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26th Session (2004)

General Debate

Closing Remarks by Mr. Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information (29 April 2004)

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished delegates,

I am very happy to respond to what has certainly been a rich and illuminating debate, and I would like to express my appreciation to all the delegations who have spoken over the last three days on the work of the Department. Through your statements in the general debate, you have provided us with constructive and perceptive comments and suggestions. My colleagues and I have listened with great interest to your statements, and I would now like to offer some clarification and comments on the main issues and the specific questions you have raised.

Having inflicted such a comprehensive opening statement on you on Monday, I will try to be as brief as possible, but given the number of issues and questions raised, I will not be as brief as I would have wished. I will therefore group the issues that have been raised and address them accordingly, and in the interest of time, I will not specify which delegations raised which questions.

I am encouraged by the Committee's endorsement of the broad thrust of the Secretary-General's Report on the Continuing Reorientation of UN activities in the field of public information and communications, as well as the restructuring of the Department of Public Information that we have implemented, under the guidance of the Committee. As a result of these efforts, we have adopted a new mission statement, a new operating model and a new organizational structure. Many of you have also commended our new client-oriented approach and our efforts to institute a culture of evaluation in our work, while encouraging us to continue to refine this ongoing process of reform and a system of performance management.

In this regard, one delegate stressed the importance of coupling data collection with data analysis and to ensure that the two are not to the detriment of the day-to-day work of programme managers. I agree wholeheartedly. The aim of our annual programme impact review is to create a systematic "feedback loop" between ongoing data collection and programme planning, and the analysis of the data collected is an essential step in linking the Department's products and activities more precisely to the needs of target audiences.

We know there is much work still to be done, but your endorsement and encouraging words of support will inspire us to continue our efforts in this regard.

I would be failing in my duty, however, if I did not address the concerns expressed yesterday that DPI too often gives voice to the interest of certain groups of States. I understand the comment, but wish to point out that DPI's mandates come from the General Assembly - and we are not in a position to rewrite them. We always interpret these mandates, however, in a constructive manner, seeking through our efforts to promote informed dialogue and serve as a platform for peace. I should also like to assure the delegate who lamented the lack of a single national of his country on DPI's staff that, in fact, we employ not one, but four nationals of his country out of the 448 staff DPI has at Headquarters. That is just under 1 per cent, but then each Member State is just over one half a per cent of the total membership! I further assure him that DPI engages staff based on merit and experience alone, and that the only citizenship considerations taken into account are those imposed by the General Assembly in relation to geographical distribution.

The Department values the appreciation expressed by many delegations for the progress made to enhance the UN Website, including its multilingual character. I welcome the comment of one delegate, on behalf of a large number of countries, that the objective of greater language parity on the website should not fall to DPI alone, but should be shared with other programme managers in the Organization. We also note the request made by many delegations that the issue of multilingualism be pursued with equal vigour in all official languages of the Organization.

Let me assure you that this is the Department's goal, which we will pursue in an incremental manner, commensurate with the resources available. We are proud of what we have achieved so far in view of the fact that during the eight plus years that the web site has been in operation, no additional funds have been allocated to the Department for the web site until now. From the Secretary-General's report on the rationalization of the network of information centres you will note that we have redeployed some of the resources freed from the consolidation of the UNICs in Western Europe — including one professional and six general service posts — to strengthen the language capacities of the UN Website Section in Arabic and the other languages.

I would also like to take this opportunity to seek the assistance of Arabic-speaking delegations in facilitating arrangements similar to those in place with universities in Belarus, China, and Spain for translations of materials for the web site.

One distinguished delegate raised the question of whether the use of the Secretariat's human and financial resources to try to achieve language parity in the web site is justified in light of priorities decided by Member States. All of our priorities are decided by Member States. In this respect, we are of course mandated by the resolutions of the General Assembly. Over the years, the Assembly has called for moving towards parity among the official languages on the web site. As early as 1997 in Section C of resolution 52/214, and most recently in resolution 58/101B in paragraphs 28 and 64 to 67, the Assembly has reaffirmed the need to achieve full parity among the six official languages on the UN web site.

