Name Change Reflects Shift in United Nations Approach to Communications, Under-Secretary-General Tells Fourth Committee

GA/SPD/698
17 October 2019
Seventy-fourth Session, 9th Meeting (AM)

Name Change Reflects Shift in United Nations Approach to Communications, Under-Secretary-General Tells Fourth Committee

Passing 3 Draft Resolutions at Conclusion of Decolonization Debate, Members Focus on Questions Relating to Information

Renaming the Department of Global Communications was a reflection of a shift in the way in which the United Nations approaches communications, the departmental head told the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) today after it approved three draft resolutions on decolonization issues before taking up questions relating to information.

Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, told the Committee that the newly renamed entity — formerly the Department of Public Information — aims to make the public care about multilateralism through storytelling and by humanizing its work.  She went on to say that coverage of the General Assembly’s recent high-level period demonstrated the Department’s strategic advance planning, which — alongside its more integrated multimedia production — helped to create multilingual content that was distributed in real time across multiple platforms.

She went on to highlight the role of United Nations Information Centres in outreach and impact while updating members on various initiatives and partnerships that the Department has undertaken in the course of the past year.  In September, she recalled, the annual Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship welcomed its latest cohort of 15 young journalists from developing countries and those with economies in transition.  And in the private sector, the United Nations paired with the Sanrio company in launching a global version of their campaign featuring the character Hello Kitty to raise awareness of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals.

“Reaching people — where they are, in the languages they speak and on platforms they can access — allows the Department of Global Communications to serve as a bridge between words and actions,” she said.  At a time when misinformation and hatred are disseminated to sow bigotry, promote discrimination and undermine civil discourse, United Nations communications serve as a source of reliable, fact-based information, she added.

The Rapporteur of the Committee on Information presented the report on that body’s forty-first session, recalling that delegates expressed support for the Department’s reforms, saying its new name reflects the importance and scope of its work and will put it in a better position to engage with audiences.  Many also emphasized the importance of language parity, he reported.  Praise for United Nations Information Centres was a common theme during the meeting, he said, noting that the Centres reach their audiences in nearly 100 languages.

During the ensuing general debate, delegates emphasized the importance of multilingualism.  The observer for the State of Palestine, speaking for the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, described multilingualism as one of the core promotors of unity and international understanding.

Indonesia’s representative, speaking for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), welcomed the Department’s promotional campaigns showcasing individual troop-contributing countries.  He encouraged relevant United Nations departments to continue to disseminate developments in reforming the United Nations peace and security architecture through a comprehensive communications strategy.  He went on to express concern over the spread of hoaxes, “fake news” and misinformation, calling upon the Department to maintain its role as the Organization’s responsible messenger.

Cabo Verde’s representative, speaking for the Community of Portuguese‑speaking Countries, said that, although Portuguese is not an official language, the Community supports the Department’s efforts to disseminate information about United Nations activities in that language.  Pointing out that UN News Portuguese reaches the third largest of the Organization’s audiences, he recalled that it was the first language unit to become a full multimedia operation in 2013.  He went on to express appreciation for its work as a leading source of materials on United Nations actions to help people affected by Cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique.

An observer for the European Union delegation noted that the regional bloc works in 24 official languages, applauding the Department’s commitment to multilingualism and its efforts to raise awareness of climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals among young people.  He welcomed the Department’s various initiatives to strengthen partnerships, while also stressing that the implementation of reforms intended to make the United Nations “fit for purpose” must remain a communications priority.

Argentina’s representative noted that Spanish is the language that has grown most in terms of web traffic, yet only 32 per cent of the United Nations website is available in that language.  While underlining the value of press releases in providing transparency and institutional memory, he expressed concern that they are only available in two of the six official languages, calling for redoubled efforts to make audio-visual archives available in all six languages.

In other business, the Committee approved, without a vote, several draft resolutions on the following Non‑Self‑Governing Territories:  American Samoa, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, French Polynesia, Guam, Montserrat, New Caledonia, Pitcairn, Saint Helena, Tokelau, Turks and Caicos Islands, and United States Virgin Islands.

The Committee also approved — by a recorded vote of 144 in favour to 3 against (United States, Israel, United Kingdom), with 2 abstentions (France, Togo) — a draft on “Dissemination of information on decolonization” by which the General Assembly would reiterate the importance of visiting missions of the Special Committee on Decolonization in contributing to the dissemination of decolonization information.

