Fifty-sixth General Assembly
18th Meeting (AM)
CONCLUDING DEBATE ON PATTERN OF CONFERENCES, FIFTH COMMITTEE DELEGATES
INSIST ON NEED TO IMPROVE QUALITY OF SERVICES
As the Organization’s resources were not infinite, there was every reason to pursue efficiency and productivity to ensure that its most important commitments received the largest amount of those funds, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) was told this morning as it concluded its consideration of the pattern of conferences and conference services.
The representative of Canada (also speaking on behalf of Australia and New Zealand) further said that reported cost overruns in the order of
$29 million were disconcerting, particularly if there were inefficiencies involved. Translation was a key example. The “quantum leaps” in technology in the past 20 years had not been matched with significant gains in translation productivity. Interpreters in Geneva, for example, were handling 23 per cent fewer assignments than they had 20 years ago; even so, they were individually handling about 89 more assignments per year than their New York counterparts. He, therefore, welcomed the call by the Committee on Conferences for a comprehensive review of productivity standards in the area of language services. He would also welcome efforts to develop benchmarks looking beyond the Organization’s own practices.
The representative of Uganda also emphasized the need to enhance the efficiency of the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services. The Department was faced with constraints at a time when the demand for services was growing. He was concerned about the reduction of resources for the Department in 2000-2001 and the marginal increase for the biennium 2002-2003. He also stressed the need to increase utilization of conference facilities at the United Nations Office at Nairobi –- the only United Nations centre in the developing world -- and to fill up remaining vacancies for interpreters there.
Syria attached great importance to the unique peculiarity of the Organization –- its multilingualism -- the representative of that country said. Insisting on strict implementation of all relevant resolutions in that respect, he expressed concern over the growing gap between the six official languages at United Nations Web sites. Additional funds would be required in order to strengthen them in all the languages. He also supported all the points raised by the Arab Group in its recent letter to the Secretary-General on the declining standards in provision of Arabic language services and preparation of
documentation in Arabic (document A/56/261). The main points of that document could form a methodology for the work of the Fifth Committee on the matter.
Responding to questions, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services Chen Jian said that quality had been a top priority of the Department, not least in interpretation and translation services. All language staff were recruited through rigorous exams and their services were monitored closely. In addition to external study programmes, junior translators were submitted to intensive in-house training, and translators with potential for performing as self-revisers received special coaching. Quality control mechanisms were in place to monitor the output of self-revising translators and revisers, and also to ensure maximum quality of translation of sensitive documents. Occasionally, however, there were quality lapses, mostly due to highly technical subject matters, time constraints and human error. Complaints were taken seriously, and particular instances were discussed with the staff member.
In other business this morning, the Committee decided that following the conclusion of the debate on each section of the proposed budget for
2002-2003 in informal consultations, a summary of the issues and concerns raised would be prepared by the Secretariat for reference purposes only. Heads of departments and programme managers of different sections under consideration would be present during the informal consultations to provide any further clarifications on the matter.
Statements were also made by the representatives of Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Belgium, United States, Australia and South Africa. The Director of Programme Planning and Budget Division, Warren Sach, also addressed the Committee.
At 10 a.m., on Monday 29 October, the Committee will begin its consideration of peacekeeping financing and several aspects of human resources management.
The Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) met this morning to conclude its consideration of a series of reports on the United Nations pattern of conferences. For background information see Press Release GA/AB/3468 of
FRANCIS MUMBEY-WAFULA (Uganda) said his delegation attached great importance to the role played by the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services in the process of streamlining the Department to enhance its efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of its services. He noted with appreciation the improved overall utilization of conference services at Nairobi, which exceeded
80 per cent, as was also the case in Vienna and Geneva. He supported the Secretary-General’s proposal to consider the reconfiguration of some meeting rooms in Addis Ababa and Bangkok into multi-purpose rooms to enhance utilization capacity to host major events.
He emphasized the need for increased efforts to utilize conference facilities at the United Nations Office at Nairobi -– the only United Nations centre in the developing world -- and to fill up remaining vacancies for interpreters there. The Nairobi Office should be facilitated at the level of other United Nations centres elsewhere. He was concerned about the reduction of resources for the Department of Conference Services in 2000-2001 and the marginal increase for the biennium 2002-2003, at a time when the Department was faced with constraints while the demands for services were growing.