A number of delegations emphasized the importance of bridging the "information gap" between the new realities and success of peacekeeping operations on the one hand, and public perception on the other. The need for DPI to play a central role in enhancing public awareness on peacekeeping was mentioned. A number of delegations also referred to the need for DPI and DPKO to further coordinate their activities, while others commended DPI's work in ensuring the effective planning and deployment of public information components in new peacekeeping missions.

In addition to the information activities on peacekeeping that I described in my statement on Monday, DPI's Peace and Security Section is in daily contact with DPKO on a broad spectrum of issues, including the recruitment of skilled candidates for dozens of new posts for the missions in Burundi, Cote d'Ivoire, Haiti, Liberia and Sudan. We are also working with DPKO to design the public information components — and budgets — for each upcoming mission, to identify the required level of resources to support these operations, as well as to deploy broadcast equipment where needed. This successful collaboration resulted in live radio broadcasts on the first day of the mission in Liberia, and I could go on and on. These are all ongoing activities carried out in close cooperation with DPKO, which go beyond the frequent, often daily, contact with information components of peacekeeping operations in the field. I have taken the time to list them so that you will know that our staff are constantly and closely involved on substantive work with DPKO. In fact, one of the staff in the DPI Peace and Security Section feels that he couldn't be more involved with DPKO if he were one of their staff! So I really would like to dispel this notion that DPI and DPKO do not coordinate. The fact is that we are coordinating very well and I believe our successful deployment results prove this.

Of course, there is always room for improvement, in particular, in devising a global communications strategy with DPKO, something that a number of delegations referred to. The fact is that we have developed parts of such a strategy, elements of which we are already implementing — such as the strategy for the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers — and we will continue to consult further with DPKO to further develop this strategy.

We are cognizant of the need to promote peacekeeping, especially now in light of the surge in peacekeeping needs. Accordingly, we are in the process of planning, or producing, a range of products, including print materials, a radio documentary, and a TV documentary on peacebuilding and peacekeeping which will be completed over the next year. DPI has also assisted with other TV documentaries on peacekeeping, such as a recent special by National Geographic on the peacekeeping deployment in Liberia.

We have also been in discussion with RUNIC Brussels on strategies for promoting awareness of, and public support in Europe for, the surge in peacekeeping. We have recently sent all UNICs and peacekeeping operations a fact sheet on this subject for their use, particularly to promote the observance of the second annual International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, 29 May.

DPI's Africa Section is endeavoring to keep the needs of Africa's peace-keeping missions and the challenges faced in the region at the forefront of international awareness. It has also sought to publicize successes that have been achieved on the continent, including through its flagship publication, Africa Recovery, which will soon be rebaptized as "Africa Renewal".

Mr. Chairman,

A number of delegations referred to the importance of DPI's role in promoting the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, to take place in Tunis in November 2005. I should like to assure the Committee that we in DPI are already discussing the communications strategy with our colleagues at ITU, the lead agency for that Summit. We are fully committed to raising the profile of the Tunis phase, as the preparatory process develops, to help generate a positive outcome.

One delegation pointed to what he viewed as an "imbalance" in the granting of interviews by the Secretary-General to media in developed countries versus developing countries. We acknowledge that there is an imbalance, and this is something we are also concerned about. However, interviews with "developed" media networks often reach the developing world, in fact, they almost invariably do, given the nature of the global media, rather than vice-versa. In addition, the Secretary-General always gives interviews to the local media when he visits specific countries, including of course, those in the developing world. However, we will encourage him to do more in this respect.

To the question raised by one delegate about the amount of office space allocated to the media from developing countries, let me say that there is a Journalists Work Space Committee, consisting of DPI and representatives of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA), which meets regularly to address issues of space and other matters of concern to the media. The Committee makes every effort to address the needs of media from developing countries, particularly since many of them are office holders in UNCA.

