U.N. Salary-Setters Meet in New York, Amid U.S. Complaints of Excessive Pay

By Patrick Goodenough | July 11, 2012 | 5:10am EDT

Joseph Torsella, deputy ambassador for U.N. management and reform. (Photo: U.S. Mission to the U.N.)

(CNSNews.com) – A year after the body that sets United Nations pay scales came under fire for approving an effective three percent salary increase to thousands of U.N. staffers, it is meeting again in New York for a session that may reveal how successful the Obama administration has been in urging belt-tightening at the world body.

The International Civil Service Commission (ICSC), a body of 15 independent experts appointed by the U.N. General Assembly for four-year terms, is holding a low-profile, twice-yearly meeting from July 9-20.

In posts on his Twitter account, Joseph Torsella, U.S. deputy ambassador for U.N. management and reform, called the ICSC “the most important U.N. body you’ve never heard of.” He noted that it sets salaries and benefits for all U.N. staff and pointed out that personnel costs account for 75 percent of the budgets of most U.N. agencies.

Last summer, the ICSC awarded a cost of living or “post adjustment” increase, which the U.S. said amounted to a three percent salary raise for some 4,800 staffers based in New York.

The hike came just four months after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced he had given instructions for the U.N.’s 2012-13 operating budget to be reduced by three percent, noting that “even the wealthiest nations are tightening their belts and cutting budgets.”

Responding to the decision, Torsella wrote to ICSC chairman Kingston Rhodes, objecting “strongly” to the increase and urging the commission to reverse it.

“Such a raise is inappropriate at this time of global fiscal austerity, when Member State governments everywhere are implementing drastic austerity measures such as layoffs, service reductions, revenue increases, and reductions in pay and benefits for civil servants,” he wrote.

“While we have the highest regard for the many dedicated professionals in the U.N. system, in these difficult times we must – at a minimum – forgo salary increases. Failure to do so could well lead to more draconian approaches to budget-balancing in the future.”

Torsella pointed out that the U.S. federal civil service is currently subject to a pay freeze.

U.S. taxpayers account for 22 percent of the U.N.’s operating budget and 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget, along with billions of additional dollars in “voluntary” contributions to various U.N. agencies. The total U.S. contribution in fiscal year 2010 was $7.69 billion.

Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation that would change the way the U.N. is funded, allowing the U.S. and other member states to fund only those activities and agencies they deem to be well-run and in the national interest.

The Obama administration, which strongly opposes the GOP measure, has made engagement at the U.N. a top foreign policy priority. Officials regularly give speeches and issue statements touting how its approach has led to improvements and reforms.

In a fact sheet last January, the U.S. mission to the U.N. said the administration has “[i]ntroducing the concept of administrative pay freezes in the U.N. system by tasking the International Civil Service Commission with finding ways to reflect the freezes on pay for U.S. federal employees, including the statutory pay freeze in effect through next year, within the U.N. salary system for professional staff system-wide.”

In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, also in January, Torsella said too little effort had been made at the U.N. to manage personnel costs.

“The results have been predictable: in the past decade, for example, the number of regular budget positions has increased modestly while the average total compensation per employee has increased dramatically.”

While U.N. staffers deserved to be properly compensated, he said, “with average U.N. professional pay now at nearly 130 percent of average U.S. federal civil-service pay in Washington – the system is becoming seriously distorted.”

“So we’re calling for a comprehensive study comparing U.N. salaries and benefits to U.S. civil-service scales. We’re pressing for a pay freeze for U.N. employees to fix the anachronisms in the International Civil Service System [sic].”

According to an ICSC publication, it was set up in 1974 to regulate the conditions of service of more than 80,000 U.N. staff members at over 650 locations.

It sets salaries “by comparing the net salaries of United Nations staff with the after-tax salaries of comparable staff employed by selected employers in the locality.”

The ICSC also takes into account the views of member states, organizations and staff.

“The Commission is composed of 15 members appointed by the General Assembly in their personal capacity,” it says. “Members are selected from among individuals with substantial experience of executive responsibility in public administration or related functions, due regard being paid to considerations of geographical distribution.”

The current chairman, Rhodes, is from Sierra Leone, and the other 14 members come from the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Japan, China, Bangladesh, Mexico, Jamaica, Ghana, Algeria and Morocco.

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