Sustainable Development Goals, Refugee Crisis among Department’s Key Focus Areas, Under-Secretary-General Tells Committee on Information Opening Session

PI/2162
26 April 2016
Thirty-eighth Session, 1st Meeting (AM)

Sustainable Development Goals, Refugee Crisis among Department’s Key Focus Areas, Under-Secretary-General Tells Committee on Information Opening Session

Funding Shortfall Cited for ‘Curtailing’ Impact of Multilingualism Effort

Disseminating information on the Sustainable Development Goals, building awareness around the need for a humane global approach to refugees, and explaining the impacts of the work of the United Nations during its upcoming leadership change were three priorities for the Department of Public Information in 2016, the Committee on Information heard today, as it opened its thirty-eighth session.

In opening remarks, Cristina Gallach, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, called on delegates in the 115-member body to make this year one of action.  “The need for action on the 2030 Agenda [for Sustainable Development] that you adopted last September also extends to the Paris Agreement on climate change that so many of you signed last Friday, and the crisis faced by refugees and migrants worldwide.”

Together, the themes formed a single integrated narrative, she said, with markers that presented communications opportunities.  The Department had coordinated messaging across the system with major external partners and media.  The 63 United Nations information centres had taken the lead in translating the Sustainable Development Goals into at least 45 local languages, while the Department’s year-round promotion of issues driving the World Humanitarian Summit, to be held in May in Istanbul, would include a unified, multilingual web presence.

While the multilingualism “thread” ran through all Department efforts, she said limited resources had curtailed its impact.  The Secretary-General’s budget submission for the 2016-2017 biennium had included a request for additional language posts to ensure language parity; however, the General Assembly had rejected the proposal, approving instead non-post resources for multilingualism.

With that in mind, Committee Chair Kaha Imnadze (Georgia) said the body owed it to itself to ask whether its resolutions sought to be politically attractive even if practically unsustainable.  He asked whether Member States were doing their utmost to ensure that staff who dealt with budgetary matters lent their support to plans for carrying out Committee decisions.

He advocated for greater consistency in the mandates authored by the Committee and more consultations — within each mission — between staff involved in information and those involved in resolution implementation.  In the coming days, he encouraged the Committee to put forward a resolution that was “inspirational and practical”, and that once adopted, delegates would defend within their missions.

In the ensuing general debate, delegates stressed the importance of the Department’s work amid calls for the United Nations to better connect with the global public, with some pointing to its pivotal role in creating a more just global communications order.

In that context, the European Union’s representative said the Department would play a key role in “keeping the momentum” during implementation of the 2030 Agenda and Paris Agreement.  His delegation would support the Department, focused on ways to streamline administration and implement cost-effective communication between Headquarters and field offices.

The integration of multilingualism into all activities was a common concern, with Thailand’s representative, on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, one of many delegates urging the design of a strategy for publishing daily press releases in all six official languages of the Organization.

The representative of Mexico, on behalf of the Group of Friends of Spanish, echoed calls to end the language disparity, noting that the lack of resources should not impede solutions.  Argentina’s delegate voiced concern about linking the issue to budgetary matters, as the Assembly had stated that the question should be resolved through the equitable distribution of resources.

India’s representative, while welcoming radio programming in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali, said there were millions that spoke other major languages on the subcontinent.  He supported the establishment of a language development centre to reframe content for a wider, more diverse audience.

While several speakers supported the use of new technologies, such as Twitter, to reach wider audiences, most urged continued support for United Nations information centres and use of traditional media, such as television and radio, to reach those still excluded from such innovations.  On that point, Venezuela’s delegate emphasized the need for training programmes.

Also speaking today were representatives of the Dominican Republic (on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), Burkina Faso (on behalf of the Francophone Group of New York), Egypt, Cuba, Iran and Côte d’Ivoire.

The Committee on Information will reconvene at 10 a.m. Wednesday, 27 April, to continue its thirty-eighth session.

Opening Remarks

KAHA IMNADZE (Georgia), Chair of the Committee on Information, said that the Department had over the last week shown its strength promoting an understanding of the mission of the United Nations.  It had also been shown in its daily news output produced for media, civil society, Member States and the general public, providing a comprehensive picture of the Organization’s activities around human rights, development and peace and security.  It had been seen in the increasing use of social media and multimedia, in the developing and industrialized worlds, tailoring information to “the ordinary person”.

