As Budget Committee Considers Reports on Pattern of Conferences, Delegates Weigh Changes in Document Processing; Urge More Efficient Use of Meeting Facilities

12 October 2011
GA/AB/4003

As Budget Committee Considers Reports on Pattern of Conferences, Delegates Weigh Changes in Document Processing; Urge More Efficient Use of Meeting Facilities

12 October 2011
General Assembly
GA/AB/4003
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-sixth General Assembly

Fifth Committee

8th Meeting (AM)

As Budget Committee Considers Reports on Pattern of Conferences, Delegates Weigh

Changes in Document Processing; Urge More Efficient Use of Meeting Facilities

As the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) took up its agenda item on the pattern of conferences, delegates today prodded the Secretariat to work more quickly to simplify overall efforts to shorten the length of documents and issue them on time, as well as to increase the efficient use of the Organization’s meeting facilities.

Yet some speakers expressed reservations about the proposal before the General Assembly to amend the rules for processing documents.  All delegates, however, agreed on the need to reduce the high vacancy rate among interpreters and translators by bolstering outreach to universities and streamlining the Organization’s recruitment procedures and competitive examinations for language services.

Japan’s representative said quality conference services were vital for Member States’ proper decision-making and the Secretariat should strive to improve them through cost-saving measures.  He encouraged Member States to work harder to hold meetings on schedule, and he supported the call to give adequate advance notice of meeting cancellations and to reduce meeting blocks to two hours when possible.  He also welcomed the Secretary-General’s proposal to increase the timeframe for processing documents from the current four weeks to six weeks.

However, Argentina’s representative, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, doubted that amending the timeframe would prevent author departments from submitting documents late.  On the contrary, it could exacerbate the problem.  But he was encouraged that in the first five months of this year, 87 per cent of slotted pre-season documents were submitted on time, up from 78 per cent in 2010 and 73 per cent in 2009.  Every effort should be made to sustain that positive trend in the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, as well as to ensure documents were issued within the established word limit. 

The representative of Côte d’Ivoire, speaking on behalf of the African Group, echoed the concerns of other delegates over the reduced use of conference services overall in 2010.  The utilization rate of the conference centre at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) had dropped to 70 per cent in 2010, even though the Assembly had asked the Secretary-General to take a more proactive and innovative approach to marketing the centre.  The use of the United Nations Office at Nairobi had also fallen steadily — from 100 per cent in 2008, to 90 per cent in 2009, and 88 per cent in 2010.  “Something clearly needs to be done to reverse this trend”, he said. 

Turning to the need for high-quality translation and interpretation standards, he expressed worries over the large number of language staff expected to retire soon, especially as the United Nations language services division had high vacancy rates across the four main duty stations, particularly Nairobi.  The lengthy recruitment process for language staff made matter worse.  A proactive succession planning programme, with better outreach to universities and more streamlined language testing and recruitment, was imperative to address that problem.

S.K. Maina, Director of the Multilateral Directorate of Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, agreed with that assessment and added that the United Nations Office in Nairobi must have the same level of funding and staff as the Organization’s three other duty stations.  “It is high time that the perennial problem of vacancy rates is resolved,” he said, calling on the Office to consider all ways to fill current and future vacancies, particularly by developing partnerships with universities. 

Mr. Maina lauded the Nairobi Office’s on-the-job training programme for young translators and interpreters that had yet to pass the United Nations exam, and he inquired about the status of Memorandums of Understanding between the United Nations and African universities to train interpreters and translators throughout the continent.  Like other delegates, he also lauded the Secretary-General’s proposal to upgrade 11 language posts at the Nairobi Office from P-4 to P-5.

Members of the Secretariat presented reports today for the Committee’s debate.  On the pattern of conferences, Shaaban Shaaban, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management, introduced the Secretary-General’s annual report, and Collen Kelapile, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), introduced the Advisory Committee’s report.  In addition, Woinshet Tadesse Woldegiorgis, Chair of the Committee on Conferences, introduced that Committee’s report for 2011.

Also making statement’s during today’s debate were the representatives of Ethiopia, Cuba and Nicaragua.

The Fifth Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. Monday, 17 October, to begin its consideration of human resources management.

Background

As the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) began its consideration of the pattern of conferences, it had before it the Secretary-General’s report on that topic (document A/66/118 and A/66/118/Corr.1), which responds to the General Assembly’s request for information on progress related to conference management and proposes solutions based on its findings.  Those solutions are outlined below.

In response to the draft biennial calendar of conferences and meetings for 2012-2013, it is proposed that the Assembly include in new legislative mandates all relevant information regarding meetings and documentation so the Secretariat can fully assess conference-servicing needs, which could have programme budget implications.