In its final action, the Committee approved the draft resolution “Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples” by a recorded 109 votes in favour to 3 against (Israel, United States, United Kingdom), with 43 abstentions.  By its terms, the General Assembly would reiterate its conviction on the need to eradicate colonialism, racial discrimination and human-rights violations.

Others speaking today included representatives of Sudan, Morocco, Iraq, Spain, United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Thailand, Libya and Saudi Arabia.

The Fourth Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 18 October, to continue its general debate on questions relating to information.

Action on Draft Resolutions

Acting without a vote, the Committee approved several draft resolutions on decolonization questions relating to the following individual Non‑Self‑Governing Territories:  American Samoa, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, French Polynesia, Guam, Montserrat, New Caledonia, Pitcairn, Saint Helena, Tokelau, Turks and Caicos Islands and United States Virgin Islands.

The Committee then approved — by a recorded vote of 144 in favour to 3 against (United States, Israel, United Kingdom), with 2 abstentions (France, Togo) — draft resolution XVIII on “Dissemination of information on decolonization” (document A/74/23, chapter XIII, p.116).

The representative of United Kingdom spoke in explanation of position, saying that the obligation the draft places on the Secretariat puts an unwanted strain on resources and is thus unacceptable to her delegation.

The representative of Argentina also spoke in explanation of position, saying the text must be interpreted in accordance with resolutions of the General Assembly and of the Special Committee on Decolonization, which recognize a sovereignty dispute in the Malvinas Islands[1], South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the surrounding maritime areas between Argentina and the United Kingdom.  It has been established that the way in which to resolve the dispute is through the resumption of bilateral negotiations, he added.

In a third action, the Committee approved the draft resolution contained in the report “Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples” (document A/74/23, chapter XIII, p.118) by a recorded 109 votes in favour to 3 against (Israel, United States, United Kingdom), with 43 abstentions.

The representative of Spain, speaking in explanation of position, said the decolonization process must in certain cases follow the principle of territorial integrity, as with Gibraltar.  The dispute must be resolved through bilateral negotiations, he added, noting that visiting missions are only appropriate where the principle of self-determination holds, and with the General Assembly’s approval.

The representative of the United States, speaking in explanation of position on all her delegation’s votes today, reiterated that all three texts place too much weight on independence as a “one-size-fits-all” solution, whereas the people of a Non-Self-Governing Territory may opt for free association, including joining the administering State.  It is not for the Special Committee to “put its thumb on the scale” in favour of any particular outcome, she emphasized, expressing dismay at the outdated call for the termination of all military activities in a Non-Self-Governing Territory.  It is false to assume that a military presence is not wanted or is bad for the local population.  It is for administering States to determine whether a Territory has achieved the ability to govern itself, she asserted, underlining that, in Guam’s case, the whole population must exercise self-determination, not just one segment.  She went on to note that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is non-binding and does not create new financial commitments.  Whereas the United States recognizes the Agenda as a global framework and applauds the call for shared responsibility, its Goals must be achieved in accordance with national priorities and in a manner consistent with international law, she added.  The Agenda does not alter any World Trade Organization agreements, she emphasized, reiterating that the resolutions are non-binding and do not necessarily affirm international law.

The representative of the United Kingdom said that, despite her delegation’s negative votes, her country remains committed to modernizing its relationship with its overseas Territories while taking their wishes into account.

The representative of Australia said her delegation is a strong supporter of self-determination, but it abstained from voting on the draft resolution because of operative paragraph 14, she added, explaining that military bases are not necessarily contrary to the interests of the Territories.  The language in operative paragraph 14 is unacceptable, she noted, reiterating her delegation’s call for its removal from future versions while expressing support for other elements of the text.

The representative of Argentina said visiting missions are appropriate only where the principle of self-determination is applicable, but not when a sovereignty dispute is recognized by the United Nations.  Visiting missions should be considered on a case-by-case basis and carried out in accordance with United Nations resolutions, he added.

Introduction of Report

OLEH NIKOLENKO (Ukraine), Rapporteur of the Committee on Information, introduced the report of that body’s forty-first session (document A/74/21), covering the period 29 April to 10 May 2019.  Recalling that the Under-Secretary-General addressed the session and responded to questions and comments from Member States, he said multiple delegates expressed support for the Department’s reforms, including its new name, which reflects the importance and scope of its work and will put it in a better position to engage with audiences.  Another delegate also called upon Member States to help amplify the Department’s work through their own channels, and to maintain regular briefings and exchanges with Member States, he noted.

