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A US Diplomat Blasts UN Working Methods and Costs


Joseph M. Torsella, a US ambassador
From left, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon; Maged Abdelaziz, the UN's special adviser on Africa; Joseph M. Torsella, US representative for management and reform to the UN; and Michel Monthe, Cameroon's ambassador and chairman of the UN budget committee in 2011. RICK BAJORNAS

Not quite two years into his term as the United States representative for UN management and reform, an angry Ambassador Joseph M. Torsella has had enough. In some recent speeches, Torsella, a former head of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (and obviously not a diplomat by training) has turned to exasperation and sarcasm to take on, among other things, alcoholic drinks at UN budget committee meetings and Secretariat staff members who find ways to fiddle their way into business-class flights.

On March 4, smack on the opening day of a “resumed session” of the UN’s Fifth Committee, charged with overseeing the organization’s administration and budget and which didn’t get around to finishing its work in December, Torsella went on the attack.

Annoyed that the committee, known by its UN acronym ACABQ, dragged out the incomplete last session through various ploys, Torsella pledged that the US would do its part to see that the work got done this time, and he set a deadline: Good Friday, which falls on March 29 this year, two days before Easter.

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“In order to do so, however, we are convinced that the Committee must stop a number of practices that have become commonplace and which have contributed to the inability, in recent sessions, of this Committee to conduct its important work in a timely and appropriate fashion,” he said. One step would be holding meetings outside normal working hours, he added.

“If, however, negotiators do not arrive on time for meetings scheduled on nights and weekends, or simply refuse to meet on a specific item in order to run down the clock, we must conclude that they do not share a commitment to negotiating in good faith, and we will respond accordingly,” he said. “It will be difficult, we know, to tear ourselves away from the North Lawn Building [part of the UN campus in New York] at three in the morning, but we will manage somehow.” Then he turned to refreshments.

“As for the conduct of negotiations, Mr. Chairman, we make the modest proposal that the negotiating rooms should in future be an inebriation-free zone,” he said. “While my government is truly grateful for the strategic opportunities presented by some recent past practices, let’s save the champagne for toasting the successful end of the session, and do some credit to the Fifth Committee’s reputation in the process.” The leisurely pace of the committee has long been legendary.

Torsella, referring to the runaway budgets of the Secretariat, the center of the UN’s international civil service, suggested that maybe people who give away perks – right up to the secretary-general‘s office – should learn some lessons from the US government. He noted from the UN’s own documents that the organization overspent its staff travel budget in 2010-2011 by eight times the allotment.

“Three quarters of a billion dollars spent on travel over two years warrants close attention, period,” he said, adding that by the secretary-general’s own reporting the UN granted 529 exceptions from July 2010 to June 2012 for its staff and representatives to travel in business or first class instead of economy, nearly 60 percent more exceptions than in the previous two years.

Torsella said that in contrast to a US rule that limits business class to officials making journeys of more than 14 hours, the UN sets the time at nine hours. Even then, he said, UN officials on shorter flights schedule stopovers long enough to bump up the trip time to the nine-hour mark.

“UN employees, unless there are extenuating circumstances, do not need to fly business class to Vienna or Brindisi, nor do the family members who accompany them on home leave trips,” he said, before criticizing daily subsistence allowances and other practices he called “egregious and wasteful distortions.”

That was just opening day.

Will the frontal assault on UN budget methods and practices have any effect? The Fifth Committee, comprised of diplomats from UN member countries, has heard much of this before. (Its chairman this year is Carlos G. Ruiz Massieu of Mexico.) Torsella, an economist and also a former deputy mayor for policy and planning in Philadelphia, seems more than willing to try again.

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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