By Sonia Jagtiani and Alex Maresca
On the 16th of May 2014, the ad hoc working group (AHWG) of the revitalization of the General Assembly (GA) met for the fourth thematic meeting of the 68th session. The subject of the meeting was on strengthening the Institutional Memory of the Office of the President of the General Assembly (OPGA). This article summarizes the key points made by three UN Secretariat officials, Member States and regional groups during this session.
The permanent representative of Slovakia to the UN and Co-Chair of the AHWG, Ambassador František Ružička, informed the attendees that three officials from the UN Secretariat had been invited to the session in order to brief the group on the work of the President and the OPGA, the human and financial resources of the OPGA, and the outreach activities of the Department of Public Information (DPI). He welcomed Noel Sinclair, Deputy Chef de Cabinet of the Office of the President; Ion Botnaru, Director of the General Assembly and Economic Affairs Division of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management; and Deborah Seward, Director of the Strategic Communications Division of the DPI, to the meeting.
The permanent representative of Thailand and Co-Chair of the AHWG, Ambassador Norachit Sinhaseni, noted that the responsibilities of the President of the GA and the Office of the President have expanded considerably since 1999, the last session at which the Office’s budget was increased. He stated that while the GA must strengthen the institutional memory of the OPGA it was “equally important” for the GA to adequately support the office. Ambassador Sinhaseni felt that it was unfair to burden the President’s native country with the cost of supporting the OPGA when the Office represented the entire General Assembly. He claimed that the Trust Fund of the Office was essential for its long term sustainability.
Ambassador Sinhaseni, additionally, observed that the AHWG could discuss the ongoing calls for a review of the OPGA’s budget. He also mentioned the possibility of developing a compendium of best practices to help preserve the institutional memory of the OPGA.
Noel Sinclair, Deputy Chef de Cabinet of the OPGA
Noel Sinclair noted that although the Charter describes the responsibilities of the GA, the role of the PGA lacks a specific definition. Instead, resolutions clarify the mandate of the PGA.
Sinclair further explained that the implementation of existing mandates takes up an increasing amount of the Office’s time and resources.
Sinclair stated that the President had hosted three high level events and three thematic debates to help elaborate the Post-2015 development agenda. The President, additionally, held a special meeting with civil society and had briefed the general committee. These kinds of activities could strain the human and financial resources of the OPGA.
Sinclair highlighted the discipline and hard work of the existing staff, which took into account gender balance and regional representation. He asked that the recruitment of future staff be made more predictable; this would require a more predictable budget. Despite an increase in the number of mandates and an increase in the cost of living in NYC, Sinclair observed that the budget of the OPGA has been the same since 1999. This budget, he stated, must be supplemented by voluntary member state contributions. He requested furnished accommodation for the PGA and that the OPGA receive a separate budget for international travel.
Regarding the preservation of institutional memory, Sinclair noted that the PGA briefs his or her successors on lessons learned in accordance with paragraph 32 of resolution 67-297. He stated that the NY retreat between incoming and outgoing Offices has become a summer tradition.
Sinclair claimed that the OPGA’s partnerships with the private sector and civil society illustrate the advantages of a deliberative communications strategy.
Ion Botnaru, Director of GAEAD of the Department for GA and Conference Management
Ion Botnaru requested a resolution for an additional post in the OPGA in his division, which provides protocol services and translators as needed and suggested that Presidents receive transitional office space. He, also, mentioned that the PGA selects a spokesperson from the DPI.
The funding of the OPGA comes from many sources, which are imbedded in different budget lines. For instance, the Office has about 300,000 USD for travel, overtime, and similar expenses. Botnaru noted that according to paragraph 32 of resolution 67-297, the OPGA should have delegated staff to continue institutional memory.
The Department provides smartphones, administrative support for OPGA, and reimbursement for travel. Botnaru noted that the PGA is entitled to first class travel.
Regarding the Trust Fund established in 2010, Botnaru noted that paragraph 28 of resolution 67-297 emphasized the fund’s importance. He stated that contributions were usually earmarked for specific purposes to be used during a specific GA session.
Botnaru raised the issue of the possibility of a compendium of best practices, as mentioned in paragraph 32 of resolution 67-297. He asked for clarification on what such a compendium would entail.
Deborah Seward, Director of the Strategic Communications Division of the DPI
Deborah Seward noted that the DPI tells the “story of the UN” in “as many languages as possible” (not only through the official languages) and also on as many platforms as possible, including social media.
