Greater Use of Internal Justice System, Equal Access for Non-Staff Personnel Key to Addressing Workplace Grievances, Speakers Tell Fifth Committee
Secretariat Officials Highlight Strong Programme Delivery Outputs
Recognizing and advocating the importance of a rancour-free and non-retaliatory work environment made possible by amicably mediated disputes, delegates at the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) today called for sustained efforts in entrenching the principles of accountability, due process and the rule of law at the United Nations, at the same time strengthening these processes to also accommodate non-staff personnel.
Switzerland’s representative, also speaking for Liechtenstein, said staff and non-staff personnel alike encounter similar challenges, yet the latter have no access to the UN internal justice system, a situation of unjustified inequality. Their delegations support initiatives for equal access to protection and useful means of redress for all UN staff categories. She underlined mediation as a fast, cost-savings and effective tool, stressing that “this is positive both from the point of view of relations between the parties involved, and from a financial point of view”.
The representative of Israel maintained that retaliation against complainants constitutes misconduct and urged for an increased orientation for all categories of staff on efforts to build a strong culture of accountability throughout the Secretariat.
Cuba’s delegate, speaking for the Group of 77 and China, said a decentralized administration of justice system, consistent with the relevant rules of international law, is essential to properly manage the Organization’s human resource. Observing the record level gains of the Management Evaluation Unit and the UN Dispute Tribunal in informally resolving conflicts amongst aggrieved parties in the Organization, he said “the use of this system should be encouraged whenever possible in order to avoid unnecessary litigation, without prejudice to the basic right of staff members to access the formal system”. He expressed hope that the Office of the UN Ombudsman and Mediation Services’ observations will form part of the work of the Anti-Racism Team and the proposed anti-racism office.
The delegates spoke after two Secretariat officials delivered their reports on the Fifth Committee’s administrative of justice system agenda item.
Alayne Frankson-Wallace, Executive Director of the Office of Administration of Justice, presented the Secretary-General’s report on the administration of justice system in 2022. She noted that the system had an impressive outing on its performance showing higher-than-usual programme delivery outputs in certain areas, thereby underscoring the importance of the function in addressing workplace grievances.
Shireen Dodson, United Nations Ombudsman, introduced the Secretary-General’s report on the activities of the Office of the United Nations Ombudsman and Mediation Services, noting that the Office marked a significant milestone in 2022 as it celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Highlighting its achievements, she said the Office’s handling of more than 25,000 workplace disputes over the last 20 years has not only bettered the Organization’s operation but shows employees’ willingness to avail themselves of the informal system. In accordance with resolution 77/260, the Office continued the “pilot” project providing its services to non-staff employees and handled 182 cases in this category of employees in 2022. As non-staff employees are a critical part of the workforce, she proposed the pilot project be regularized within existing resources.
Juliana Gaspar Ruas, Vice-Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) presented that body’s related reports.
Administration of Justice
ALAYNE FRANKSON-WALLACE, Executive Director of the Office of Administration of Justice, presenting the Secretary-General’s report on the administration of justice system in 2022 (document A/78/156), said as previously, the report, while coordinated by her Office, includes input from the Office of Staff Legal Assistance, the Principal Registrar, the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, the Office of Legal Affairs and others. “Overall the system functioned well in 2022. Programme delivery was maintained with outputs exceeding those of prior periods in some areas,” she said. While the Management Evaluation Unit received 368 requests in 2022, closing 328, 90 per cent, by end of the year, 7 per cent of those requests in the Secretariat did not proceed to the Dispute Tribunal at the close of the year, underscoring the importance of the function in addressing workplace grievances. Similarly, the Office of Staff Legal Assistance received 1,202 requests and closed 954 through settlement or otherwise. “The Tribunals maintained focus on operational efficiency, with the aim of reducing processing times and avoiding a backlog,” she said.
Part III of the report elaborates on the General Assembly’s requests and includes information on multilingualism, the accountability of managers, remedies available to non-staff personnel, protection against retaliation, the voluntary supplemental funding mechanism and opportunities to increase the use of informal dispute resolution, including mediation, she said. It also includes information on the CaseLaw Portal, launched in October 2022. She noted that as of 6 November 2023, the portal had 287,116 views. Annex I is the report of the Secretary-General on systemic issues in response to the Secretary-General’s reports on the activities of the Office of the UN Ombudsman and Mediation Services.