Regarding the under-utilization of conference-servicing resources and facilities, it asks the Assembly to reiterate its request that intergovernmental bodies plan and adjust their programmes of work on the actual utilization of such resources.  Regarding document processing, it is suggested that the Assembly amend the rules for processing to a “10-6-4 timeframe”, whereby manuscripts will be submitted to the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management 10 weeks in advance, allowed six weeks for processing, and then issued four weeks before consideration to ensure their availability before being considered and to enhance documentation quality.

In matters related to translation and interpretation, it is suggested that the Assembly approve the proposed continuation of producing summary records in the original language only and on demand and in digital and restricted formats to meet Member States’ needs.  In addition, the Assembly should further reinforce the proposal to extend the word limit imposed on submissions of the Secretariat and intergovernmental bodies for treaty body documents to submissions of Member States.

The Committee was also set to consider the report of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) on the pattern of conferences (document A/66/397), which takes into account the Secretary-General’s report outlined above, as well as the draft report of the Committee on Conferences for 2011.  ACABQ generally concurs, albeit with some notations and elaborations, with the Secretary-General’s recommendations.  It expresses disappointment over the 2010 decrease in the overall utilization of conference-servicing resources and facilities, and calls on the Secretary-General to quickly formulate a more competitive pricing structure and appropriate marketing strategy to bolster the utilization rate of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) conference centre, which stood at 70 per cent last year.  

ACABQ supported the proximity rule of assembling the most cost-effective team to service meetings held away from Headquarters and urged the Secretary-General to give a more detailed analysis of efficiencies gained in his next report on the pattern of conferences.  It also asked him to quickly finalize the amendments to his bulletins on organizational structures of the United Nations offices in Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi so the required reforms could be implemented and to report on that in his next pattern of conferences’ report. 

Regarding translation and interpretation, ACABQ welcomes measures to simplify the competitive exam process for language posts, stresses the importance of striking the right balance between in-house and freelance capacity, and expects the Secretary-General to discuss in his next report the results of negotiations under way with the International Association of Conference Interpreters to align freelancers’ pay with that of staff.

The report of the Committee on Conferences for 2011 (document A/66/32) covers the work of that panel’s sixty-sixth session.  Annex I contains a draft resolution on the pattern of conferences.  Annex II contains the draft biennial calendar of conferences and meetings for 2012-2013 of the United Nations and the principal organs of its specialized agencies, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as well as treaty bodies established under United Nations auspices.  In Chapter II of the report, the Committee recommended that the General Assembly explicitly authorize several United Nations bodies to meet in New York during that session with the understanding that all such meetings be allocated conference services on an “as available” basis and in such way as not to impede the work of the Assembly and its Committees.  

Introduction of Reports

WOINSHET TADESSE WOLDEGIORGIS, Chair of the Committee on Conferences, introduced that Committee’s report for 2011 (document A/66/32).  She said Chapter I, which dealt with organizational matters, highlighted that a member from the Latin American and Caribbean States was to be appointed to the Committee.  Chapter II, which dealt with the calendar of conferences and meetings for 2012-2013, proposed the inclusion of all relevant conference and meeting information — such as dates, duration, modalities and documentation requirements — in new legislative mandates. 

That information would be included when new meetings and conferences were being proposed in draft resolutions in order to assess the capacity of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management to provide meetings, interpretation, documentation and other service, she said.  In that regard, the Committee on Conferences had asked the Secretary-General to include that information in resolutions involving expenditures in order to mobilize conference services and documentation as efficiently and effectively as possible. 

In Chapter III, which dealt with meetings management, the Committee reviewed the statistical data presented on the utilization of conference-servicing resources and facilities at four duty stations and in the conference centre in the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.  The Committee recommended that the Assembly adopt the proposal in the Secretary-General’s report on the pattern of conferences (document A/66/118), in which he asked the Assembly to reiterate its request that intergovernmental bodies plan and adjust their programmes of work on the actual utilization of such resources.  Furthermore, the Committee asked the Secretary-General to explore means to increase the ECA’s utilization rate.

Chapter IV detailed the Committee on Conference’s discussions on integrated global management, she said.  In Chapter V, which dealt with documentation and publication-related matters, the Committee asked the Secretary-General to enforce the slotting system more rigorously and urged author departments to fully adhere to deadlines in meeting the goal of 90 per cent submission compliance.  To encourage the United Nations to hold meetings in a “paper-smart” manner, the Committee asked the Secretary-General to submit a detailed timetable, including technological benchmarks, procurement and training needs, and to report to the Assembly’s next session lessons learned from meetings that would implement the “paper smart” concept on a trial basis with the full consent of relevant bodies.