Several delegations requested the Department to put Africa in the forefront of its communications strategies for the next year. I have already described, both in my opening statement and in my remarks today, several of DPI's current activities relating to Africa. I do want to stress that Africa remains a high priority for DPI. In fact, it features prominently in the Department's information strategies for the coming year. In addition to the Department's own comprehensive programme of activities in support of Africa's development and its contribution to the formulation of a global communications and advocacy strategy for NEPAD (the New partnership for Africa's development), Africa is at the heart of a number of the Department's other major communications strategies. The multifaceted communications strategy currently being spearheaded by the United Nations Communications Group Task Force and the Millennium Campaign Office with support from DPI, will of course place a major focus on what Africa needs in order to attain these goals.

Regarding DPI's efforts to enhance its outreach in the Middle East, the Department will be convening a meeting in Beirut in mid-May with UN system public information experts and DPI information officers in the Region, to develop a common communications plan. I should also like to mention that since 2002, the Department has been translating into Arabic key statements and information materials, including statements by the Secretary-General, even the "off-the-cuff" remarks he makes as he enters the Secretariat building, and transmitting them immediately to over 200 Arab media outlets. The Arabic website has improved its coverage; Arabic radio programmes continue to address the crisis in the region; the Department continues to train Palestinian media practitioners; and we will be holding the next international media seminar on peace in the Middle East in cooperation with the Government of China in Beijing in mid-June. DPI will also be working with other Departments and UN system colleagues on an appropriate information strategy for Iraq, once the role of the United Nations in that country has been clearly redefined.

I want to assure the delegates who have urged DPI to continue promoting the dialogue among civilizations, that my department will remain proactively involved in this area. Only last week, I addressed the Asia Media Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on this subject among others. DPI is also supporting the Goethe Institute in Germany and the Barcelona Forum in Spain to promote dialogue among civilizations by reaching out to civil society, NGOs and educational institutions. UNICs, including UNIC Moscow and UNIC Teheran, are especially active in this regard. I am convinced that in a world where walls, sometimes invisible ones, divide peoples and cultures, effective public information can greatly contribute towards bringing those walls down.

In reply to a question regarding the Mauritius International Meeting on small islands, I am pleased to advise you that a communications strategy was drafted at an early stage. We now plan to update it in view of political developments at the recent Preparatory Meeting, at the suggestion of the Secretary-General of that meeting.

As part of this strategy, DPI has been working hard to promote the Mauritius meeting by organizing press conferences, interviews and media outreach. I presume you have seen the new press kit and poster. We are working closely with AOSIS (the Alliance of Small Island States) on all our outreach activities.

Our UNICs are also being mobilized to promote the Mauritius meeting, and some seed funds will be provided to them under the conference budget. I am pleased to say that over the past few days I have sported the SIDS pin on my lapel.

DPI has also organized a Task Force of the United Nations Communications Group to better coordinate UN System outreach for the Mauritius meeting. This Task Force convened before the recent Preparatory meeting and will resume in the weeks ahead.

One delegate made reference to the need for more scholars and experts from developing countries to be involved in our educational outreach efforts. Our vehicle for higher educational outreach, the UN Chronicle, has been fortunate in attracting a number of such contributors, all of whom write without remuneration-in this regard.

Another delegate made reference to International Mother Language Day. Beginning on International Mother Language Day on 21 February, the Discovery television Channel broadcast short television programmes that introduced viewers to people speaking endangered languages in Argentina, Canada, India, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Sweden and the United Kingdom. This series was a unique partnership with our Educational Outreach Section's UN Works programme and with UNESCO, and it has been supplemented by website features.

One delegate referred to the need for "two way interaction with civil society". Indeed, this aspect of our outreach activity-the opportunities it affords for "inreach"-is particularly critical. We would fail in our mission if we were seen as simply lecturing to or imparting information to our partners in that sector-NGOs, educational institutions and other interest groups-without, at the same time, seizing upon their immense reservoir of skills, knowledge and experience to offer ideas that can help resolve some of the issues with which we are collectively faced.