Further, he said, it had been seen in its published content, including the flagship UN Chronicle and the Yearbook, both of which were available on state-of-the-art aggregated platforms.  It had been seen in the “iLibrary”, a digital platform where, for the first time, all materials were in one place, allowing people to search, discover and read in all United Nations official languages, as well as in audio-visual materials and the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, which had made official records and publications readily available to researchers and the public for easy access to information.  It also had been seen in the United Nations information centres that had shared the Organization’s stories in the fluency of peoples’ own languages.

Indeed, he said, there was much to be proud of, and yet, he had the feeling that something was missing.  The Committee rightly had expected from the Department a robust and workable communications strategy for the United Nations.  In turn, he asked whether it was not then fair for the Department to expect from the Committee a robust integrated and workable plan.

He described “populism” as inserting into resolutions expectations from the Department without assessing the capacity to deliver on them, commending the Committee for its close consultations with the Department in the finalization of the resolutions to be adopted.  That said, the Committee owed it to itself to ask whether its resolutions should seek to be politically attractive even if practically unsustainable.  He asked whether Member States were doing their utmost within their missions to ensure that staff members who dealt with budgetary matters were ready to lend their support to operationalize the Committee’s decisions.

Providing examples, he cited paragraph 22 of the latest resolution on United Nations public information policies, which emphasized the importance of making use of all official languages, ensuring their equitable treatment in all the Department’s offices, and requesting the Secretary-General to ensure that the Department had the necessary capacity to undertake all those activities.

There was reason to be grateful to the Department for ensuring that the aspect of “necessary capacity” was reflected in budget proposals, he said.  However, those proposals had not been approved.  Indeed, while it was a collective prerogative to accept, modify or reject texts, he advocated for a greater consistency of the mandates authored and for more consultations — within each mission — between staff involved in the Committee and others involved in resolution implementation.

With that, he expressed hope that the Committee’s work in the coming days would yield a resolution that was both “inspirational and practical”, and once adopted, that delegates would defend within the chambers of their own missions.  It was in a shared path and destiny that the Department and the Committee could work in partnership.

CRISTINA GALLACH, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said close collaboration with Member States had allowed the Department to better deliver on its mandate to inform, engage and educate people around the world about issues on the United Nations agenda.  In 2016, the Department was prioritizing three main, interlinked themes:  disseminating information on the Sustainable Development Goals, including the Paris Agreement on climate change; building awareness of the need for a humane, coordinated global approach to dealing with large movements of refugees and migrants; and explaining the broader impact of the United Nations during the transition in the Organization’s leadership.

“This year should be a year of action and implementation, starting with sustainable development,” she said.  “The need for action on the 2030 Agenda that you adopted last September also extends to the Paris Agreement on climate change that so many of you signed last Friday, and the crisis faced by refugees and migrants worldwide.”  Together, the themes represented a single integrated narrative, with key upcoming markers presenting communications opportunities, including the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, and the Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, in New York in September.

In order to strategically and creatively reach across various digital and communications platforms, she continued, the Department had engaged a diverse array of partners, while using its United Nations Communications Group and cost-effective WebEx videoconferencing sessions to, among other things, coordinate messaging across the United Nations system and with major external partners and media.  The global network of 63 United Nations information centres had taken on a leading role in translating the Sustainable Development Goals into at least 45 local languages and embarking on a host of innovative partnerships and initiatives.  Most recently, the signing of the Paris Agreement by 175 countries on 22 April had generated an extraordinarily high level of media and public engagement, with more than 8,000 press articles worldwide and 1.4 million views on Snapchat.  Also, with the movements of refugees and migrants at the top of the global agenda, the Department’s year-round promotion of the issues driving the World Humanitarian Summit would include a unified, multilingual web presence that would serve as a repository for key United Nations content on the issue.