He supported the strengthening of the capacity of the Documents Control Section to enhance its coordination role and processing of documents. He expressed concern on the inherent problem of late issuance of documentation which impacted negatively on the preparedness of delegations. He highlighted the need for strict compliance with the six-week rule for issuance of documentation by the Department.
AYMAN M. ELGAMMAL (Egypt) commended the efforts of the Committee on Conferences this year and its continuous cooperation with the Secretariat to arrive at a calendar of meetings commensurate with the Organization’s actual needs. He endorsed the recommendation of the Committee to approve the programme of meetings for 2002. He commended the increased utilization of conference services to more than 80 per cent for all duty stations, and noted that the Nairobi Office had achieved a utilization factor of 100 per cent.
Regarding translation, interpretation and documentation, he agreed with the remarks of the Permanent Representative of Qatar. He called for a review of the utilization of interpretation. He noticed a drop in quality of interpretation from Arabic to French and English in particular, and emphasized the need to develop interpretation services both in terms of practice and training. Regarding translation, Egypt noted the increase in rates of self-revision and stressed the need for translators to be highly qualified and well trained.
Regarding the optical disk system (ODS), he commended recent developments in that area. Egypt would like to see continued development of the system in a manner commensurate with advances in technology. He emphasized the importance of opening up the ODS to other users through fixed fees. On the issue of documentation, the Secretariat should abide by the six-week rule for the presentation of documentation, thereby allowing delegates the time needed to study documents and make enlightened decisions on them. He agreed that the timely issuance of documentation was a joint responsibility between Member States and the Secretariat. Regarding meetings of regional groupings, he emphasized the need to provide conference services to them, as their meetings were complementary to meetings of the United Nations. He welcomed the increase in interpretation services to them.
JEFF SENIOR (Canada), also speaking on behalf of Australia and New Zealand, said that conference services consumed a significant portion of the Organization’s budgetary resources and were part of its fundamental machinery. Apportioning resources and reviewing activities in that area also touched on some basic principles involving language and technology by which the United Nations oriented itself. With that in mind, his delegation reiterated the importance of high-quality conference services in all official languages. Spending in that area should reflect the Organization’s priorities.
As the Organization’s resources were not infinite, there was every reason to pursue efficiency and productivity to ensure that its most important commitments received the largest amount of those funds, he said. Reported cost overruns in the order of $29 million were disconcerting, particularly if there were inefficiencies involved. Those inefficiencies represented one of the basic concerns that needed to be addressed. Translation was a key example. In the past 20 years, there had been quantum leaps in technology which had revolutionized work methods. Today, for example, there were new prospects for computer-aided translation, to which the repetitive nature of many United Nations resolutions would lend themselves quite naturally. However, during the same 20 years, there had not been significant gains in translation productivity. In fact, there had been a decline in that respect.
That was not a result of reduced staffing levels: the United Nations currently employed approximately 550 translators in New York and Geneva, which was only four fewer than 20 years ago. He, therefore, welcomed the suggestion of the Committee on Conferences for a comprehensive review of productivity standards in the area of language services. He would also welcome efforts to develop benchmarks looking beyond the Organization’s own practices. The workload of United Nations translators appeared to be at least 25 per cent below their counterparts in Canada. Interpreters in Geneva today were handling 23 per cent fewer assignments than they had 20 years ago; even so, they were individually handling about 89 more assignments per year than their New York counterparts. That suggested that their skills were not being managed to the greatest possible effect.
He was also concerned that productivity rates and working methods for typists did not reflect expected gains as a result of technological advances, he said. Could the Organization simply retire such outmoded practices as the use of Dictaphones in transcribing, in favour of newer approaches? Could more be done to find innovative ways to reduce the costs of summary and verbatim reporting, which augmented the hourly cost of United Nations meetings by up to 68 per cent?
