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GA/AB/4146
4 March 2015
Sixty-ninth Session, 29th Meeting (AM)

Budget Committee Applauds Ground-Breaking for New Home of Criminal Tribunals’ Residual Mechanism, Also Seeks More Air Travel Accountability, Transparency

Applauding the start of construction last month of a new facility for the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in the United Republic of Tanzania, Stephen Cutts, Assistant Secretary-General of the Office of Central Support Services, Department of Management, told the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) “this is a momentous achievement in the project, and is the result of successfully meeting all planned milestones due to date”.

Introducing the Secretary-General’s progress report, he detailed the steps that had led up to that achievement and expressed appreciation for the outstanding commitment of the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania to the project, which included a donation of land.  Despite a slippage of four to six weeks in the project’s estimated completion time as it entered its fourth year, that figure represented a 50 per cent improvement over previously reported delays.  Original estimates saw March 2017 as the project completion date, which was now estimated to be at February 2016, he said.

Carlos Ruiz Massieu, Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), introducing a related report, viewed the delay somewhat differently, pointing out that it reflected an additional four weeks compared to the project schedule in the previous report that had envisioned a completion date at the end of 2015.  He stressed that the Mechanism should take measures to make up for lost time.  He also expressed concern that the project’s contingency provision had been tapped at this early stage due to the higher-than-budgeted amount relating to architect fees.  Efforts should be made to absorb those fees without charging them to the contingency provision, he said, particularly as that provision had not been established in accordance with best practices established by the Board of Auditors.

Still, he expressed gratitude to the Government for its provision of land, access roads and the connection to utilities for the new facility at no cost to the United Nations.  Delegations seconded those expressions of thanks, with the representative of Algeria, speaking on behalf of the African Group, stating that effective interaction with host country authorities played a crucial role in the project’s implementation and encouraging the Secretary-General to ensure continued cooperation.

The Fifth Committee also considered standards for air travel, with Christian Saunders, Director of the Office of the Under-Secretary-General, Department of Management, introducing the Secretary-General’s report on the issue.  Among changes made to standards, as requested by the General Assembly, he noted new administrative instruction on official travel, found in document ST/AI/2013/3, and addressed the Assembly’s request to limit the increasing number of exceptions to the standards.

Mr. Ruiz Massieu, presenting a related ACABQ report, pointed out that the narrow focus of the Secretary-General’s report, devoted almost exclusively to the presentation of exceptions to the standards, no longer met the requirements of the Assembly.  Noting a need for a clear definition and common set of criteria for determining individuals in the prominent persons category, which had seen the greatest increase in exemptions, he stressed that detailed information on authorized exceptions must be accompanied by data on the overall travel activity and related costs in order to provide a full picture of the situation and to allow for meaningful analysis of trends.

When the floor opened to delegates, the representative of South Africa, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, expressed disappointment that much of the information requested by the Assembly had not been provided.  Going further, the European Union representative said the Organization must develop a system to monitor travel expenditures, exercise oversight and strengthen managers’ accountability to guarantee a more judicious use of funds.  That was the only way to ensure that Member States’ expectations were met and the policies approved were effectively implemented, he said.

Also speaking today were representatives of Japan and the United States.

The Fifth Committee will next convene at a date and time to be determined.

Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals

The Committee had before it two reports on the construction of a new facility for the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, Arusha Branch:  the Secretary-General’s report (document A/69/734) and the report of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) (document A/69/788).

STEPHEN CUTTS, Assistant Secretary-General of the Office of Central Support Services, Department of Management, introducing the Secretary-General’s report, said construction had begun in February 2015.  “This is a momentous achievement in the project, and is the result of successfully meeting all planned milestones due to date,” he said.  Since the previous report, the Mechanism had formalized the donation of land from the United Republic of Tanzania, entered into a contract with an architectural firm to develop the conceptual design as approved by the General Assembly and ensured that a detailed design would be delivered on time.

The project entered its fourth year with a slippage of four to six weeks, representing a 50 per cent improvement over the previously reported delays.  That was due to efficiency strategies, cooperation and coordination and accountability.  Original estimates saw March 2017 as the project completion date, which was now estimated to be February 2016.  Consultations with the Office of Central Support Services and other United Nations offices ensured that lessons learned from other capital projects were incorporated pre-emptively.  Further on-site visits and pre-bid conferences had resulted in more accurate bids and local expertise had been secured, he said, reiterating the Secretary-General’s appreciation of the United Republic of Tanzania’s outstanding commitment to the project.  Mr. CUTTS requested the General Assembly to take note of the progress report and to provide guidance on future reporting.