We are heartened by the positive reaction and expressions of support on the part of several delegations with respect to the Steering Committee on the Modernization and Integrated Management of United Nations Libraries. In answer to queries raised by a few delegations, I would wish to remind the members of this Committee that the Steering Committee has barely been in operation for one year now. Nevertheless, a number of outputs have been produced within the specific time-frames established by the Steering Committee and the respective sub-committees, including the initial version of a common Web page, which is expected to be finalized at the next meeting of the Steering Committee later this spring.

One delegate asked about indicators of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library's involvement in the Steering Committee. As already reported, DHL is very active, participating in all seven sub-committees and chairing three of them. Furthermore, greater collaboration among United Nations libraries has been added to the Library's goals in the budget for 2004-2005 and strategic framework for 2006-2007. One of the indicators of achievement is precisely "the number of joint and/or coordinated projects by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library and other United Nations libraries".

I should also like to refer to the indicators for the Library's results-based budgeting and Annual Programme Impact Review. In fact, for those reviews, the measure of DHL's achievement was user satisfaction with a broad range of Library products and services, including the books and serials acquired for users, as well as the concrete outputs of cataloguing and indexing.

In response to a question, there are six depository libraries in Pakistan, in five different cities. DHL has been fortunate in obtaining interns from library schools - as well as visits from library groups, some from developing countries. This includes, last summer, an intern from Trinidad and Tobago. DHL would welcome more such interns and students, but unfortunately we do not have the resources to defray their living expenses.

I would also like to take this opportunity to inform you that a new Head Librarian is expected to join the Dag Hammarskjöld Library on 1 June. She is a senior colleague with wide experience, currently serving as the Head Librarian of ILO, and who I am confident will be an asset to the Library and to the Department. At the same time, I would like to express my appreciation to those delegations who paid tribute to our outgoing Head Librarian, who is retiring from the Organization this month.

With regard to DPI publications in Russian, I would like to note that UN in Brief has continued to be available in Russian in print, as well as on the web. As for Basic Facts, we have only published this substantial publication in English, French and Spanish. UNIC Moscow has arranged Russian editions in the past, and we will discuss this with them for the new edition now being completed, possibly through co-production arrangements. Again, budget is a factor, but the need is understood.

It was gratifying to hear the enthusiastic support expressed by many speakers for the Department's Radio project, which has been a great success. In this regard, I wanted to add to what I said in my opening statement, that in addition to our daily radio programmes in the six official languages and Portuguese, UN Radio also distributes weekly news and magazine programmes in Bangla and Kiswahili. Weekly magazine programmes are also produced in five other non-official languages, namely, French Creole, Hindi, Indonesian, Turkish and Urdu. Weekly magazine programmes are also produced in five of the six official languages for global distribution to complement our weekday news broadcasts.

I am also happy to inform you that the Department is already in the process of reinforcing the staffing resources of the Portuguese Language Unit to assist the second Producer who joined recently. Again, this post was established by the General Assembly

One delegate reiterated the necessity of establishing guidelines and criteria in the selection of languages. We welcome guidance from Member States on the issue of such criteria. We currently broadcast in eight non-official languages, as I have just mentioned, but in the case of Portuguese and Kiswahili, the General Assembly has provided regular staffing resources. If the General Assembly acts in this way, we can do more.

In relation to a comment from a delegation yesterday, we are pleased that the distribution of our Russian Language radio programmes has improved, and we will continue to work with our Radio and TV partners to provide more and better reporting in Russian on the UN and its activities.

I want to assure you that this is an issue the Department keeps under constant review as it seeks feedback from existing stations, and explores new opportunities and demands for UN Radio programming.

I do want, on behalf of my colleagues in Radio and myself, I want to express our deep gratitude to those delegations who commended the work of UN Radio, and say simply, this is music to our ears and a great incentive for all of us to work harder, be more creative to make the voice of the UN a globally recognized, credible and reliable source of information. And I say this with some satisfaction, because when I first appeared before this Committee four years ago, the pilot radio project was not on a secure footing. We have turned the corner in this respect, and I thank you all for your support.