Some encouraging signs of innovation had resulted from the better use of space and people, he continued. Managers were to be commended for their successful efforts to increase the use of conference facilities in Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Bangkok. Also noteworthy was the evident success in providing conference and interpretation services to regional groups at an impressive rate. In the “not-so-distant” future, remote interpretation could help to offset the peaks and valleys in the demand cycle for interpretation services. He would like to see further efforts to implement its use, where practicable. He would also welcome efforts to share workloads and facilities with other organizations, including specialized agencies.
In conclusion, he commended the Department of Conference Services’ efforts to synchronize its release of documents, re-engineering of the ODS and Internet practices. He was pleased with the efforts to publish new official documents in all official languages and to ensure multilingual functionality for the new ODS. Noting that the Web site also provided access to documents, he would welcome assurances that there was no duplication in that area. In future years, he would like further evidence of innovation in procedures and technology. He noted that this year’s reports on the availability and timely delivery of documents were themselves late. Although there were tools at the disposal of the Secretariat for improving the situation, Member States must also shoulder some of the blame and burden.
ABDOU AL-MOULA NAKKARI (Syria) supported the position of the Group of 77 and China, and said that his delegation attached great importance to the unique peculiarity of the Organization -– its multilingualism. The report of the Committee on Conferences constituted a good basis for future work, and it was important for the Secretariat to pursue full implementation of relevant resolutions in that respect.
Continuing, he stressed the need to fill all the vacancies at certain duty stations by intensive recruitment. It was important to note that mobility and redeployment of personnel would not contribute to the solution of the excessive vacancy problem, for all duty stations suffered from it.
He welcomed the recommendations on the issuance of documents and expressed hope that the problem would be addressed effectively. Remote interpretation should not be undertaken without a feasibility report. It should be limited to international conferences, once the Assembly had approved it. He also expressed concern over the growing gap between the languages on the United Nations Web site, and agreed with the report that its continued development would require additional funds in order to ensure strengthening of its content in the six official languages.
Despite improvement in the provision of conference services to regional and other major groups of States, he stressed that under relevant General Assembly resolutions, simultaneous interpretation must be provided to all regional groups. He also emphasized the need to fill vacancies at the United Nations Office at Nairobi and ensure adequate financing for all duty stations. That was particularly true for the Vienna duty station, which continued to face obvious financial difficulties. Regarding the United Nations Chronicle, he reiterated that it should be issued in all six languages and managed with the greatest efficiency and competence.
Welcoming the Committee on Conferences’ comments regarding the participation of observers, he said that it was still not up to the expected level, and it was necessary to improve the conditions for observer participation. He also supported all the points raised by the Arab Group in its recent letter to the Secretary-General regarding the declining standards in the provision of Arabic language services and preparation of documentation in Arabic. The main points of that letter could form a methodology for the work of the Fifth Committee on the matter. In particular, the letter stressed the need to translate all documents of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) into Arabic.
He also noted with great concern the request by the Arab Group to observe the rule under which documents in all six languages should be distributed officially, in accordance with the six-week rule, prior to being made available on United Nations Web sites. He also urged the Secretary-General to restore the practice of issuing annexes to documents in all six official languages. All United Nations documents should be translated into the official languages simultaneously, including the documents for which circulation was requested under agenda items of the principal bodies, regardless of their length. No resolution could be adopted unless its text had been circulated in all six languages at least 24 hours prior to taking a decision.
It was also important to respect the rule calling for timely issuance of verbatim and summary records in the languages of the General Assembly, he continued. He regretted the long delay in issuing such records for the
fifty-fifth session. Another rule required transmitting resolutions adopted to all Member States within 15 days after the close of the session. Finally, he emphasized the need to maintain the posts of language revisers within translation sections, and making available specialists at the Dag Hammarskjöld Library to provide Arabic language services.
OMAR KADIRI (Morocco) said his delegation was pleased with the increased utilization of conference services. He noted that the Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly Affairs had said that he would take into consideration the needs of small- and medium-sized delegations. He also welcomed the increased use of interpretation services. Morocco welcomed the fact that a new division of conference services had been created in Nairobi. Noting the continued high vacancy rate there, however, he asked for an update on the current situation there. He endorsed the recommendation of the Committee on Conferences to ask the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) to abide by the Headquarters rule and hold all its meetings in Nairobi. He also supported efforts to improve the usage of conference facilities in Addis Ababa and Bangkok.
Morocco was concerned over the serious problem of late submission of documentation, he continued. The solution of the problem would require the efficient coordination of all parties involved. He welcomed the reduction in vacancy rates in language services. Top priority should be given to Nairobi and Vienna, because those duty stations continued to experience problems. Morocco regretted that several candidates who passed the language exam had rejected the opportunity to join the Organization. An in-depth study of the root cause of the problem was needed. He welcomed the use of training programmes for language staff, as they might provide a solution for the recruitment of such staff.
The Under-Secretary-General for the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services, CHEN JIAN, then took the floor to respond to questions expressed during the course of the debate. On the current vacancy situation in the Arabic and English booths in the Interpretation Section of the Nairobi Office, he informed the Committee that for the Arabic booth, the Department had given priority to filling vacancies when offers of employment were made to candidates who had passed the Arabic interpreters’ examination held in January 2001. Unfortunately, all offers made to Arabic interpreters to take up posts at Nairobi had been refused. For the immediate future, Arabic interpretation would continue to be provided through recruitment of freelance staff. The Department would, however, continue to seek to fill the vacancies. The full contingent of three interpreters for the English booth would be in place in early 2002. Two candidates who had passed the English interpreters’ exam in January 2001 had accepted career appointments at Nairobi. A third interpreter from Geneva had been given a one-year assignment to Nairobi, starting in February 2002.
On the improvement and modernization of conference facilities at Nairobi, he said an ongoing evaluation of the existing facilities was being carried out, in the context of an overall review of the needs and facilities at that Office and other agencies in Nairobi. It would also take into account experiences gained as a result of the establishment of the permanent interpretation team and other recent developments. He expected that a report would be submitted to the resumed session of the Committee in early 2002.
He said he was aware of the letter sent by the Permanent Representative of Qatar on behalf of the Arab Group. Quality had been a top priority of the Department, not least in interpretation and translation services. All language staff were recruited through rigorous exams and their services were monitored closely. In addition to external study programmes, junior translators were submitted to intensive in-house training, and translators with potential for performing as self-revisers received special coaching. Quality control mechanisms were in place to monitor the output of self-revising translators and revisers, and also to ensure maximum quality of translation of sensitive documents. As for interpreters, when time and resources permitted, they took part in in-house training workshops to work on improving delivery. Occasionally, however, there were quality lapses, mostly due to highly technical subject matter, time constraints and human error. Complaints were taken seriously and particular instances were discussed with the staff member.
On the rate of freelance recruitment in language services annually and the cost difference between freelancers and additional permanent staff, he said that the number of freelancers fluctuated from year to year, depending on the needed capacity at any given time. One of the advantages of freelance staff was that they could be recruited in a targeted fashion for specific periods. For 2000, the Department had recruited 143 freelance interpreters for a total of 15,909 days. The standard yearly costs of a staff interpreter ranged from $134,6000 for a P3 to $192,100 for a P-5, while, assuming continuous employment of a freelancer, the cost of a locally recruited interpreter ranged from $95,000 to $143,000 and from $155,000 to $203,000 for a non-local.
On the lack of a Chinese editor in Geneva’s publication section, he said that the Department had been trying to handle that problem for some time via temporary solutions or with help from the Chinese translation service in Geneva. He agreed, however, that a more durable solution was needed. The Department would ensure that the matter was addressed during the next biennium, through redeployment.
Regarding the amount and distribution of temporary assistance resources in conference services -- and whether such funds could be converted to create new regular posts in the translation services -- he said that such resources were managed at the departmental level and sub-allocated as needed to complement existing staff. In 2000, for example, the following amounts were used for temporary assistance in the translation services: $398,000 for Arabic;
$259,000 for Chinese; $887,000 for English; $607,000 for French; $453,000 for Russian; and $595,000 for Spanish. There was no fixed distribution formula and amounts varied year to year and language to language. The ability to use resources flexibly allowed the Department to respond with agility to the meetings’ calendar.
