U.N. Business-Class Travel Is Safe for Now, As Developing Nations Reject U.S.-Backed Spending Curbs

By Patrick Goodenough | April 4, 2012 | 4:26 AM EDT

U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon waves before flying out of N'djamena, Chad on September 8, 2007 (U.N. Photo by Evan Schneider)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration’s attempts – prodded by congressional Republicans – to reform the United Nations hit a brick wall this week when a bloc of developing countries pushed through a resolution blocking the U.N. secretariat from taking a series of steps to improve accountability and the responsible use of funds.

Among the initiatives blocked by Monday night’s vote in New York is one that calls for senior U.N. managers “to use economy class for travel of less than six hours within the same continent” and another that recommends greater use of video conferencing to cut down on travel expenses.

The U.N. secretariat’s annual travel budget is more than $73 million, of which some $54 million is spent on business-class airfares.

The U.N. General Assembly’s fifth committee – which deals with budgetary and administrative affairs – also deferred a proposal, strongly supported by the U.S., that the U.N.’s top oversight body be required to post its internal audits on its Web site for easy accessibility. The Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) originally pledged to make its audits available online by January.

The fifth committee’s month-long session was marked by differences between the U.S. and other mostly European democracies on one hand, and the developing nations’ group known as the “G77 plus China” on the other, over U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s reform agenda.

A document drafted by a “Change Management Team” (CMT) of top officials over a nine-month period last year presented Ban with 61 proposals, designed to improve the way the organization operates in the face of growing unhappiness among the countries that pay most of its bills.

The G77 and China used the fifth committee session to assert the authority of the General Assembly – a body in which the developing bloc wields a two-thirds majority – over the reform efforts.

Although the CMT report was not formally part of the committee’s agenda, the resolution presented on Monday, introduced by Algeria on behalf of the G77 and China, requires Ban to submit for the General Assembly’s “consideration and prior approval” any measure contained in 28 of the 61 proposals in the report.

The U.S. tried to head off the move by offering an amendment, but it was voted down. The committee than passed the G77-drafted resolution by 93 votes to 47.

Joseph Torsella, deputy ambassador for U.N. management and reform, speaks at U.N. headquarters in New York City on May 11, 2011. (Photo: U.S. Mission to the U.N.)

U.S. deputy ambassador for U.N. management and reform Joe Torsella accused the G77 of taking “regrettable action to hobble the secretary-general’s change management initiative.”

He said the resolution was an attempt to delay the implementation of almost half of the recommendations in the CMT report. “It erodes a culture of accountability and weakens the ability of the secretary-general to advance important management reforms.”

Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, responded to questions about the resolution cautiously.

“The secretary-general appreciates the interest of all member states in the recommendations included in that report,” he said. “The secretary-general provides his assurances that he will, as requested, seek consideration and prior approval for the implementation of those recommendations referred to in the resolution.

Spending taxpayers’ dollars ‘wisely’

U.S. taxpayers account for 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget, in addition to billions of dollars in “voluntary contributions” for various agencies. The total U.S. contribution in fiscal year 2010 was $7.69 billion.

By contrast, the 130 members of the G77 together contribute less than nine percent of the regular budget. At the U.N., however, the U.S. vote in the General Assembly and its committees carries the same weight as do those of countries paying as little as 0.001 percent of the budget.

Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation that would change the way the U.N. is funded.

During Monday’s committee session Torsella also criticized the decision to defer the online posting of internal audits of U.N. activities, carried out by the OIOS.

“Citizens everywhere have a right to see whether their tax dollars are being spent wisely,” he told the meeting. “Who among us could tell the journalists or researchers, for example, in our home countries with a straight face that we here in New York in this room have the right to read these documents, but they do not?”

The G77 and China pressed for OIOS reports to be available, on request, to member-states’ governments only.

Earlier during the session the head of the OIOS, Carman Lapointe, called for endorsement of the plan.

Lapointe, a Canadian auditor, told the committee that making the reports available would enhance transparency and accountability in U.N. operations. She noted that audit reports drew attention not just to weaknesses but also to operational strengths, which would have a positive impact on public opinion.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow