second option. However, the degree of resources necessary for publication as an external venture had been indicated.
Mr. MSELLE, Chairman of the ACABQ, introduced that body’s report. He said the ACABQ welcomed action taken by the Department of General Assembly Affairs to replace the traditional paper-based management system for the coordination of submission of documentation with a computerized database application. The ACABQ encouraged further development of that system.
On the United Nations Chronicle, he said that the ACABQ recommended a critical assessment of the utility of the Chronicle in general, including an analysis of demand for the Chronicle in the various languages. On the re-engineering of the optical disk system, the ACABQ welcomed progress made and encouraged the Secretary-General to continue to work towards unrestricted access to the system by accredited non-governmental organizations. On the question of remote interpretation, the ACABQ had not been happy with the pace of progress of the pilot project. It requested the submission of a progress report to the General Assembly at the fifty-seventh session. Regarding contractual translation, the ACABQ had requested information on comparative costs.
Speaking on behalf of the European Union and associated States, LAURENT LEMAIRE (Belgium) noted with satisfaction the recommendations and comments contained in the Committee on Coordination and ACABQ reports. The European Union attributed particular importance to optimum use of conference services and facilities. In that respect, he noted that the rate of use of conference services for 2000 was generally higher than 80 per cent. He also stressed the importance of strict compliance with meeting hours, as well as placing limits on the duration of meetings and speaking time.
His delegation was keenly interested in the timely circulation of documents in accordance with the six-week rule, and would encourage the Secretary-General to take the necessary measures to achieve that goal. He also pointed to the importance that the European Union attached to respecting the Orthodox Good Friday, in accordance with relevant dispositions of resolutions 54/248 and 55/222.
He went on to express the Union’s concern over excessive vacancy rates in certain postings and to stress the need to remedy the situation. Regarding remote interpretation, he said that a major impetus must be provided in that area, as it offered an answer to the recurrent problem of interpreters’ excessive travel costs. He invited the Secretary-General to continue with remote interpretation and to make systematic use of new technologies in order to assist interpreters in adapting to new working conditions. The Secretariat should carry out an exhaustive comparison between the costs of remote interpretation and traditional interpretation methods. He was surprised at the lack of information on the development of remote translation, videoconferencing and voice-recognition systems. There, too, a major impetus should be provided.
With regard to the electronic documentation transmission system, he welcomed its successful implementation and the forthcoming total accessibility of the system in the six official languages of the Organization. Of great importance were development and updating of the Organization’s Web sites in several languages, aimed at modular parity between the official languages, which should be achieved economically.
SEYED MORTEZA MIRMOHAMMAD (Iran), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the Group appreciated that the overall utilization factor of conferences services during 2000 had exceeded the 80 per cent benchmark. Regarding conference facilities at Nairobi, the Group welcomed the creation of a permanent interpretation service there. The Group had always emphasized the importance of that Office as the only United Nations centre in the developing world. The Nairobi Office should be accorded the same status as other United Nations centres. Increased efforts must be made to strengthen capacity and increase the utilization of conference facilities at Nairobi. The remaining vacancies for the posts of interpreters at Nairobi should be filled expeditiously.
The Group remained concerned by the chronic problem of late issuance of documentation and reiterated its wish for strict compliance with the six-week rule for issuance of documentation. He understood that part of the problem lay with the author departments. The Group drew the attention of departments concerned in the issuance of documents to the 10-week rule for the submission of documents, and called for compliance with that rule so as to eliminate the negative impact of the late submission of documents. The Group also called upon the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services to redouble its efforts to improve coordination with author departments, and to identify and resolve the constraints that gave rise to the low rate of compliance with the six-week rule.
While noting that proposed resources for the Department for 2002-2003 reflected a modest increase of some 2 per cent, the Group doubted that those resources were adequate. He stressed the importance of provision of conference services, in particular interpretation, to meetings of regional and other major groupings of Member States. The importance of providing full conference-servicing to meetings of regional and other major groups could not be ignored. Such meetings were crucial to the smooth functioning of the Organization. The Group noted with satisfaction that the percentage of requests in New York rose steadily from 84 to 90 per cent for July 2000 to June 2001, and that overall, some 92 per cent of requests for interpretation at all duty stations had been met.
BOB F. JALANG’O (Kenya) associated himself with the position of the Group
of 77 and China and commended the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services for the enhanced coordination of conference services at all duty stations. He welcomed the improved utilization of conference facilities at the United Nations Office at Nairobi. Another testimony to positive development was an apparent improvement in the utilization of conference facilities at Bangkok and Addis Ababa. His delegation supported the Secretary-General’s proposal to convert some meeting rooms in both those centres to multi-purpose rooms with flexible seating arrangements. He supported providing the funds for that purpose, which had been estimated at $273,000.
Continuing, he supported the proposed measures to address excessive vacancy rates in language services at some duty stations. Introduction of streamlined procedures for lateral transfers of language staff, coupled with in-house training, could result in significant improvement of the vacancy rates situation. He was particularly concerned about the high vacancy rates in English and Arabic booths in the United Nations Office in Nairobi, and would like to know its current status.
He noted with appreciation the efforts of the Department of Conference Services to enhance the utilization of conference facilities at Nairobi, as well as the promotional efforts at the Office there. The establishment of the Division of Conference Services and a permanent interpretation service in Nairobi had already produced a positive impact on the situation. He was concerned, however, that major meetings of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) were still being held outside Nairobi. He agreed with the recommendation of the Committee on Conferences, whereby the Assembly would request UNEP and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) to comply with Headquarters rules and hold all their meetings at Nairobi. A related matter concerned the Assembly’s request, contained in resolution 55/222, for the Secretary-General to produce a report on improving and modernizing the conference facilities at Nairobi. He would like to know the status of that request.