Lastly, in Chapter VI, which dealt with translation and interpretation-related matters, the Committee expressed concern over the shortage of qualified language applicants and the fact that only two Memorandums of Understanding had been signed with universities in Africa, while none had been signed with Latin American institutions, she said.  The Committee asked the Secretary-General to make further efforts to address the situation.  

SHAABAN M. SHAABAN, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management, introduced the Secretary-General’s annual report on pattern of conferences (document A/66/118).  Responsible for conference management, the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) had to set an example by abiding by relevant rules, and for the first time in several years, its report on the pattern of conferences was issued six weeks before the meeting and within the word limits.

The Department was ready to respond to requests for meetings that derived from discrete Assembly resolutions, he continued.  A prerequisite for successfully carrying out its mandate was clarity regarding the dates, duration and modalities surrounding the meeting and documentation requirements of any pending conference.  His goal was that Member States and the Secretariat would make meetings planning a collaborative exercise to ensure predictability and use the Organization’s resources efficiently.

Trying to carry out business in a “smarter” fashion, with a reduced budget while still delivering high quality and timely conference services to Member States, he said the Secretariat had laid out several initiatives to shift the way conference services were carried out and to spark change in the Secretariat.  Those efficient and cost-saving measures were introduced in section 2 of the proposed programme budget for the biennium 2012-2013, he said.

He said the Secretariat was seeking the Committee’s support of various initiatives, including those referred by the Advisory Committee to the Committee on Conferences. Those would include continuing the production of summary records in the original language only (English or French), supplemented by auxiliary systems (e.g. on demand, digital) that would be put in place to meet the needs of Member States.  Other initiatives aimed to introduce a “pay-as-you-go” arrangement for the documentation needs of the funds and programmes and to ask all treaty bodies to enforce the page limitations of documentation in harmonized and specific guidelines.  Another initiative proposed changing the current document processing schedule of 10-4-6 to 10-6-4, to save money and allow for sequential processing of documents within the Department.

The Secretariat fully agreed with the Advisory Committee of the need to align the reporting lines in the Department to give the Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management the necessary authority to fulfil Assembly mandates. Over the last year, the duty stations had continued to engage in a constructive dialogue on unfinished issues, particularly the issue of dual responsibility of conference managers, he said.  The discussion aimed to delineate and codify a model pursuant to the Management Committee decision of 6 May 2011.

COLLEN V. KELAPILE, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, introduced that body’s report on the pattern of conferences (document A/66/397), which covered many issues relating to the delivery of conference services.  Section II of the report dealt with issues relating to meetings management, mainly the progress surrounding the new meetings planning system and the Secretary-General’s proposal to include, in new legislative mandates, all relevant information regarding meetings and documentation.  That would let the Secretariat fully assess conference servicing needs.  The Advisory Committee recognized that necessity and believed the Assembly should consider the proposal, bearing in mind the relevant provision of its rules of procedure.

He said that Section III of the Advisory Committee’s report discussed integrated global management, particularly the proximity rule as a means for efficient use and allocation of resources allocated to the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management.  The Advisory Committee fully supported the application of the proximity rule as an efficiency mechanism.  Section IV of the report dealt with documentations and publications, especially the implementation for the slotting system.  Regarding the Secretary-General’s proposal to amend the time frame surrounding documents submission and issuance, he said the Advisory Committee recognized the benefits, but had stressed the importance of sufficient time for Members States to review documents.

Section V of its report addressed translation and interpretation.  Regarding the proposal to produce summary records only in the original language (English or French) complemented by a supplemental system, he said the Advisory Committee believed the Assembly should consider that proposal, taking into account the opinions of bodies entitled to such records.

Regarding the Secretary-General’s proposal to install a “pay-as-you-go” system for translation services which would save about $8 million annually, he said the ACABQ supported that move and suggested the reduced $8 million requirement be shown under Section 2 of the proposed programme budget for the biennium 2012-2013.

Statements

SEBASTIÁN DI LUCA (Argentina), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, stressed the need for quality conference services.  The Secretary-General’s report had pointed to an 85 per cent overall utilization rate for the Organization’s four duty stations in 2011, which was above the 80 per cent rate benchmark.  He expressed hope that the Secretary-General would continue efforts to ensure standardized reporting in all four stations to present credible, comparable data to the Assembly.  He noted with concern the falling utilization rate in Nairobi, which dropped from 100 per cent in 2008 to 88 per cent in 2010, and said that trend must be reversed as a matter of priority.  He noted the drop in the utilization rate of the ECA conference centre last year, saying it could be improved through more innovative, proactive marketing. 