Recalling that several delegates emphasized the importance of language parity, and of disseminating information about the Organization’s work in as many languages as possible in the interests of inclusion and transparency, he went on to highlight the Committee’s recognition of and praise for the network of United Nations Information Centres, describing that praise as a consistent theme during the meeting.  Delegates noted that the Information Centres help reach people in nearly 100 languages, thus advancing and empowering people at the local level.  Delegates also expressed appreciation for the Department’s work in highlighting journalists and press freedom, condemning attacks against the media as constituting assaults on fundamental freedoms and human rights, he said.

Several speakers touched on the misuse of communications technology to spread “fake news”, he said, adding that one delegate noted the Department’s critical role of counter-balancing misinformation in such a landscape while acting as a direct link between the United Nations and people around the world.  Highlighting the Department’s campaigns on climate change and other issues, he said they help to underscore the urgency of major global agenda items.  He went on to emphasize that whereas delegates expressed support for the strengthening of the Department’s social media efforts, they also urged it to continue its efforts in traditional media such as radio and print.  Pointing out that reduced resources hampered the Department’s ability to expand its multilingual products and services, he nevertheless highlighted its creative efforts in that regard.

Statement by Under-Secretary-General

MELISSA FLEMING, Under‑Secretary‑General, Department of Global Communications, said coverage of the recent General Assembly high-level period demonstrated the Department’s strategic advance planning and more integrated multimedia production, which helped to create multilingual content that was distributed in real time across multiple platforms.  The results were striking, she added, citing the more than 2.6 million views of the Assembly’s general debate on the United Nations YouTube channel, and the UNifeed video packages for broadcasters that were aired at least 20,000 times in September.  That was double the amount from a year earlier, she pointed out.  The Department’s social media accounts also reported significant increases, with the Organization’s flagship Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts adding a collective 350,000 followers during that month, in English alone.

She went on to say that the change in the Department’s name reflects a shift in the way the United Nations approaches communications.  Through storytelling and by humanizing the Department’s work, it aims to make the public care about multilateralism, whether on issues such as climate action, upholding human rights, the role of United Nations peacekeeping or implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.  In doing so, the Department must ensure communications are more integrated, she said, emphasizing that its own impact must be measurable.  Noting that the Evaluation and Communications Research Unit already carries out in-depth analysis to measure impact, identify gaps and help in formulating best practices and lessons learned, she said that a new look for the United Nations home page will make the website more coherent and user-friendly, thereby attracting greater user engagement.

She went on to state that the UN News app has also been updated, adding that a new podcast, “UNcomplicated”, aims to demystify the workings of the United Nations.  Highlighting the part that the Organization’s Information Centres play in outreach and impact, she said that their role — as well as the benefits of the network’s integration with resident coordinator offices and the Department’s close collaboration with the United Nations Development Coordination Office — is already becoming apparent.  For example, the Beirut Information Centre partnered with a local bank in an innovative initiative to highlight the issue of extreme poverty, causing the related video to go viral on social media, she added.  Noting that the Committee on Information has underlined the importance of ongoing consultations with Member States, she cited the Dag Hammarskjöld Library’s September partnership with the Russian Federation and Belarus on an exhibition showcasing renowned diplomat Andrei Gromyko’s legacy.  The SDG Media Compact created in 2018 now has more than 70 active participants, she added.

In September, she recalled, the annual Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship welcomed its latest cohort of 15 young journalists from developing countries and those with economies in transition.  The programme has now trained 611 journalists from 168 countries since its inception almost 40 years ago, she noted.  In the private sector, the United Nations paired with the Sanrio company, launching a global version of their campaign featuring the character Hello Kitty to raise awareness about the 2030 Goals.  Describing students, educators and researchers as another critical conduit, she pointed out that the United Nations Academic Impact programme now has more than 1,400 member institutions, leveraging partnerships such as the Millennium Campus Network.  Moreover, the Secretary‑General’s Envoy on Youth deployed a series of digital initiatives in 2019 to engage and empower young people around climate action.  The Department helped design a United Nations‑75 logo and the tagline “Shaping Our Future Together”, she said.  “Reaching people — where they are, in the languages they speak and on platforms they can access — allows the Department of Global Communications to serve as a bridge between words and actions.”  At a time when misinformation and hatred are disseminated to sow bigotry, promote discrimination and undermine civil discourse, United Nations communications serve as a source of reliable, fact-based information, she added.

