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At the UN, Budgets Pass Midnight, on Darfur and Gut Rehab, Tales of 5th and ACABQ

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, November 27 -- "The Security Council members are a bunch of wilting daisies."  This is the sanitized version of an insult delivered at 1 a.m. in the basement of the UN, where the budgetary Fifth Committee met late into Tuesday night amid a fog of tobacco smoke and bonhomie. "This is the center of the universe," one participant told Inner City Press outside the meeting room. "Calling Condi Rice won't effect this -- these are countries' experts, debating the budgets until dawn."

            Welcome to the boiler room of the UN system: the General Assembly's Fifth Committee, which miraculously debates and approves budgets -- by consensus no less -- in the wee hours of the morning. On the night of November 27, the topic was the Capital Master Plan, the proposal to gut renovate the UN Headquarters building. At 1 a.m., Inner City Press asked the CMP's new chief Michael Adlerstein what his jaunty smile meant. "Interpret it," he said. "Were you the Officer in Charge of the Department of Management over Thanksgiving?" Alderstein laughed, then conferred with the 5th Committee's secretary.

            Too many of the 5th Committee's meeting are in secret, for this journalist's tastes. But it has been explained: since 1986, decisions have had to be made by consensus. Absurd as it sounds, this gives each of over 190 countries the veto power which in the Security Council is reserved to five Cold War powers.

            The mystery of most interest to Inner City Press at the moment is the Darfur hybrid force budget, with the $250 million no-bid contract to Lockheed Martin bundled in. The only reason it might be accepted, it seems, is that no one wants to slow the mission. It's like Bush facing down the U.S. Congress on funding for Iraq: who dares starve the soldiers? "The best defense for corruption," said one wag, "is to accuse its accusers of defending genocide." Will the Fifth Committee cut through the fog? Will they demand real answers to the questions asked last week? Will any of it be made public? That will be important. Watch this site.

After 5th passed a budget Downstairs, Council member speaks Upstairs

            We finally report, because apparently no one else did, that in an election on November 16, American Susan M. McLurg was elected chairperson of the UN's Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions.  In the UN's current blue liaison book, Ms. McLurg is listed as a member of the U.S. permanent mission. As chairperson, she will receive a salary from the UN. The other ACABQ members, if not associated with a mission, are said to receive "Daily Sustenance Allowance." All are supposed to be independent, even if in a nation's pay.

            During the recent election in the General Assembly's Fifth Committee of new members of ACABQ, the representative reportedly shouted out that his country's vote was being cast for the Canadian, Jerry Kramer. Others say that the actual ballot was the product of impermissible assistance. The genial GA president's spokesman has told Inner City Press:

"As regards the conduct of member states during voting -- Please note that there is a rule that makes reference to this, it is rule 88 of the Rules of Procedure of the GA which notes that 'after the President has announced the beginning of voting, no representative shall interrupt the voting except on a point of order in connection with the actual conduct of the voting.'  In other words, it is up to the member states themselves to challenge the conduct of the voting in accordance with this rule."

            Said otherwise, the Fifth Committee is master of its own procedures. While many take such mastery as an invitation to slack off, the Fifth Committee works late, that must be acknowledged. Hats off! Of the Fifth's procedures, the following was asked and answered on November 26:

Inner City Press: you said in the Fifth Committee... they're going to continue with this deliberation on the UNAMID budget?

GA Spokesperson:  Thatís correct.

Inner City Press: There were, on Wednesday, or last week, there were a number of requests by Member States in the Fifth Committee --

GA Spokesperson:  That's correct.

Inner City Press: ...for information and response.  I think it's a hundred and some questions, is the way the Department of Peacekeeping Operations counted it... some Member States asked that the responses be public, be in a formal setting... Has a decision been made on that and when will we know that the responses have been given?

GA Spokesperson:  Matthew, you asked that on Wednesday and I did mention to you at that time that, as we have said, with the Assembly, with the various different committees, that as far as the rules and procedures are concerned, basically the Committees are the masters of their own procedures.  So it's up to Member States to decide whether they want to switch from an informal consultation into an open debate.  Now I also mentioned, at that time, that the Fifth Committee is a unique Committee in the sense that -- and these were the words I used -- tends to like to want to take decisions on a consensual basis.  So that's what you would be looking for.  If there's a consensus amongst the members of the Fifth Committee to have an open debate, then I see no reason why not.  But so far, the way the Fifth Committee operates is you have an open discussion, introduction of a particular item, and then the Committee switches into informal consultations on that same topic.  Itís a back and forth with the M ember States and the Secretariat.  Then once all the issues have been satisfied and the members of the Committee have all the information they need, on that particular subject, in this case letís say the UNAMID budget, then they go, with the help of the coordinator for that particular item, and start working on a draft resolution.  And thatís where the coordinatorís role comes in, etc.  And that's why you have continuously more consultations.

Inner City Press: No. I absolutely remember your answer and Iím sorry to --

GA Spokesperson:  No, no...

Inner City Press: The question is when will we know?  It's up to them... to decide if itís going to become formal or informal--

GA Spokesperson:  That's right. 

Inner City Press: Do they give notice before they do that or does an informal session just become formal? This is why, I guess, what I'm asking, is how to cover this.  It also ends up that the questions are public but the answers are --

GA Spokesperson:  I think if they do decide, we would know in time.

           We'll see. Further out, it is said that within the Group of 77 there is consideration of a resolution which would require General Assembly approval of nominations for Under and even Assistant Secretary-General posts. This would be a way for the GA to have more input. But there are some Ambassadors in the G-77 who are themselves hoping to quietly get ASG or even USG posts, and they don't want further scrutiny. But scrutiny is needed and, in surprising lowly quarters, welcomed. Watch this site.

* * *

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

  Because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540