He was encouraged that in the first five months of this year, 87 per cent of slotted pre-season documents had been submitted on time, up from 78 per cent in 2010 and 73 per cent in 2009.  Every effort should be made to sustain the current positive trend in the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management of ensuring all documents were submitted on time, within the established word limit, and processed within four weeks.  The Group was not convinced that amending the document processing rule from a 10-4-6 timeframe to a 10-6-4 timeframe would rectify the late submission of documents.  On the contrary, it could exacerbate the problem. 

To ensure the highest standards of quality in translation and interpretation, he called for outreach to universities worldwide and streamlining of the competitive examination for language services.  Adequate internal capacity was needed to monitor and control the quality of externally processed documents.  He supported the Secretary-General’s recommendation in the proposed programme budget for 2012-2013 to reclassify six P-4 Reviser posts to the P-5 level, and five P-4 Interpreter posts to the P-5 Senior Interpreter level.  It would help control quality and bolster recruitment and retention of language staff at the United Nations Office in Nairobi.  The DGACM should institute suitable measures to ensure the smooth continuation of conference services during the implementation of the Capital Master Plan.  

Speaking on behalf of the African Group and aligning with the Group of 77, BROUZ RALPH COFFI (C ôte d’Ivoire) said his delegation believed conference management was a very important matter and he welcomed the adoption of the draft revised Calendar of Conferences and Meetings for the United Nations for 2012.  The effective delivery of quality conference services was critical to the work of intergovernmental bodies and helped achieve the Organization’s goals, he added.

Regarding the use of conference services, the African Group noted that the overall utilization rate had dropped to 85 per cent in 2010, down 1 per cent from the previous year.  Though it was above the established benchmark of 80 per cent, that rate should improve each year.  The Group was concerned that use of the United Nations Office at Nairobi had continued to decline — from 100 per cent in 2008, to 90 percent in 2009, and 88 per cent in 2010.  “Something clearly needs to be done to reverse this trend,” he said.

Meanwhile, the utilization rate of the conference centre at ECA had stagnated at 76 per cent in 2008 and 2009, and had deteriorated even further in 2010, with a drop to 70 percent, even though the Assembly had asked the Secretary-General to take a more proactive and innovative approach to marketing the centre.  The African Group wanted to know what measures had been taken to address the problem and what needed to be done going forward.  It would seek more information on the construction project related to Africa Hall and Conference Room 1 at ECA.

Stressing the importance of high-quality translation and interpretation standards, the Group was concerned about the high number of language staff expected to retire, especially as the language services division had high vacancy rates across the four main duty stations, even more so in Nairobi.  The problem was compounded by the lengthy recruitment process for language staff.  The implementation of a proactive succession planning programme, with outreach to universities, and the streamlining of the competitive examinations for language services were imperative, he said.

When considering the item during the sixty-fifth session, the African Group had noted that only one Memorandum of Understanding had been signed by the United Nations with universities in Africa, in connection with an outreach programme.  The Group would seek an update on that issue and on progress of the Africa Project.

Finally, the Group welcomed the Secretary-General’s proposal to upgrade 11 language posts at the United Nations Office at Nairobi from P-4 to P-5, in conformity with Assembly resolution 66/245.  He said the Group expected the Secretary-General to look into other areas and ensure that all initiatives to strengthen that Office were realized.

JUN YAMADA (Japan) said that quality conference services, necessary for Member States’ proper decision-making, should be provided in the most efficient and effective manner.  The Secretariat should not stop seeking efficiencies in developing conference services by introducing new cost-saving measures.

Turning to the decline in the use of conference services, Japan believed that the non-use of conference services was a waste of resources.  Member States should make additional efforts to hold meetings on schedule and without delays.  Japan supported the measures supported by the Committee on Conferences, such as providing adequate advance notice of the cancellation of meetings and reducing the meeting blocks to two hours when possible.

Japan welcomed the Secretary-General’s intention to find additional efficiencies in documentation and publication by proposing a sequential workflow of documents and increasing the timeframe for the processing of documents from the current four weeks to six weeks.  Japan believed the Fifth Committee should consider the proposal and explore efficiencies.  The Fifth Committee also should discuss the Secretary-General’s proposal on summary records as it was closely related to the regular budget.