Indeed, the multilingualism “thread” ran through all Department efforts, she said, noting, however, that limited resources were limiting its impact.  While the Secretary-General’s budget submission for the 2016-2017 biennium had included a request for additional language posts for social media, webcast and elsewhere to ensure language parity, the General Assembly had decided to reject the proposed posts, approving non-post resources for multilingualism.  Meanwhile, the Department was pursuing ways in which to maximize multilingual reach and impact, developing partnerships with Member States and educational institutions to create, translate and adapt its materials.  There was growing social media popularity across all languages, she said, highlighting the Organization’s English Twitter account, which had reached 7 million followers, and similar gains on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.  Furthermore, the Department’s news platforms were integrating new technology into stories and social media posts, including a podcast launch, and increased popularity had been seen with regard to audio programme downloads, across all languages, and UNifeed syndicated packages of raw television footage for broadcasters.

She said dedicated efforts to promote the three pillars of the United Nations agenda beyond the commemoration of international days included themes centred on human rights, equality and non-discrimination, the Rwanda genocide, the International Decade for People of African Descent and the new system-wide action plan for promoting the rights of indigenous peoples.  Promoting peacekeeping and conflict-prevention efforts, the Department had organized activities including a workshop for heads of operations and special political missions, media outreach to police- and troop-contributing countries and initiatives for raising awareness of sexual exploitation and abuse and the Organization’s zero-tolerance policy.  To further broaden its audience reach on those and related themes, the Department had collaborated with film and television producers.

Proud that the Department was host to the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, she highlighted the unprecedented youth participation in shaping the 2030 Agenda, including the participation of 193 youth representatives in its signing.  Other activities included convening the Global Youth Partnership for the Sustainable Development Goals, the creation of a one-stop, online platform, Youth Gateway, which showcased contributions to those common objectives, and the United Nations Academic Impact initiative linking the global educational and research communities.  The Department was also forging new partnerships with publishers around the world in order to create content on the new Goals for a wider audience.  The recently launched United Nations iLibrary had further allowed the publication and dissemination of more multilingual content than ever before at no additional cost to the Organization.  Moreover, the newly launched e-commerce platform, shop.un.org, offered United Nations publications in print or digital form.

Turning to press freedom and media capacity, she said the Department would host annual events in 2016, including the Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalist Fellowship Programme and the Training Programme for Palestinian Journalists, with the latter increasingly focusing on multimedia journalism — a reflection of the media landscape in the Middle East and beyond.  In that spirit, she welcomed engagement by Members States on the Department’s commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, 5 May, with a Headquarters event centred on the theme of connecting access to information with attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.

She recalled her recent approval of the Department’s first formal evaluation policy, aimed at updating its methods and bringing them into line with United Nations system norms and standards.  Having already been used to shape evaluation of the “2015:  Time for Global Action” campaign, the policy would guide a gender-based evaluation of activities in 2016 as part of the Department’s first-ever strategy on gender equality and the empowerment of women (2016-19), setting out the steps for building on strengths and improving gender parity in staffing.  In closing, she declared:  “The outreach and advocacy that were done around the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change in 2015 demonstrate that when people are armed with information, they are empowered to act and will come together in global solidarity to meet the challenges that affect us all.”

Statements

VIRACHAI PLASAI (Thailand), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the importance of the Department’s work could not be stressed enough amid calls for the United Nations to better connect with the global public.  Commending the Department for partnering with Governments, academia and civil society to commemorate the Organization’s seventieth anniversary, among other efforts, he encouraged continued promotion of key decisions and agreements, including on sustainable development.  He supported the integration of multilingualism into all activities, voicing concern at the disparity in the use of all official languages in public information materials.  There needed to be reinforced efforts to narrow the gap among official languages and to design a strategy to deliver daily press releases in all six official languages.  He supported the Department’s continued support of United Nations information centres, and use of traditional media, the primary means of communication in developing countries.  The use of information and communications technology should be in line with the United Nations Charter and international law, he stressed, notably the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in State affairs.

GERTON VAN DEN AKKER of the European Union Delegation said the success of public diplomacy rested with the Department, which would play a key role in “keeping the momentum” during implementation of both the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change.  The Union would continue to support the Department, focusing on innovative ways to streamline administration and implement cost-effective communication between Headquarters and field offices.  It would also focus on improving programme delivery on digital and traditional platforms; identifying untapped audiences; and developing strategic alliances with civil society, academia, foundations, the private sector and cultural institutions.  He welcomed the Secretariat’s efforts to incorporate multilingualism into all communications and information activities.  On the freedom of opinion and expression, another priority, he called attacks on journalists and media workers “attacks on the cornerstones of our societies”, stressing that all people had a right to live free from fear and welcomed efforts, including by the Department, to bring to light World Press Freedom Day.