The DPI has been intensifying its partnerships with member states in order to communicate on a wide variety of topics, ranging from the situation in Palestine to transatlantic slavery to climate change. The DPI has had 63 field offices, known as UN Information Centers or UNICs. It works with civil society, the media, NGOs, the creative community and local government. The DPI is proud to be at the center of expanded youth outreach, noting that the Secretary-General (SG) has an envoy on youth.
The DPI webcasts all formal plenaries and thematic debates. It advises the PGA on communications, serves as a liaison with the media, works to maximize coverage of the GA and PGA, and provides support on commemorative days. It also maintains the Hammarskjöld library. When voting and diplomatic records in the Central African Republic (CAR) were destroyed by conflict, the DPI was able to provide CAR with these records. The DPI is also building an online depository of records.
In conclusion, Seward observed that the DPI worked closely with the PGA.
Following these briefings, Ambassador Ruzicka invited the attendees to ask questions or respond to these members of the Secretariat.
Finland noted that it was helping to organize the fourth retreat to discuss strengthening the institutional memory of the OPGA. It observed that past discussions during this retreat had been valuable and that attendance was generally high level. The retreat would take place 26-27 June in Greentree, New York. Finland asked that any interested delegates contact them in order to participate, and thanked the officials for their assistance in organizing the retreat.
The floor was then opened to general statements from the member states and regional groups.
The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)
Algeria spoke on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement. The NAM attributed great importance to strengthening the OPGA and included increasing the resources of the Office as a potential option. The NAM observed that the role and activities of the PGA have evolved over the years to include implementing resolutions, participating in working groups and consultations, and taking steps to make the Assembly’s work more visible on the world stage. It further noted that the work of the GA is no longer limited to the main session, instead continuing throughout the year.
The NAM emphasized that the current system creates a risk of regional inequality in the Office of the President because the home country of the President must be able to support the Office. Noting the Office’s reliance on
voluntary contributions, the NAM asked that the Secretariat clarify the status of the Trust Fund. It asked the Secretary General to report on the President’s budget including any financial or other questions.
The NAM called for the implementation of resolutions regarding the assignment of spokespeople. It observed that the status chart on the implementation of resolutions notes that there is uncertainty in the budget of the OPGA. The NAM underscored the need for costs on a “permanent basis.”
The NAM highlighted the importance of successful annual transitions between the incoming and outgoing Offices and requested that the creation of a compendium of best practices be considered to preserve institutional memory. It also encouraged the GA to make it possible for all Presidents of the Assembly to perform under the same conditions.
European Union (EU)
The EU thanked the DPI for the smart phone education application and the training program for journalists in addition to its press releases and usual activities.
The EU recognized the increased workload of the OPGA, and was willing to consider ways to improve the efficiency of the Office within existing resources. The PGA should brief the GA in order to embody “accountability” and “transparency.”
The EU mentioned its support for resolution 67-297, which mandated the briefing of the incoming OPGA by the outgoing Office. It welcomed the briefing by Ambassador Sinclair, and commended the Secretariat for creating the GA revitalization website, a valuable multi-lingual site, within existing resources.
The full statement by the European Union can be found here.
East Asian States
Myanmar spoke on behalf of the East Asian States group. Myanmar noted that although the GA was the chief deliberative, policymaking organ of the UN, much needed to be done to reclaim this role. It observed that the role and responsibilities of the PGA had evolved; not only did it have more agenda items, but it also had to work throughout the year rather than only during the main session. However, it stated that the resources for the PGA have remained the same since 1999.
Myanmar valued the current Trust Fund. However, it felt that the OPGA needed to be independent of the Trust Fund and all individual countries, and it was concerned that relying on contributions compromised the credibility and impartiality of the PGA. Myanmar looked forward to the SG’s proposals on the budget of the OPGA. It asked for the necessary political will on this issue.
Myanmar was pleased with the election of the PGA taking place at least three months in advance.
The Russian Federation
The Russian Federation emphasized that although many claimed that the responsibilities of the Office had increased over time, the expenses unrelated to staff had remained the same. It argued that the issue was actually the efficiency of the use of current resources. It stated that there was only one administrative head according to the charter: the Secretary-General.
United States of America
The United States
The US advocated for the rationalization of the GA’s agenda, which would entail setting deadlines for objectives. To this end, the AHWG should finish on time. Second, it encouraged reducing the number of agenda items. Finally, it supported rationalizing the GA meeting schedule to make it possible for broader participation.
The US supported consultations between the SC and GA, as well as an exchange of views between executive heads and meetings between incoming and outgoing offices. It also mentioned support for archiving office records. However, this was to be done within the current structure of the Office.
Republic of Indonesia
Indonesia aligned itself with the statements made by Myanmar on behalf of the East Asian states and with the NAM. Indonesia urged that there be equitable geographic representation in the staffing of the OPGA, and called for greater representation from “floating” countries.