Mr. Chairman,

Several delegations that host United Nations information centres have commended the performance of the centres in their countries. Many others have stressed the vital role that UNICs play as the voice of the United Nations in the field. We are grateful to all of you for these expressions of support, which clearly demonstrate the importance of our field presence and our efforts to rationalize the network of information centres.

Several delegations have expressed their support for the proposed extension of the regionalization initiative to developing countries within the time-frame envisaged by the Secretary-General and reported by him to the General Assembly. Other delegations have expressed the view that it is premature to present proposals for the extension of the regionalization initiative to other regions without first having evaluated the results of the process in Western Europe. Let me say that I understand your concerns. The fact is, however, that it is too early to evaluate the impact of the regionalization of UNICs in Western Europe and the effectiveness of RUNIC Brussels. At the very least, we will need to give RUNIC one full year of operation before undertaking such an evaluation, and even that is probably not sufficient time to derive an accurate reading of the long-term impact of the process.

At the same time, however, it is the Secretary-General's considered view that in the present budgetary environment — and I would like to emphasize, in the present budgetary environment — we do not have any time to lose in addressing the current situation, which is clearly unsustainable. One of the urgent problems that we face is that too many Centres do not have the core posts required to perform essential functions. Moreover, as many delegations have pointed out, the conditions in Western Europe, as well as the regional model employed there, are clearly very different from those in the developing world — which is yet to benefit fully from the information and communications technology revolution. The Western European model is, thus, likely to have limited applicability in the developing world. We therefore do not see much to be gained from awaiting an evaluation of this experience.

A number of delegations emphasized that the rationalization of the UNICs network should not be implemented simply for the purpose of achieving budgetary savings. I would like to assure the Committee that the regionalization initiative is not, in the Secretary-General's view, or in my own or my Department's view, a budget-cutting or budget-saving exercise. Rather, given the budgetary environment in which we are operating, it is a way to strengthen our operations in the field, through focusing our resources on a smaller number of strategically located regional centres, while retaining a physical presence in the countries serviced by the hubs by posting information staff in the offices of resident coordinators. By pooling resources in this manner, we make more efficient use of the resources at our disposal — minimizing the administrative costs we bear and maximizing the funds available for substantive information work.

Of course, it is understood that if the funds intended for reallocation are taken away by Member States, this concept will not work. But the matter is in your hands, as Member States. It was the General Assembly that decided last year to cut UNICs' operational funds, instead of reallocating them as proposed by DPI.

One delegation yesterday declared, "if any information centre fails to perform at the optimum level, then the solution is not to eliminate it, but to identify the problems which afflict it". May I say that we have identified the problem — that too many centres are understaffed, under-equipped and under-resourced. We have also identified the solution — regionalization.

A few delegations maintained that the extension of the regionalization initiative should not proceed, since only part of the resources freed through the regionalization of UNICs in Western Europe have been made available for redeployment to UNICs in other regions. I would respectfully disagree with this assessment, not only for the reason that it was the decision of Member States, and not our own decision to reduce these resources, but also because the General Assembly's reduction of the budgetary allocation for UNICs in the Programme Budget for 2004-2005 by $2 million makes it even more urgent to proceed rapidly. If the reduction had not been decided by the General Assembly, and if all of the resources released in Western Europe had been made available for redeployment to UNICs in developing countries, we might have been able to bolster those UNICs to some degree. But as things stand, the $2 million cut has impacted negatively upon the operating resources of UNICs in developing countries, further exacerbating the problem that the regionalization initiative is intended to address.

