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At UN, Budget May Cut Iraq and Conference Funding, Corruption Issues Raised, a Snapshot

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

UNITED NATIONS, December 21, 11:30 a.m. -- On the last day to adopt the UN budget, negotiations continued in the smoky basement of the world body's headquarters, with proposals to cut the Procurement Task Force and a new UN building in Iraq opposed by proposals to reduce staffing levels, de-fund a particular conference and call for a vote on a one-time fix for UN pensioners in Ecuador. As of late Friday morning, negotiations continued. A snapshot of the elements in-play is provided in a negotiation document obtained by Inner City Press and placed online here.

    The "Provisional Package" document, reflecting proposed cost-cuts as of the night of December 18, shows the Fifth (budget) Committee cutting $180 million from the Secretary-General's Special Political Missions. That is the amount Ban Ki-moon has proposed spending to build a new headquarters in Baghdad, to expand UN presence in Iraq. The Fifth Committee also proposed increasing the "vacancy rate" of UN professional staff to 6.3%, and of general service staff to 3.3%, for a savings of $35 million. All told, compared to a the Secretary-General's proposed budget of $4.5 billion, the proposed cuts of the UN's Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions ($33 million) and of the Fifth Committee ($319 million) would reduce the budget to $4.15 billion.

At UN, budget fight swirls

            But are these reductions enough for the United States? Friday's New York Times reports, apparently sourced nearly entirely to the U.S. and Procurement Task Force, that Singapore is winning in its battle to shut the PTF after six months. The Times opines that the conflict around the PTF "represents the continuing suspicion developing countries have about international intervention in their affairs," which connotes, throughout 2007, the controversy around the U.S.'s allegations of wrongdoing in the UN Development Program's operations in North Korea. The Times ascribes the current PTF conflict to the Task Force's case against Singaporean procurement official Andrew Toh.

            Ironically, while the Times' coverage appears to side with the U.S. and PTF against Mr. Toh and Singapore, the Times fairly clearly sided with UNDP, including running the name of an until-then anonymous whistleblower. This may show even-handedness: the Times' reporting is pro-U.S. on the PTF, while siding with UNDP over the U.S.'s allegations about North Korea. (That's more even-handed than the PTF, which is apparently uninterested in the recent $250 million no-bid contract to U.S.-based Lockheed Martin.)

   But the allegations of lack of controls in UNDP's programs in North Korea were upheld by the UN's Board of Auditors, and continue to be investigated by a UNDP-named panel. Meanwhile, unmentioned by the Times, Mr. Toh has recently prevailed in his case before the UN's Joint Appeals Board, which has reputedly recommended that the UN pay him damages. (Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon can accept or reject the recommendation.)

            The Times says funding for the PTF is "not a budget matter so much as a political one." But it interacts with the budget negotiations. The U.S. is calling for a vote, rather than the usual consensus, on a proposal to modify the pensions of UN retirees in Ecuador, given changes in exchange rates. The U.S. has sought to, diplomats say, line-item veto funding of a follow-up anti-racism conference which it calls anti-Israel. Meanwhile, the Fifth Committee has proposed cutting $15 million from the Office of Central Support Services, the unit previously headed by Mr. Toh. A show-down is looming, watch this space.

* * *

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