Interactive Dialogue

The representative of Sudan, citing the Under-Secretary-General’s statistics reflecting a significant qualitative increase in the Department’s efforts, asked whether such projections are enough when compared to the world’s population.  He also asked how the Department addresses peacebuilding and sustaining peace, specifically in the Middle East and Africa and especially with local communities.  He went on to ask how the Under-Secretary-General views the United Nations strategy and role in counteracting the negative consequences of communications technology.  He also asked about opportunities to communicate information rapidly around the world, emphasizing the importance of United Nations goodwill ambassadors in that regard.

The representative of Argentina said the change in the Department’s name and its role should be considered within a framework of dialogue with other actors.  He highlighted the Department’s work involving personal dialogue with mission officials, and its exchanging of best practices to give the Organization’s work a higher profile.  He went on to say there is growing demand for Spanish content on the United Nations website, pointing out, however, that only 32 per cent of that content is available in that language.

The representative of Morocco called attention to the Organization’s critical financial situation, cautioning that it poses challenges to the Department’s mandate.  Given the importance of multilingualism and the large number of events requiring coverage, he asked what specific measures would help in dealing with the financial situation — in particular, options for Member States to support the Department.

The representative of Iraq emphasized the importance of multilingualism in reaching the largest number of people possible and informing them about United Nations activities.  Applauding the role of United Nations Information Centres, he called for engaging with young people in local languages.  He went on to note the media’s importance in influencing public opinion during post-conflict reconstruction, highlighting their role in the context of Iraq’s battle against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) as well as the suffering of internally displaced persons and refugees.

Ms. FLEMING, Under-Secretary-General, responded to Sudan’s delegate by emphasizing the importance of strategic communications in peacebuilding and in promoting stability on the ground.  Concerning the use of goodwill ambassadors, she said they travel around the world — including Sudan — conveying messages of peace, noting that the Department does make use of influencers.

She responded to Argentina’s representative by assuring him that the dialogue begun with Member States under her predecessor will continue.  Moreover, the suggested “Friends of the Department” programme is under development, she said, stressing that the Department does not wish to be depicted as a New York-centric entity.  An advantage of the reforms is that other United Nations system agencies will be working together more closely to communicate on the ground, including in Spanish-speaking countries, she said, adding that the Department is working to incorporate further Spanish content by drawing it from the field.

In response to Morocco’s delegate, she highlighted the “Friends of the Department” programme to involve Member States, saying that some countries have expertise and links to private-sector partnerships or technological solutions, and the Department looks forward to working with them.

To Iraq’s representative, she highlighted the importance of being audience‑focused in communications, emphasizing that if people do not receive information through digital media, they must be reached through traditional media.  The Department uses a mix of channels in this regard, she noted, observing, “In many ways we are a media organization.”  The raw materials that the Department produces allow broadcasters to put them on their own platforms and news channels, she explained.  United Nations Information Centres also contribute in relation to a number of the issues raised, including multilingualism, she said.  On engaging with young people, she said the Office of the Envoy on Youth is doing a good job globally, while underlining the importance of continuing such efforts through local offices.

General Debate

FEDA ABDELHADY-NASSER, State of Palestine, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, encouraged the Department to continue to promote relevant United Nations milestones, including those relating to sustainable development, climate change, migration and refugees and counter-terrorism.  Urging the Department to cover all summits, international conferences and high-level meetings on an equal basis, she emphasized the importance of multilingualism as one of the core promotors of unity and international understanding.  It is unacceptable that linguistic discrepancies continue to be observed in the press releases on different United Nations meetings, in all Committees and in their titles, she said.  Describing United Nations Information Centres as vital in disseminating information about the Organization’s work and activities, she expressed concern over the continuing disparity characterizing the use of the six official United Nations languages in the Department’s materials.  She also noted the importance of modern communications technologies while emphasizing that the use of legacy media must continue because they remain the predominant means of communication in some developing countries.  She went on to caution against inappropriate use of public information and called for an end to the use of information and communication technologies in contravention of international law or to the detriment of any State.

MOHAMMAD KURNIADI KOBA (Indonesia), speaking on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), encouraged the Department to continue making greater efforts to raise global awareness of United Nations peacekeeping and peacebuilding.  As such, he welcomed promotional campaigns showcasing individual troop-contributing countries, encouraging the relevant United Nations departments to continue working together to disseminate developments in reforming the United Nations peace and security architecture through a comprehensive communications strategy.  Expressing concern over the trend of spreading hoaxes, “fake news” and misinformation, ASEAN calls upon the Department to continue its role as the Organization’s responsible messenger, he said.  Noting that the regional bloc attaches great importance to multilingualism, he urged the Department to work with United Nations Information Centres in using local languages.  ASEAN supports the Department’s efforts to engage young people, including by creating communications strategies using youth-friendly tools, and encourages it to better engage youth in regions including South-East Asia.  He went on to welcome the Department’s efforts to forge partnerships with various stakeholders, encouraging it to expand its regional and subregional partnerships, including with the ASEAN Secretariat.  The commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations in 2020 will provide avenues for raising global awareness of achievements and challenges, he said, expressing hope that such opportunities will be effectively capitalized.