Highlighting pertinent issues, she cited the Secretary-General’s request that the General Assembly approve the amendment of article 9 of the Statute of the UN Dispute Tribunal to clarify the scope of the review to be conducted by the Tribunals in disciplinary cases as captured in paragraphs 81-93 and 112(c); the proposed amendments to the rules of procedure of the Dispute Tribunal, and the comments of the legal offices representing the Secretary-General in paragraphs 77-80, and annexes II and III, respectively; and the Secretary General’s invitation, in paragraphs 104-109, for the Assembly to consider whether a recent Appeals Tribunal judgment on anonymization of the names of parties, including those found to have engaged in serious misconduct, reflects its intention regarding transparency in the administration of justice system.
SHIREEN DODSON, United Nations Ombudsman, introduced the Secretary-General’s report “Activities of the Office of the United Nations Ombudsman and Mediation Services” (document A/78/170), and noted the Office marked a significant milestone in 2022 as it celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Over these last two decades, the Office has handled more than 25,000 workplace disputes, contributing to the Organization’s smooth functioning. The Office responded to 1,560 cases in 2022. As of 31 October 2023, it had addressed 1,836 cases, including 110 mediation cases. This trend shows employees’ willingness to use the informal system as intended by the General Assembly, she said. In recent years, the Office’s staff has increased its efforts to promote the Office of the UN Ombudsman and Mediation Services as the preferred first step, the so-called “informal first” approach, in addressing workplace disputes.
The Office’s work has matured and evolved organically over the years and today it has a three-pronged, holistic approach in the delivery of its mandate, she said. This includes confidential and impartial assistance to resolve workplace disputes; identification of the conflict’s root causes and systemic feedback to the Organization for organizational learning; and raising awareness and building conflict competence skills. Based on the cases received over the last 20 years, the Office has noted three consistent categories of issues underlying workplace conflicts: evaluative relationships (respect/treatment, interpersonal differences, communications and team climate and morale); job and career (performance management and feedback, job application/selection and recruitment processes); and compensation and benefits. Highlighted in the annual report, these issues directly impact the mental health and well-being of employees.
“I am delighted to note that the new strategy on mental health and well-being aligns with our systemic observations and provides guidance to the Organization on fostering an inclusive, sustainable work environment that places mental health and well-being at the forefront,” she said. In accordance with resolution 77/260, the Office continued the “pilot” project providing its services to non-staff employees and handled 182 cases in this category of employees in 2022. As non-staff employees are a critical part of the workforce, she proposed the pilot project be regularized within existing resources.
JULIANA GASPAR RUAS, Vice-Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), presented its related report on the administration of justice at the United Nations and the activities of the Office of the UN Ombudsman and Mediation Services (document A/78/580). She noted that while in the 15 years since the new system of administration of justice was established, the level of activity has fluctuated from year to year, it has generally been declining recently. She said a fuller analysis of the trends in caseload is warranted and the ACABQ trusts that the Secretary-General will continue to collect and report on statistics pertaining to the caseload of the different entities, including on existing tools and mechanisms to minimize the risk of unnecessary, vexatious and/or frivolous litigation, and provide enhanced trend analysis and assessment on the functioning of the administration of justice system in his next report.
Further, on account of the centrality of the policy on protection against retaliation for enhanced transparency and accountability in the Organization, the ACABQ trusts that the Secretary-General, in his next report, will provide more detailed information on protection against retaliation, including an analysis of any identifiable trends and challenges and the level of awareness and reliance of staff on the policy. Information on the current voluntary supplemental funding mechanism for the Office of Staff Legal Assistance, including regarding opt-out rates, the amount of revenue generated, services provided and client satisfaction, along with a comprehensive analysis of potential future funding options for the Assembly’s consideration during its seventy-ninth session, is also expected.
On the proposed amendment to the statute of the Dispute Tribunal to clarify the scope of its review in disciplinary cases, the ACABQ is concerned about the potentially significant financial implications presented by the Secretary-General in a situation where the Dispute Tribunal would be conducting de novo trial hearings on disciplinary cases, she said. If these implications arise, they should be presented for the Assembly’s consideration in line with the relevant rules and procedures. Turning to non-staff personnel, she recommended the establishment of the envisaged standing arrangement with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, on a trial basis for an initial period of three years, to support arbitration proceedings involving consultants and individual contractors, with annual reporting by the Secretary-General, presenting detailed data on the number of cases and costs incurred. There is also merit in regularizing, within existing resources, the existing pilot project to offer access to informal dispute resolution services to non-staff personnel.
She emphasized the importance of the “informal first” approach to avoid unnecessary litigation, including through mediation, encouraging the Secretary-General “to undertake further efforts, including through intensified awareness-raising activities and strengthened coordination with relevant stakeholders, aimed at increasing the use of the currently underutilized mediation services as a first step, where feasible, prior to the filing of formal complaints”.