I have also taken note of the statements of a number of delegates advocating that the centres they currently host be maintained. Two delegations (and here I have to mention their names), Angola and Israel, also proposed the opening of new UNICs in their countries. As indicated in the Secretary-General's report, and as I also mentioned in my opening statement, the configuration presented in the report was very preliminary in nature and had not been subject to any consultations with Member States. I have mentioned this to two other delegations which approached me after yesterday's session in this regard. The actual locations of the regional centres would, of course, be subject to extensive consultations with the Member States concerned and would also be strongly influenced by the views put forward by the members of this Committee at this session.

We welcome the interest of the government of Israel in the establishment of an information centre. If I recall correctly, this is the first time that such a request has come before this Committee. We would, of course, welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue in more depth as we embark on the next stage of the rationalization of the UNIC network. The issue of regionalization is, of course, part of the challenge we face here.

It was emphasized by one delegate, speaking on behalf of a large number of countries, that the Department's capacity in the production of Portuguese language materials should not be compromised with the closure of UNIC Lisbon. I should like to assure the Committee that RUNIC Brussels will continue to give priority to the production of information materials in Portuguese. Moreover, as mentioned in the Secretary-General's report, a special arrangement is envisaged to address the needs of the Lusophone countries on three continents. The proposal currently under consideration, which obviously would be subject to consultations with the Member States concerned, is to have up to three staff members (a National Information Officer supported by additional staff) located in the large media centre of Rio de Janeiro, who will report to the hub in either Buenos Aires or Santiago. The staff in Rio, along with the staff of the proposed regional hub in Luanda — which would play an integral role in meeting the needs of Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa — would work in close coordination with RUNIC Brussels in preparing public information materials in Portuguese. However, the opening of a Portuguese-language hub in Luanda would, as I have explained to the Vice Minister who graciously called on me yesterday, be dependent on the resources for this purpose being released by our regionalization efforts elsewhere. So you see, all of this is tied together.

One delegate noted that only 143 of 191 United Nations Member States were serviced by the current network of information centres and wondered why certain Member States were excluded in this regard. I should like to recall that the first UNICs were established without clear guidelines. In 1959, the General Assembly in its resolution 1405 set some criteria for the opening of new UNICs such as the provision of support by the host government. It should be noted that UNICs have since been opened following specific requests by Member States, subject of course, to the availability of resources and approval by the General Assembly.

We have taken note of the request from one delegate for a paper listing the existing UN houses and UN system offices in the countries currently hosting information centres. A paper on the UN houses is available at the back of the room. With regard to the second, in all the cities in the developing countries where we have UN information centres, there are other UN country offices, ranging in number from less than 10 to more than 20. It has not been possible to compile a comprehensive list of these offices in the short time-frame available to us, but the information can be found on the UN and UNDP websites.

Several delegates emphasized that the extension of the regionalization initiative to developing countries should be carried out in a flexible manner, on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with the Member States concerned, taking the due geopolitical, cultural and linguistic needs of each region into account. This is precisely what the Secretary-General has proposed in his report.

In conclusion, I should emphasize that it is the Secretary-General's firm position that in the current budgetary climate, the Organization has no choice but to proceed with the extension of the regionalization initiative to all regions. Unless we want to maintain Centres that in many cases do little more than administer themselves — the equivalent of owning a car but not being able to afford the petrol required to go anywhere — then we must continue to implement the strategic approach advocated by the Secretary-General and embodied in resolutions 57/300 and 58/101B of the General Assembly.

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished delegates,

Many members of the Committee have mentioned the importance of letting the world know more about the multifaceted work of the UN. So I am happy to tell you that we have a new video product, a 14-minute "primer" about the United Nations, which covers our humanitarian work, peacekeeping and, of course, the Millennium Development Goals. Interested delegations can certainly seek copies from our News and Media Division.

With this summary, I hope I have addressed the main points raised in the general debate. My colleagues and I remain available to discuss the Department's work with you further. I am grateful to the delegate who stated that DPI's task "is to tell the world its own story". We strive to do so, and with this summary, I hope I have given you all, representatives of the world, your own answers.

I look forward to the outcome of your deliberations.

Thank you.

UN Web Services Section, Department of Global Communications, © United Nations