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US Talk on UN Budget Called Transparent by Some, Maligned by Others

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

UNITED NATIONS, December 11 -- When a U.S. Ambassador emerges from a closed-door meeting to hand out charts to waiting reporters about the UN's budget, it is a glimpse of transparency usually lacking from discussions of the world body's finances? Or is it, as some European delegations say with open bitterness, more American grandstanding in the mold of gone-but-not-forgotten ex-Ambassador John Bolton? On Tuesday Mark D. Wallace of the U.S. mission appeared in the UN's basement with copies of a statement he had read to an informal session the General Assembly's Fifth Committee. These informal session are invariably closed-door, and usually those in attendance emerge tight-lipped, other than whispering into cell phones and smoking in the UN's Viennese Cafe. News of the Fifth Committee's informal leaks out only by drip and by drab, often via staffers who are summoned to answer questions about budgets. Recently, the delegate of Singapore in a public session asked six detailed questions about the UN's no-bid $250 million contract with U.S.-based military contractor Lockheed Martin. The answers, if they are being provided, are all secret. The U.S. is aware of a request that the responses be made public. The odds still seem against it.

            So Amb. Wallace's handing out of his statement, even if he did then insist that his remarks were all "on background," is a breath of fresh air in underground passages wreaking of tobacco. On the other hand, several European delegates shook their heads and said, "this changes nothing" and "he's only doing it for domestic political consumption, to show Americans that they're still fighting the U.N.." Reference was made to previous U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, with whom Wallace has been described as aligned more so that with new Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Recently Amb. Khalilzad praised a fragmented UN ethics system which, based on past comments, Wallace would have criticized as not going far enough. More than one Fifth Committee observer wondered Tuesday if Amb. Khalilzad will stand behind the Wallace-delivered critique, if and when the time comes.

            Tuesday morning's impromptu media availability, consisting of a half-dozen reporters including three from major dailies, has resulted so far in two wire-service stories, AP and Reuters, both hearkening back to previous Ambassador John Bolton's 2005 showdown that threatened to leave the UN without funds.  In his recent tell-all memoir, "Surrender Is Not an Option," Bolton describes contentious interchanges two Decembers ago which

"left the United States in an untenable position: either continue to insist on its position and risk being isolated (a form of hell for career diplomats) or give in to what the EU had negotiated and lose important substantive ground. I was determined to break this cycle... and engage directly with the G-77."

            Two years later, the American rap remains the same. Amb. Wallace's statement riffs,

"As my colleagues from the G77 and China rightly point out in paragraph 30 of the Draft Resolution before us, 'approximately 75 percent of the budget resources are related to salaries and common staff costs... We must be fully and truly informed on the whole budget before we can take an informed decision on the budget as my G77 and Chinese colleagues rightly point out."

            The language about the G77 is similar, but according to a chart handed out by Amb. Wallace, the UN's regular budget has risen from $3.656 billion in 2004-05 to fully $5.2 billion in 2008-09. (Back in October, Wallace put the estimate at $4.7 billlion, though adding "perhaps even in excess of that number." It's now risen $500 million.)

Amb. Wallace in the GA: plays well with others

      Later on Tuesday, senior Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions sources noted that ACABQ's report on what was actually spent during the UN's last budget has not yet been released, and should be consulted before the next budget is considered.

            At Tuesday's noon briefing, Inner City Press asked Spokesperson Marie Okabe for any UN response to Amb. Wallace's budget figures and critiques. The UN Development Program previously called his comparison of spending in Africa to Latin America misleading. Ms. Okabe on the other hand said that there would be no comment until "we are in the clear," presumably meaning, until the budget is passed by the General Assembly. From the transcript:

Inner City Press: In the Fifth Committee today, the US representative called the Secretariat's budget the largest increase in the history of the UN by a dollar basis, estimated that it would come to $5.2 billion when all is counted up, and suggested that maybe it should be considered until the second resumed session of the Fifth Committee.  Does the Secretariat contest those numbers?  Does it want a vote before the end of this year?  How would you characterize it?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don't think I would go beyond what the Secretary-General outlined about the budget in the report.  As I think the Spokesperson, Michele, has mentioned, we are trying to get to you a briefing on these issues as soon as the coast is clear.

   As Wallace said on Tuesday, that could be next spring. So when will the coast be clear? Until it is, impromptu press conferences like Wallace's on Tuesday provide the only window into the UN's finances. 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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Other, earlier Inner City Press are listed here, and some are available in the ProQuest service, and now on Lexis-Nexis.

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

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