AMAN HASSAN (Ethiopia) associated his statement with those made on behalf of the Group of 77, and the African Group, and praised the Secretariat’s marketing efforts, such as the use of international conventions, publications and websites, to increase the occupancy rate of the ECA conference centre.  He congratulated ECA managers for creating partnerships with the Addis Ababa Tourism Commission, Ethiopian Airlines and other entities to promote the Ethiopian capital as a conference and tourism destination.  But Ethiopia was concerned that the conference centre’s use had dropped to 70 per cent in 2010, a reduction that clearly showed additional work was needed to boost the utilization rate to the 80 per cent benchmark rate.  It also was regrettable that the ECA conference facilities were not receiving the appropriate maintenance.

The construction boom in Addis Ababa, which included state-of-the-art conference facilities, had made the need for aggressive and innovative marketing and the centre’s timely maintenance more important than ever.  The United Nations had yet to fully exhaust all available options to increase the centre’s usage, he added.  Lessons could be drawn from the management of other United Nations conference centres located in cities with competitive conference facilities.

He also highlighted the need to renovate African Hall.  He pointed to Assembly resolution 65/259, section III, paragraph 3, which called on the Secretary-General to expeditiously assess the status of conference facilities at ECA to ensure they strictly complied with the highest international standards for conference facilities, and report on this issue in his annual progress report on the construction of additional conference facilities at the Commission.

S.K. MAINA, Director of the Multilateral Directorate, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kenya, said it was important for the United Nations Office in Nairobi to be on par with the other three duty stations in terms of funding and staffing.  “It is high time that the perennial problem of vacancy rates is resolved,” he said, calling on the Office to consider all ways to fill current and future vacancies.  He lauded the Office’s on-the-job training programme for young translators and interpreters that had yet to pass the United Nation-mandated exam.  He supported the African-led project intended to bolster training programmes for potential interpreters and translators in Africa.  He was keen to learn of progress to date in implementing the recommendations made at the February 2009 conference held at the United Nations Office in Nairobi.  That conference had resulted in creation of a master’s degree programme for professional interpreters and translators in Africa. 

Developing partnerships with universities would help solve the long-term high-vacancy rates in United Nations language services, particularly in Nairobi, where the problem had been acute for years, he said.  He requested an update on the request during last year’s Assembly session that the Secretary-General sign a memorandum of understanding with the universities participating in the African project.  He lauded the Secretary-General’s proposal to upgrade 11 language posts at the Nairobi Office from P-4 to P-5, saying the move would bolster monitoring and effective quality control and ensure parity for staff performing similar roles or functions across United Nations duty stations.  He expressed concern that the utilization rate of conference facilities at ECA was still below the established 80 per cent threshold.  He strongly urged the Secretary-General to take innovative steps to increase that rate.

JORGE CUMBERBATCH MIGUEN (Cuba) expressed hope that the Secretariat would provide information during the current session in a more coherent, consistent way.  The goal of conference services was to facilitate Member States’ deliberations.  He firmly rejected the use of the United Nations by some Member States to carry out actions that were clearly hostile toward other Member States.  Such actions flagrantly violated the United Nations Charter and regulations, and they damaged its reputation and credibility.  Cuba would continue to follow up developments in that area and it reserved the right to take appropriate action.  Resources for conference services for various intergovernmental bodies must not be wasted.  But he expressed concern over the recent trend to pressure certain intergovernmental bodies in that matter.  The United Nations was a political organization that discussed many sensitive political issues.  Conference services should be adapted to the nature of the Organization and not the other way around.

While the utilization rate of conference services was a useful tool for analysis, it should not become an obstacle for intergovernmental debate, he said.  Overemphasis on it would politicize the matter and would reveal double standards whereby some would use the rate to eliminate intergovernmental conferences they did not agree with.  He expressed concern that some of the Secretary-General’s proposals did not take into account the need for Member States to have enough time to carefully analyze Secretariat-produced documents.  The proposals in the Secretary-General’s report regarding summary records of intergovernmental organizations and word limits in Member States’ presentations to treaty bodies were “controversial” and would only serve to repeat frigid discussions held in previous years.  

Secretariat Response

Mr. Shaaban provided the Committee with details about the proposed changes to the timeframe for processing documents and the difficulty and complexity behind the recruitment of interpreters.

Taking the floor again, the representative of C ôte d’Ivoire, speaking on behalf of the African Group, said ECA was in the process of training interpreters and working with interns in that regard, but it lacked financing for outreach to universities and for recruitment of new interpreters.  

Reacting to the proposed rules regarding the processing of documents, the representative of Nicaragua said “a mandate of the Assembly is a mandate of Assembly”.  It was not the aim of Committee to discuss the operations of permanent missions.  While recognizing the efforts of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management and the volume of its work, she said the internal organization of delegations’ workloads was their own affair.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.