CARLOS RUIZ MASSIEU, Chair of ACABQ, weighing in on that body’s related report, expressed appreciation to the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania for its provision of land, access roads and the connection to utilities to the new facility at no cost to the United Nations.  However, he was concerned at the postponement in the completion date.  Construction was to be completed in late 2015, but had been postponed to early 2016, reflecting an additional four weeks compared to the project schedule in the previous report, he said, adding that the Mechanism should take measures to make up for lost time.  Noting that the construction contract would soon be signed, he requested that the Secretary-General was provided with the most up-to-date information.

Turning to the project contingency provision, he pointed out that the total project cost estimate of $7.7 million had not included a project contingency of 15 per cent (some $1 million).  At the time, the Secretary-General had stated that the provision would cover unforeseen project conditions, with any unspent balance to be returned to Member States.  As the contingency provision had not been calculated based on links to individual risks, as recommended by the Board of Auditors, the Secretary-General should identify mitigation measures before charging any higher-than-budgeted amounts to that provision as a matter of principle.

Thus, the Advisory Committee recommended that the General Assembly request the Secretary-General to make every effort to absorb the higher-than-budgeted amount related to the architect fees without charging it to the project contingency provision.  It also recommended that the Assembly request the Secretary-General to identify all mitigation measures with a view to absorbing cost escalations with the project construction budget and without recourse to the contingency provision, as well as to follow best practices, as recommended by the Board of Auditors, regarding project contingency provisions in future capital projects.

LYLE DAVIDSON (South Africa), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, welcomed progress made in the implementation of the project, including the issuance of the certificate of occupancy to the Mechanism by the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania.  Noting with satisfaction that the Government had completed construction of the access roads and the initiation of works related to the connection of utilities and other key infrastructure at no cost to the Organization, he encouraged the Secretary-General to ensure continued cooperation.

With regard to procurement, he said the Group would request an update on negotiations for the construction services contract and emphasized the need for the Secretary-General to ensure that the procurement of goods and services was carried out in full compliance with existing rules, regulations and provisions of General Assembly resolutions.  Welcoming the inclusion of local capacity, he stressed the need for continued efforts in that regard throughout the project’s implementation.  In the context of the project schedule, expenditure and contingency, the Group noted with concern the four-week delay and urged the Secretary-General to take all possible measures to make up for lost time.

ABDELHAKIM MIHOUBI (Algeria), speaking on behalf of the African Group and aligning with the “Group of 77”, welcomed progress made, in particular the formalization of the land offer by the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania.  The Group continued to believe that effective interaction with host country authorities played a crucial role in the project’s implementation and encouraged the Secretary-General ensure continued cooperation.  Taking note of the information related to project oversight and governance, he looked forward to updates on oversight coverage for activities undertaken so far, as well as those planned further in the context of the respective agenda items.

The Group emphasized the need for the Secretary-General to continue his efforts to ensure that the Mechanism continued to include local knowledge, capacity and know-how throughout the project’s implementation.  The Group also emphasized the need to prevent the recurrence of errors, omissions and other anomalies.  He expressed concern at the expected delay and expected every effort to ensure that the project was completed within the time frame.

Standards for Air Travel

The Committee then considered reports on standards for air travel:  the Secretary-General’s report (documents A/69/643 and A/69/643/Corr.1), and the report of ACBAQ (document A/69/787).

CHRISTIAN SAUNDERS, Director of the Office of the Under-Secretary-General, Department of Management, introducing the Secretary-General’s report, said that it provided information for the two-year period ending 30 June 2014 and comparative statistics for the two-year period ending 30 June 2012, as well as trend analysis for the past 10 years.  He noted the Assembly’s request, in resolution 67/254, for the Secretary-General to modify his administrative instruction on standards of accommodation for air travel, so that the duration of a journey would be determined based on the most economical route available, provided the total additional time did not exceed the most direct route by four hours.

He pointed out that the Assembly had also endorsed the conclusions and recommendations of ACABQ that would establish economy class as the standard of accommodation for air travel for consultants and individual contractors, unless determined otherwise by the Secretary-General, to which end a new administrative instruction on official travel (document ST/AI/2013/3) had been promulgated by the Under-Secretary-General for Management.  The Assembly had additionally requested that action be taken to limit the increasing number of exceptions to the standards.  The report included detailed analysis and explanations of those movements, as well as their additional costs.