Indonesia supported the idea of a report on best practices from the outgoing Office, with the possibility of developing a compendium. It also emphasized that given the importance of the UN, it was necessary for more to be made aware of the UN and GA’s work. The GA Committee of Information, DPI, and OPGA were all essential to this end.
Japan noted that the visit of the President of the GA to Japan enhanced the relationship between Japan and the UN and increased the interest of the Japanese people. It suggested that the AHWG look for ways to provide support to the OPGA but also streamline and rationalize the agenda. It noted that the support of the Secretariat had been essential to ensure a smooth transition between offices, and was in favor of the idea of retaining some staff from the previous office (as suggested by Sinclair). Japan also welcomed Finland’s upcoming retreat to enhance coordination between incoming and outgoing offices.
Islamic Republic of Pakistan
Pakistan was affiliated with the NAM. It argued that the role of the OPGA as “conveners and bridge builders” required resources.
Observing that each session is linked to the previous and upcoming sessions, Pakistan emphasized the importance of preserving institutional memory. Pakistan stated that briefings between incoming and outgoing Offices were crucial to this end and ought to be more institutionalized.
Pakistan also raised the issue of proper record-keeping and archiving for the strengthening of the OPGA. It felt that the website was a useful tool. However, it noted that SC documents were finalized, translated, and posted more quickly than those of the GA, and suggested that more resources might be necessary for this purpose.
Pakistan argued that there was no need to rationalize or streamline the agenda because the primary issue was that the budget needed to be increased. Regarding institutional memory, it asked whether there was any provision for overlap between incoming and outgoing offices by having some staff for the incoming office in place before the next session. It further asked whether or not this could be done.
Pakistan suggested that the UN consider providing for an official residence for the PGA.
Islamic Republic of Iran
Iran emphasized that it was important to strengthen the OPGA because the GA is the most democratic body of the UN. Under its current budgetary constraints, Iran argued, the OPGA could not fulfill its responsibilities effectively.
Iran supported the NAM, the East Asian States, and others who called for increased financial support of the OPGA.
Director of the GAEAD from GCACM
Following these statements by the regional groups and member states, Mr. Botnaru responded to the NAM’s and Pakistan’s remarks.
At the request of the NAM, Mr. Botnaru provided details on the total value of contributions made to the Trust Fund of the President of the GA during the 64th through 68th sessions. Notably, these numbers varied significantly over time. For instance, there were no contributions to the fund during the 66th session for which Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar was elected as the PGA versus the $479,343 USD of contributions during the tenure of Mr. Vuk Jeremić of Serbia in the 67th session.
Addressing Pakistan, Mr. Botnaru noted that this was a challenge. It suggested bolstering the resources of incoming offices by having one or two staff members begin three months in advance of the next session. Mr. Botnaru also observed that the GA had been “generous” in giving direct mandates to the OPGA. He suggested that another way to support the Office would be to exercise restraint when assigning new tasks and responsibilities to the OPGA.
In closing, Ambassador Ružička stated that while some ideas enjoyed a high level of consensus, others required further consideration. He observed that it was widely agreed that the work of the OPGA had increased over time and that there was broad support for a compendium of best practices and the opportunity for overlap between incoming and outgoing Offices of the President.
Regarding the issues of staffing and budget, Ambassador Ružička was reminded of the national service in his own country. There was an expectation there, he explained, to always “do more for less”—an expectation of which he seemed to be skeptical. However, he did suggest that the AHWG could continue to look for innovative, non-budgetary ways to make the resources of the Office adequate for its responsibilities, such as improvements in working methods and communications or more caution when assigning the PGA with new mandates.
Ambassador Ružička raised the issue of the importance of preserving the impartiality and independence of the PGA, with regards to the Office’s funding. He further stated that it was particularly important to ensure that the Office’s funding procedures did not eliminate the possibility of small states joining the PGA. This, he felt, would exclude excellent candidates from the Presidency.
Following this meeting, the Co-Chairs of the AHWG would prepare a draft resolution, which they hoped to circulate by the end of the following week. They would then be available for individual or other informal consultations. The Co-Chairs hoped to conclude the debate by 20 June in order to provide sufficient time to adopt the resolution.
The election for the next President of the GA would take place on 11 June at 3 pm. Member states were advised to submit candidatures for members for the bureaus of the main committees and for vice presidents. Ambassador Ružička observed that if the election occurred as scheduled then the Assembly could elect the bureaus in time to work with the PGA, making it possible to start implementing the recommendations of the AHWG.