JOSÉ LUIS FIALHO ROCHA (Cabo Verde), speaking on behalf of the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries, said language is a vehicle for mutual understanding, solidarity and cooperation.  Although Portuguese is not an official language of the United Nations, the Community supports the Department’s efforts to disseminate information about the Organization’s activities in that language, he said, pointing out that UN News Portuguese reaches the third largest of the Organization’s audiences.  Recalling that it was the first language unit to become a full multimedia operation in 2013, he expressed appreciation for its work as a leading source of materials on United Nations actions to help people affected by Cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Mozambique.  He went on to highlight the role of United Nations Information Centres, especially the one in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and expressed support for the full implementation of the centre in Luanda, Angola.

SÉBASTIEN BRABANT, European Union delegation, said that today’s wide range of communications tools — from traditional to social media and other forms of outreach — call for ever-greater creativity as well as the capacity for institutions to listen and react.  He described the upcoming seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations as a unique opportunity to show the world that multilateralism — with the Organization at its core — is the only way to address global challenges.  Noting that the European Union works in 24 official languages, he applauded the Department’s commitment to multilingualism and its efforts to raise awareness of climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals among young people.  It is also vital to join forces with civil society, he said, welcoming the Department’s various initiatives to strengthen partnerships.  He went on to emphasize that the implementation of reforms intended to make the United Nations “fit for purpose” should remain a communications priority.  The European Union supports implementation of the recommendations of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, he said, adding that the bloc is ready to help the Department address hate speech, an area of growing concern.

ITT THIRARATH (Thailand), associating himself with ASEAN, said effective and strategic communication is instrumental to ensuring the credibility of the United Nations and reaffirming the commitment of its Member States to multilateralism.  Innovation and enhanced coordination must be the impetus for ongoing reforms in the Department, he said, emphasizing that multilingualism must remain a cornerstone of its work to ensure that no one is left behind.  He cautioned, however, that speedy dissemination of information must not come at the expense of accuracy and quality.  Emphasizing that it is the general public that ultimately brings the Organization’s aspirations to fruition, he said that in preparing activities to mark its seventy-fifth anniversary, the United Nations should capitalize on the broad array of modern communications technologies to underscore the value of multilateralism and enhance global support.

MARTÍN GARCÍA MORITÁN (Argentina), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, said the Department must maximize the possibilities provided by new tools to expand its dialogue with Member States, civil society and other actors.  The digital divide between developing and developed countries must be considered and strategies must be shaped to take growing audience segmentation into account.  Concerning multilingualism, he said the Department must move towards a culture of translation, considering specific features of each language at all stages of the communications process.  Pointing out that Spanish is the language that has grown most in terms of web traffic, he said only 32 per cent of the United Nations website is available in that language, and called upon the Department to allocate existing resources in responding to the growing demand from Spanish speakers.  Highlighting the work of Latin America’s United Nations Information Centres — particularly the one in Buenos Aires — he called for the retention of human and material resources already allocated to them.  He went on to underline the value of press releases in providing transparency and institutional memory, while expressing concern that they are only available in two of the six official languages.  As such, he called for redoubled efforts to make audio-visual archives available in all six languages.

MARWAN A. T. ABUSREWEL (Libya), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, urged the Department to use media to spread the principles of peace and security and to provide correct information in all languages.  The colossal development in the field of information and communications technology widens gaps between countries, he noted, emphasizing the importance of reducing that imbalance and of fighting the spread of hatred and extremism.  The Department bears responsibility for raising awareness of United Nations activities, he said, stressing that the development of human and technical resources is vital to enhancing information and communications technology in developing countries.

ABDALLAH Y. AL-MOUALLIMI (Saudi Arabia) said mass media play an important role in spreading a culture of dialogue, peace and justice, as well as in combating hatred, violence and terrorism.  Saudi Arabia is anxious to promote tolerance and counter extremist ideologies through mass media, he said, adding that his country’s Government has established a number of centres to spread information and raise awareness to that end.  He called upon the Department to ensure the accuracy of information and to highlight the threat that militias pose to the international community.

[1] A dispute exists between the Governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas).

For information media. Not an official record.