ROBERTO HERNANDEZ DE ALBA FUENTES (Cuba), speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, reiterated that a sustainable, adequately resourced and decentralized administration of justice system, consistent with the relevant rules of international law, the principles of the rule of law and due process, is necessary to effectively manage the Organization’s must valuable assets: its human resource. He noted that the Management Evaluation Unit received 368 requests in 2022, a decrease of 284 compared to 2021. Seventy-one per cent of the requests for management evaluation did not proceed to the Dispute Tribunal, which indicates the function is helping resolve issues for staff members. The Group also acknowledges the drop in the Tribunal’s backlog of cases and encourages the Secretary-General to continue efforts so cases and work-related disputes are concluded within the stipulated time frame.
The Group reiterates the importance of informally resolving conflicts in the Organization, a crucial element of the administration of justice. “The use of this system should be encouraged whenever possible in order to avoid unnecessary litigation, without prejudice to the basic right of staff members to access the formal system,” he said. He noted the Assembly encouraged the Office to provide observations on trends and patterns of racism and racial discrimination and the Organization’s remedial actions. The Group is concerned about inputs received during dialogues on racism, and in cases handled by the Office of the Ombudsman and Mediation Services, that many United Nations staff feel marginalized, not valued and racism undermines their professional achievement and well-being. “We trust that the observations made by the Office will be part of the work of the Anti-Racism Team and the proposed anti-racism office,” he said. The Group will analyse the report of the Internal Justice Council, which incorporates recommendations to improve operational efficiency and transparency of the Organization’s justice system, he said.
GINA ANDREA SCHMIED (Switzerland), also speaking on behalf of Liechtenstein, said the resolution of conflicts involving non-staff personnel remains essential as their contribution to the Organization’s functioning is key. Non-staff personnel often face the same problems as their staff colleagues, yet they do not have access to the internal justice system. This creates a situation of unjustified inequality. The two delegations support initiatives to ensure all categories of UN staff — without distinction — have access to protection and useful means of redress, she said, strongly supporting the regularization of the pilot project within existing resources. Turning to mediation, she said it is an effective and rapid tool to resolve work-related disputes that can avoid lengthy and costly proceedings. “This is positive both from the point of view of relations between the parties involved, and from a financial point of view,” she said, commending the Office’s efforts to expand staff’s awareness of mediation services.
Ms. BRASH (Israel) expressed support for United Nations system-wide efforts to promote protection against retaliation for reporting misconduct, maintaining that retaliation against complainants or staff appearing as witnesses constitutes misconduct. Efforts to build a strong culture of accountability throughout the Secretariat should be enhanced to raise awareness for all categories of staff, she stressed. Integrating mental health considerations into the work of the Office of the UN Ombudsman and Mediation Services reiterates the importance of mental health and well-being in creating a resilient work culture that vales sexual exploitation and abuse prevention and response. Describing the 7 October actions by Hamas against Israeli women as the “most disturbing forms of sexual terrorism”, she said “there are no justifications for sexual abuse and the atrocities committed against the women of Israel should be no exception”. She therefore called on all Member States to remember their obligation to validate the experience of the victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse and — above all — believe them.
HUSSEIN OSSAMA HUSSEIN ABDELRHMAN ROSHDY (Egypt) said the previous delegate has made a farce and laughing stock of the Fifth Committee in two ways. First, she is speaking about the rule of law while her State is committing genocide in Gaza. In addition, this matter is totally irrelevant to the working of today’s meeting today. He urged members to focus on the work at hand and not derail its work by politicizing the Committee. “If not, we risk unravelling this Committee and compromising the budget of this Organization,” he said.
OSAMA MAHMOUD ABDELKHALEK MAHMOUD (Egypt), Chair of the Fifth Committee, urged delegates not to the politicize it. Noting he came from the region, he appealed to colleagues to withhold their opinions as giving opinions will divert the Committee from its work. The Committee is coordinating with officials from the ACABQ and Secretariat to structure a work plan for the coming weeks. He urged delegates to be ready next week to “start early in the morning and work late at night and weekends”. “Don’t make plans”, he said, adding “do not put my patience to a test”. Pointing out the trust delegates hold in each other, he said they have a collective responsibility to ensure the smooth functioning of the Committee. “We are not bringing a miracle…the Committee used to do this every year,” he said, referring to approving a budget by deadline. “It will be a tough ride starting early next week.”