Further pursuant to Assembly resolutions, the report provided information relating to the implementation of Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) recommendations and the reduction in the percentage rate of lump-sum payments in Annex XXII of the report.  Given the short period of time that had elapsed since that change, the report proposed to maintain the lump-sum provision at 70 per cent of the least restrictive economy class fare until the first part of the resumed seventieth session of the General Assembly, when a proposal based on the experience gained and an analysis thereof would be submitted.

Mr. RUIZ MASSIEU, weighing in on the related ACABQ report, pointed out that the continued increase in the requests for exceptions to the standards did not fulfil the request of the General Assembly in resolution 67/254 to limit their use.  As the growth in those exceptions was principally due to exceptions in the prominent traveller category, the Advisory Committee believed that a clear definition and common set of criteria for determining prominent status should be established and that the Secretary-General be requested to submit proposals for the Assembly’s consideration.

Further, he said that the narrow focus of the report, devoted almost exclusively to the presentation of exceptions to the standards of accommodation for air travel, no longer met the requirements of the Assembly.  The detailed information on the exceptions authorized must be accompanied by data on the overall travel activity and related costs to provide a full picture of the situation and allow meaningful analysis of trends.  In addition, more data and analysis on the financial impact of the decisions taken in resolutions 65/268 and 67/254 regarding those standards should be provided.

He noted that the Secretariat had indicated that it had been unable to provide detailed travel statistics due to the limitations of current systems, but that the required data would become available following implementation of the travel module of Umoja, planned for the end of 2015.  Thus, he recommended that the Secretary-General should be requested to broaden the scope and enhance the content of his report to include, in addition to the data currently provided on authorized exceptions, comprehensive information on Secretariat-wide air travel activity and costs under all sources of funding, taking into account the provisions and requests contained in previous Assembly resolutions, as well as relevant observations and recommendations of oversight bodies.

LYLE DAVIDSON (South Africa), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77”, stressed the importance of effective and efficient utilization of resources for air travel in the United Nations.  However, it was disappointing that much of the information requested by the Assembly in successive resolutions had not been provided, he said, noting that the Group would seek further information on the exploration of possible options for the procurement of air travel.

It would also seek clarification from the Secretariat on the feasibility of continuing the relationship with the current vendor in view of the findings of the 2009 OIOS audit.  Any policy changes and new formulations in the area of standards of accommodation of air travel, like other management and financial issues, continued to remain the exclusive prerogative of the Fifth Committee and the General Assembly.

FRANCESCO PRESUTTI, of the European Union Delegation, said greater operational efficiency of United Nations travel practices was a major component of the modernization of the Organization.  The Union consistently encouraged the Secretary-General to take practical measures in that regard.  It appeared that some long-standing weakness of the Organization was hampering the optimal use of resources.

The partial, narrow data presented was far from comforting, citing an increase of 81.4 per cent in additional travel costs, mostly through recourse to the prominent persons category, he said.  The Organization must develop a system where not only travel expenditures were monitored and oversight was exercised, but above all, the accountability of managers was strengthened to guarantee a more judicious use of funds.  That was the only way to ensure that Member States’ expectations were met and the policies approved were effectively implemented.

HIROSHI ONUMA (Japan) said that in order for the Committee to discuss the agenda item in a more comprehensive manner, further information from the Secretariat was needed on industry best practices in the areas of frequent flyer miles, actions taken to limit the use of first and business class travel exceptions and the results of the review of the exceptions for prominent persons.  Japan also expected to receive more convincing and concrete justifications and criteria from the Secretariat for the increase in the use of those exceptions.  Supporting the general views of the Advisory Committee’s report, he wished that informal consultations would deepen the points of discussion it raised.

CHERITH NORMAN CHALET (United States) expressed appreciation for the Secretary-General’s swift implementation of the changes adopted by Member States during the General Assembly’s sixty-seventh session by issuing a revised administration instruction in 2013.  However, she was disappointed that the momentum for change brought forth from decisions taken two years ago had not been carried forward to its full extent.  The United States was deeply concerned by the lack of consolidated and comprehensive data on air travel expenditures, despite the Assembly’s requests year after year, she said, noting that, without such data, it was not clear how the United Nations monitored expenditures or held managers accountable.

The United States also shared a concern voiced in the Advisory Committee’s report regarding the increase in the number of exemptions the Secretary-General granted for business class travel.  The 68 per cent increase was counterproductive to the positive changes the Secretary-General had proposed.  Further recalibration of lump-sum payment policies was necessary to better align with best practices and would lead to significant savings.  She encouraged the Secretary-General to continue to find ways to more judiciously utilize air travel resources.

For information media. Not an official record.