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U.S. to U.N. diplomats: stop getting drunk during budget talks

The U.S. ambassador for management and reform at the United Nations, Joseph Torsella, scolded his U.N. colleagues today for excessive drinking during delicate budget negotiations.

The unusual censure reflected lingering American frustration with its counterparts' conduct in budget negotiations in December, which one U.N.-based diplomat compared to a circus.

"There has always been a good and responsible tradition of a bit of alcohol improving a negotiation, but we're not talking about a delegate having a nip at the bar," said the diplomat who recalled one G-77 diplomat fell sick from too much alcohol.

As the United States sought to rally support for a proposal to freeze U.N. staff pay in December, it found that key negotiating partners, particularly delegates from the Group of 77 developing countries, were not showing up for meetings. When they did arrive, they had often been drinking.

"As for the conduct of negotiations, we make the modest proposal that the negotiation rooms should in future be an inebriation-free zone," Torsella said in a meeting of the U.N. membership's budget committee, known as the Fifth Committee. "While my government is truly grateful for the strategic opportunities presented by some recent practices, lets save the champagne for toasting the successful end of the session, and do some credit to the Fifth Committee's reputation in the process."

Throughout the budget negotiations, delegates maintained a stock of booze in a negotiating room, according to the U.N.-based diplomat. The diplomat said that the heavy drinking reflected a wider ethos that was aimed at stymieing changes at the United Nations.

"I don't believe people were saying 'alright our negotiating strategy for next two weeks will be to drink,' but it is rather a function of delegations seeking to avoiding any meaningful change in the negotiations and preserve the status quo."

But other diplomats challenged that account, saying that the main representatives who carried out the detailed negotiations were sober. They said that other diplomats who were required to ride out the negotiations -- but who had little direct involvement in the talks -- were the ones imbibing the most.

The American complaint over drinking reflected a deeper rift between the United States and its Western partners on one hand, and developing countries on the other, over the way the 193-member organization approves its budget.

The U.N. budget is generally approved by consensus -- which allows the U.N.'s wealthiest contributors a veto over budgets. But the Group of 77 (now a group of 132 developing countries), would prefer to vote by majority. In December, the organization broke with tradition and put a single budget measure up for a vote, which it easily won.

In his address to the Fifth Committee, Torsella denounced the move, saying "we believe that consensus, which in the U.N. context is commonly defined as the absence of objection, is the best way to ensure the interests of all parties to a negotiation are met. This assurance has long been and remains fundamental in securing the confidence of major financial contributors such as the United States in the work of the organization." Only decisions adopted "by all stakeholders by consensus can be considered legitimate, and as such we caution our colleagues against the major consequences to the U.N. that would follow from substituting 'majority' for 'consensus.'"

The U.N.'s main budget committee conducts marathon negotiations during the final weeks of the year, culminating in a series of endurance sessions that creep into the Christmas holidays. As the talks in the U.N. budget committee go into the late hours, some delegations have a tradition of uncorking the libations. A Western diplomat singled out African delegations.

The drinking, in some cases, is an integral part of the negotiations -- a social lubricant offered up to soften an adversary's negotiating position or simply a delaying tactic to put off final decision until the final hours, when negotiators are keen to get back home for the holidays and concessions are easier to exact.

"It's all about the last one standing is the winner," said one Security Council diplomat who has participated in many U.N. budget negotiations. "After three weeks together and 20 hours a day, people start to get really comfortable enough. But if you are dumb enough to get so drunk you can't negotiate, then you deserve [to get out played]."

"By the way, it's not just Africans. The Russians do it," the delegate continued. "There's nothing new or surprising about this. Canada used to bring whisky. The French used to bring bottles of wine," said the diplomat.

Another official, however, came to Russia's defense, saying it was true that Moscow's diplomats shared a bottle of vodka with their negotiating partners, but that they did so after the proceedings were concluded.

As the U.N. began a new session of budget negotiations this week, Torsella urged governments to try to get the work done before Good Friday, rather than letting it slip into the Easter Holiday. "We fully expect to conclude before the Good Friday holiday, and believe this goal is easily achievable."

He said the United States was willing to "take all appropriate steps" -- including working outside of normal working hours -- to make sure it happens.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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