He said he also noted the concerns of delegations on problems, including the timely issuance of documentation, the servicing of meetings of regional and other major groups, the limitation of meetings duration, workload standards and the need to proceed with technological innovation. Those issues, he said, would be addressed in greater detail in informal consultations.
Mr. NAKKARI (Syria) said that following General Assembly resolution
53/208 A, the two holidays -- Id-al-Fitr and Id-al-Adha -- should be observed as official holidays. The Secretariat had fully implemented the provisions of that decision in terms of conferences and meetings of the United Nations. On the documents issue, he reiterated that all documents should be issued in the six official languages of the Organization.
In response to the concern expressed at yesterday’s meeting, Committee Chairman NANA EFFAH-APENTENG (Ghana) said that it would not be possible to reopen the general discussion on the proposed programme budget for 2002-2003 to allow for a section-by-section consideration in open meetings. The Committee had already approved its programme of work, which clearly stated that a general discussion of the item as a whole would take place.
In response to the proposal by the representative of Egypt, he said that the Bureau had decided that following the conclusion of each part of the proposed budget in informal consultations, a summary of the issues and concerns raised would be prepared by the Secretariat for reference purposes only. Those summaries would not be subject to discussion in informal consultations.
SEYED MORTEZA MIRMOHAMMAD (Iran) thanked the Bureau for its positive attitude towards the concern expressed by delegates. The Group of 77 wanted consistency in the consideration of the proposed programme budget, in accordance with previous practice of the Committee. In the past, following general discussion, section-by-section consideration had taken place in open meetings for the sake of transparency. It was also important to keep a formal record of the discussion. In view of recent events in informal consultations this year, it was important to keep a record of the debate. Also, relevant officials and heads of departments should be available to delegations in informal meetings.
Mr. NAKKARI (Syria) said his delegation had tabled a proposal which had not been dealt with. In the future, he hoped all the proposals would be taken into consideration and response provided to all. A creative approach of the Bureau this year meant that the Committee was deviating from its fundamental practices. For instance, not all sections of the huge budget compendium had been introduced. Heads of departments had introduced all the sections of the budget at the Committee for Programme and Coordination (CPC), and he could not accept that that body should have more privileges than the Fifth Committee.
The Chairman of the Group of 77 and China had offered an option which could be approved on an exceptional basis, he continued. It was important to understand that, on an exceptional basis, informal consultations could be held in the presence of heads of departments who could introduce documents and respond to questions. A summary could be prepared of that debate. As an alternative, each section could be introduced at formal meetings without having an open debate on it. A point had been made previously that if a document was not officially introduced, it could not legally be considered.
The CHAIRMAN assured the representative of Syria that he had had no intention of violating the rights of the Committee or of discriminating against any delegation. He wanted other delegations to present their views on the matter.
MICHEL TILEMANS (Belgium) said that as a result of exceptional circumstances following the 11 September tragedy, important changes had been made in the work programme, which placed extra pressure on the Fifth Committee. It was important to rise to the occasion. He inquired about the financial implications of the proposal to prepare summaries by the Secretariat at the end of informal consultations on each part of the budget. As for inviting department heads to informal consultations, he would like the Department of Management to clarify the procedure to be applied in that respect under the rules of the General Assembly.
JOHN ORR (Canada) reiterated the request by the representative of Belgium for information regarding the procedure. He also wondered if the Secretary-General had introduced all the fascicles of the budget on the date of budget presentation.
THOMAS A. REPASCH (United States) said it was important to understand that the circumstances were, indeed, extraordinary. He supported the Bureau’s proposal, which would provide an opportunity for all Member States to express their views and make judgements on the budget. He believed that the Secretary-General had acted in a consistent manner when he introduced the budget, and that all delegations had had a chance to ask questions.
Mr. ELGAMMAL (Egypt) said that it was habitual for the Committee to call in programme managers and heads of departments to respond to questions raised in the debate. He also inquired about the cost of distributing summaries to the delegations. As for the procedure, the Secretariat could easily present summary records of meetings on previous budgets. On the basis of those documents, former practice could be clarified. In view of the exceptional circumstances, the representative of Iran had proposed a way of addressing the current situation. Instead of examining the well-known procedures, he advocated approving that proposal.