GUILLERMO KENDALL (Argentina) supported the statement made earlier on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, and said that his delegation placed particular importance on the work of the Department of Conference Services and supported the recommendations to improve its work. The Committee on Conferences sessions this year had produced positive results. Its work had been enhanced by increased participation of observer delegations. He agreed with the recommendations to establish time-lines for the submission of documents, and noted with appreciation an increased rate of utilization of conference facilities at various duty stations. Timely start of meetings would also improve efficiency. Assigning responsibility for services delivery to meetings outside Headquarters, and enhanced use of advanced technology, could also have beneficial effects.
The questions of compliance with the six-week rule and timely production of documentation were a recurring and complex problem, he continued, which could be resolved through a proper accountability system. He asked the Secretariat to continue studying ways of resolving that problem. Regarding remote interpretation, he agreed with the conclusions of the report, wondering, in particular, if the actual costs involved would make it economically viable.
He went on to express concern over high language vacancy rates at some duty stations, which could be overcome through setting proper incentives encouraging greater staff mobility. Increased use of retired staff could also be useful. He was concerned over serious disparities between English and other languages at the United Nations web page. That situation should be resolved in order to guarantee parity among all official languages.
SUN MINQIN (China) noted that the 2000 utilization factor had exceeded the 80 per cent benchmark, and that the percentage of requests for meetings (with interpretation) of regional groups had also increased. China appreciated the great efforts made by the Department of Conference Services in that regard. On the quality of interpretation and translation -- a major concern for China -- improvement in that area should be a top priority. While acknowledging efforts made to that end by the Secretariat, she said the quality of services in question was not yet satisfactory to Member States. There were still cases of poor interpretation and mistakes in translation. A complete monitoring system was needed in the Secretariat to ensure that promotions were based on performance. There should be zero tolerance for indifference to work. China called upon the Secretariat to set up training programmes for those who did not measure up so that they could perform better. China hoped the Secretariat would take the necessary measures to ensure smooth running of meetings.
While the practice of hiring of freelancers was understandable, the quality of their work was a source of concern, she continued. Some were not familiar with the work of the United Nations and some were simply not up to the job. She asked for information on the number of freelancers used annually and the costs involved. In the editors’ unit in Geneva, there were editors for all languages except Chinese. She wanted to know the reason for that, and what measures would be taken to correct the situation. She also asked for an update on the status of conversion from temporary posts to regular posts in the Russian, Arabic and Chinese Web site sections. China was pleased to note that conference-servicing facilities at Nairobi had become an integral part of the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services. That Office should be accorded the same status as other centres.
OLEG N. LAPTENOK (Belarus) said the recommendations of the ACABQ were valid, and he supported the majority of them. The work of the Department of Conference Services was important. Belarus was also thinking of how to improve conditions and make it easier for conference services to carry out its activities. All issues should be carefully studied. In many areas, the conditions were ripe for the Secretariat and Conference Services to use new technology, such as remote videoconferencing. The voice recognition system would solve the problem of the timely distribution of documents. It was also important to consider the makeup of the language services divisions and the fact that not all had been sufficiently staffed. The situation must be corrected as soon as possible.
The United Nations Chronicle was a useful publication, he said. Today, when greater emphasis was being placed on electronic information systems, the publication should focus on informing its readership of the positions of Member States on a
number of issues. If outsourcing was used, however, the principle of equitable representation should be observed.
BERYL BENTLEY-ANDERSON (United States) said that the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services was called upon to perform a delicate balancing act between meeting the needs of the membership and performing its mandates within its budget. This year, it appeared to have failed in that –- its most fundamental task -– as it had exceeded its budget by some $8 million. The budget had grown considerably, yet chronic problems persisted in the Department’s delivery of services. It was clear that simply providing more money would not solve the problems.
This year, she said, the Department had been called upon to provide services for a number of large-scale special sessions. One must ask if such a number of special sessions was really needed. The high figure for the excess budget in 2001 could be attributed to the fact that the Department had had to compensate employees for the extra costs of meetings that either did not start on time, or did not end on schedule. The Department had also been obliged to supplement its staff with expensive contract employees.
There continued to be serious problems throughout the Secretariat with timely submission of documents for publication, she said, meaning that the Department was unable to produce documentation for meetings on time. That led to wasted time and extended meetings for some bodies and translated into extra expenses, as well. It was a combination of all those reasons that had led to the serious cost-overruns in 2001. The Department sought approval from the Assembly to try new techniques to solve chronic problems in the timely production of documents. It had proposed changes in existing work methods, and it was necessary to support its request. The Department’s work to update the optical disk system could also improve the amount of information available. The Fifth Committee should immediately make that technology available at no cost to all current users.
The use of technology, while not a panacea, could, in many cases, improve service delivery when used wisely, she said. The Department of Conference Services had been testing some technologies, or actually developing with certain manufacturers the new technology it envisaged. That allowed careful evaluation of the benefits and the pitfalls of new technology before it was actually implemented. Member States must not prevent the Department from determining whether new technology was suitable for trial. The Department should have the freedom of exploring technological solutions to its most difficult problems.
In conclusion, she said that the Department’s proposed budget for 2002-2003 was more than her delegation could support. With the discipline of Member States and the institution of proposed changes, the Department could function effectively at its current level of funding.
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