FRANCISCO ANTONIO CORTORREAL (Dominican Republic), speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), noted that the Secretary-General’s reports provided a better understanding and an adequate promotion of United Nations activities.  He then stressed the role of the Committee on Information in establishing a new and more just communications order intended to strengthen peace and international understanding.  The changing situation required innovative methods for a better flow of and inclusive access to information.  However, the growing digital gap between developed and developing countries was a matter of concern.  As such, it was crucial to continue using traditional methods of communication, including radio, television and written press.  On the use of information and communications technology, it must not be used in ways that violated international law.  On multilingualism, concern remained over the lack of coverage in all official languages.  Recalling the principle of parity, he welcomed General Assembly resolution A/RES/70/93 A-B of 15 December 2015, which requested that the Department of Public Information design a strategy to deliver press releases in six languages.

LORENA ALVARADO QUEZADA (Mexico), speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of Spanish, urged strengthening multilingualism and welcomed efforts to develop new content through new technologies without undermining that transmitted through traditional means.  There was a growing concern about the small structural capability to create Spanish outputs.  Any output, including dissemination campaigns, must respect multilingualism and full language parity, she said, supporting the use of hashtags in each official language and use of multilingual teams.  The Secretary-General’s future reports should provide more comparative graphs by language.  The disparity between the use of English and other languages should end, as the traditional limitation of resources had been overcome.  There was a critical need to publish daily press releases in Spanish.  It was regrettable that the Assembly had failed to approve resources requested for more staff, she said, and urged redoubled support for the Department to devise a strategy for issuing press releases in all six languages without additional cost, which would require a reassignment of resources.  The Group was ready to contribute ideas in that regard and she suggested having work done by focal points.  The lack of resources should not impede solving the issue.

ERIC TIARE (Burkina Faso), speaking on behalf of the Group of Francophone Ambassadors in New York, said that reaching people around the world through various communications means was essential.  Guided by that spirit, the Group had initiated an agenda item in the Assembly on multilingualism, which he viewed as a corollary of multilateralism, as it guaranteed respect for linguistic diversity and ensured the greatest number of States participating in United Nations debates.  He called for integrating multilingualism into all information and communications activities, stressing that new information and communications technology represented an opportunity for the United Nations to broaden its scope.  Through the French language, respect for diversity, fraternity, solidarity and freedom of expression and information were values celebrated by the Group.  In 2015, he noted that the Group had organized, in partnership with the Department, a round table entitled “Language and Diversity:  Drivers of Peace”.

MARTÍN GARCIA MORITÁN (Argentina), associating himself with the Group of 77, CELAC and the Group of Friends of Spanish, supported the 63 United Nations information centres and called for their continued strengthening.  Multilingualism must be preserved in all United Nations activities and he welcomed efforts to ensure that the United Nations website was “truly multilingual”, noting that 25 per cent of its sessions were in Spanish and urging the Secretary-General to include statistics on the use of the six official languages on all of the Department’s products.  Concerned about language disparity, he urged providing the Department with more resources, regretting that those requested in 2015 had not been provided, due to a lack of consensus in the Assembly.  Language parity should include daily press releases, as they were only available in two of the official six languages.  He urged intensified efforts to circulate them in all six languages without additional cost, expressing concern about linking the issue to budgetary matters, as the Assembly already had stated that the question should be resolved through the equitable distribution of budgetary resources.  Also, hashtags should be devised in the language of listeners.