Mr. NAKKARI (Syria) said it was important to avoid misinterpreting the institutional memory of the Committee. The procedure that the Committee had been following was, indeed, clear from the records of previous sessions. Directors and programme managers usually introduced their sections of the budget, and an open debate was held on each. It was important to adopt the new budget in separate fascicles, and directors of relevant organs should be present for that. The Committee also needed to receive answers to all its questions. The representative of Iran had proposed an exceptional course of action. Records of informal meetings needed to be prepared. Another course of action would involve official introduction of each section in open meetings.
HENRY FOX (Australia) agreed that, since these were extraordinary times, the Committee should act in an extraordinary manner. He regarded the Secretary-General as having introduced the entire budget, not just the forward or the introduction. He supported the Chairman and the Bureau in the proposals they had made and the decisions already adopted regarding the programme of work. He had grave concerns regarding summary records in informal consultations. He also had concerns about the costs and legalities of such summary records. He requested the Bureau to consult the Rules of Procedures of the Assembly and the costs involved. He supported the Chairman’s proposal on how to proceed with the budget.
WARREN SACH, Director of the Programme, Planning and Budget Division, said that regarding procedure for introducing the budget, the Secretary-General took the question of the programme budget and the participation of the heads of divisions and departments in the process very seriously. It required that timely and precise information be made available to the decision-makers in the Fifth Committee. Every effort was made to have available the heads of departments and divisions to explain their proposals and answer in detail whatever was requested of them. Following that, reports of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) and the CPC were made in full to the Fifth Committee by their respective Chairmen.
The Secretary-General introduced the budget as a whole at the beginning of the general debate, a procedure he had followed for many years, he said. There had been discussions in the Fifth Committee on a section-by-section basis, whereby the Chairmen of the ACABQ and the CPC introduced their relevant reports. There had not been formal introductions to the Committee by heads of departments and divisions. They had been invited to address intricate questions. He reserved the right of the Secretary-General to designate his representative at any meeting.
There were two considerations regarding record-keeping of discussions in informal consultations, he said. One was keeping records on an informal basis and reporting at the completion of each part of the budget, to ensure that all were in the same position as far as what had been discussed. That could be accommodated within existing resources as there were no direct costs. If there were summary records in informal consultations, however, he would question whether it was still an informal meeting.
THEODORE ALBRECHT (South Africa) said that the Committee needed to push on with the business of the day. His Government paid him money to keep summaries of what went on in both the formal and informal meetings. He did not need a summary. Delegations had the obligation to attend meetings and to be serious. He found the Secretariat to be forthcoming. When directors were requested in informals, they were always present. Many times, information was provided on short notice. He
wanted the Committee to decide not to waste time and to press on with business. While he respected the proposals made, it was an exceptional year and certain exceptions must be made. For him, the priority would be to conclude the budget discussions as soon as possible.
Mr. NAKKARI (Syria) said that Mr. Sach had answered many of his questions. During the 1998-1999 budget discussions, the Secretary-General introduced the budget, but that had not prevented directors from coming themselves to introduce their programmes. He hoped that the fact that they were asking for the presence of directors would not be interpreted as minimizing the role of the Secretary-General. The Secretary General had emphasized the importance he attached to the budget by his presence in the Committee. He hoped that a proposal would be made in light of the discussion and the explanation given by Mr. Sach.
The CHAIRMAN then proposed that the Committee continue with informal consultations, on the understanding that representatives would be in the discussions concerning their department. Summaries of issues -- not summary records -- would be provided at the discussion of each part of the budget.
Following a brief discussion, the Committee agreed to hear the interventions by the Presidents of the United Nations Staff Union and the Federation of International Civil Servants Associations (FISCA) when it took up its consideration of human resources management on Monday, 29 October.
Mr. ELGAMMAL (Egypt) noted that in the revised work programme distributed today, two reports had not yet been issued for Monday’s meeting. When would those documents be issued? The debate could not begin without all the documents. He suggested postponing consideration until the documents were available.
The CHAIRMAN proposed that the Committee postpone consideration of those documents.
* *** *