SURYANARAYAN SRINIVAS PRASAD (India) hoped to see renewed emphasis on a more just world information and communications order to foster peace and understanding.  Noting the Department’s role as the primary voice of the United Nations, he welcomed efforts to raise awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals through its 2015 “Time for Global Action” campaign, stressing that India had devised innovative programmes to implement the Goals’ objectives, including one on gender equality and educating the girl child.  It was important that the Department use local media platforms to popularize the Goals.  He appreciated efforts to highlight the work of the “blue berets”, urging the Department to fast-track plans to highlight that contribution worldwide.  Welcoming weekly radio programming in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali, and noting that there were millions that spoke other major languages on the subcontinent, he supported the establishment of a language development centre to reframe content for a wider, more diverse audience.  Greater interaction with media in developing countries was also needed.  The Department could provide coverage to its international days, including that of yoga, through its media platforms.

AHMED ELSHANDAWILY (Egypt), associating himself with the Group of 77, said promoting multilingualism was a persistent concern, particularly with regard to the gap in the use of all official United Nations languages.  Their use was not about politics or national pride, but to broaden the audiences who received information about the Organization’s important work in various fields.  Turning to the Department’s Palestine programme, he said such efforts must continue to raise awareness of related pertinent issues.

ANA SILVIA RODRÍGUEZ ABASCAL (Cuba), associating herself with the Group of 77, CELAC and the Group of Friends of Spanish, said the communications strategy and materials must be accessible to all in a manner that eliminated both language and digital barriers.  As such, it was imperative to study approaches to improving access to information and ways to create more multilingual content, despite funding shortages.  The use of all official languages was essential.  In an era of science, technology and knowledge, communications efforts should also consider traditional forms of media.  To expand audiences and improve the impact of the Organization’s messages, content must be disseminated in a balanced manner, with Member States setting priorities on issues to be disseminated on the Sustainable Development Goals.  In closing, she said programming “attacks” from the United States coming over Cuban radio waves were unacceptable and new technologies must be used in line with the United Nations Charter with a view to preventing the Internet from being used as a cyber battlefield.

HOSSEIN MALEKI (Iran) said that as the Department continued to disseminate information about the 2030 Agenda and other pressing issues, it must also pay close attention to the current dangerous situation that had been created by violence, extremism and terrorism.  Iran had tabled timely, relevant draft resolutions — a World against Violence and Violent Extremism (WAVE) (A/RES/68/127) and a Year of Dialogue among Civilizations (A/RES/55/23) — which should now be included in the Department’s global promotional campaigns.  Underlining the Department’s important responsibility of raising awareness about the negative consequences of occupying Palestine, he urged it to spare no efforts in assisting the Palestinian people.  Reaffirming the significant role played by the United Nations information centres, he supported strengthening their capacity in developing countries to better achieve the goal of promoting the Organization’s public image.

YUMAIRA COROMONTO RODRÍGUEZ SILVA (Venezuela), associating herself with the Group of 77, CELAC and the Group of Friends of Spanish, said the Department’s work was bringing the messages of the Organization to ever wider audiences, fostering a better understanding of the many achievements.  To do so, the Department was using new information technologies and social networks, yet, a digital gap had persisted in the South.  Appeals had been made to narrow that divide, she said, emphasizing a need for training programmes.  Still, the Department had promoted the key messages of recent major meetings, including the eradication of poverty and sustainable development efforts, and efforts to disseminate information on Ebola and the recent Zika outbreak had also spanned a range of information tools, including through the use of social media messaging, with a view to reaching broad audiences.  Expressing support for the State of Palestine, she called on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian land.  With regard to multilingualism, the work of the Organization would be better transmitted by translating content into all official languages.

FRANÇOIS-XAVIER ZABAVY (Côte d’Ivoire), associating himself with the Group of 77 and the Francophone Group, underscored the need to promote a better understanding of the goals and achievements of the United Nations.  The Committee should help create the conditions for improving the Department’s already good communications strategies.  The 63 United Nations information centres translated information into local languages and brought the Organization together with the people for whom it worked.  The Department should look at how international organizations had changed the means of consuming media, while not losing sight of traditional communications means, such as television and radio.  He sounded an alarm at the digital gap between developed and developing countries, urging more cooperation in that regard.  His country pledged to implement digital dissemination through voting on laws on digital transactions, cybercrime and personal data.  More broadly, the Department’s work helped to lower tensions, bring opposing sides together and protect people during transitions to peace.  He congratulated the Department for its dynamism and competence, while working to develop mass information systems and promote international cooperation.

For information media. Not an official record.