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Progress Report on the Working Group on Executive Committee Working Methods

Executive Committee Meetings

Progress Report on the Working Group on Executive Committee Working Methods

27 March 1995


At its inter-sessional meeting on 16 January 1995, the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters (SCAF) reviewed conference room paper EC/1995/SC.2/CRP.2, entitled Note on Executive Committee Working Methods.

The meeting decided to establish a working group, to be presided over by the Chairman of SCAF in close consultation with the Executive Committee Chairman. The following delegations registered their interest in participating in the group:

Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Islamic Republic of Iran, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Russian Federation, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States of America and the European Commission.

The Working Group on Executive Committee Working Methods held its first meeting on 22 March 1995 under the chairmanship of H. E. Ambassador J. Esper Larsen of Denmark. It structured its discussions around the issues set out in conference room paper EC/1995/SC.2/CRP.2, as follows:

(i) Structure and cycle of meetings

(ii) Agenda and duration of annual sessions

(iii) Adoption of decisions and conclusions

(iv) Documentation

(v) Participation of observers

The present conference room paper has been produced by the Secretariat at the request of the Working Group in order to provide the Sub-Committee with a brief progress report. It does not seek to open up debate in areas where the Group has not yet formulated recommendations. It is expected that the Working Group will finalize its work in the coming months. Its report and recommendations, which will take due account of the parallel and in some ways related consultations on UNHCR's budget structure, will be presented to the SCAF in October and, through it, to the forty-sixth session of the Executive Committee.


There was consensus in the Working Group that the aim of a reform of the structure and cycle of Executive Committee meetings was to improve governance and to render the process of formulating and adopting decisions and conclusions more efficient and transparent.

Discussions revolved around two of the options put forward to the January SCAF in EC/1995/SC.2/CRP.2. Option A proposed an annual cycle of meetings consisting of one annual session plus several regular sessions throughout the year. Option B, for its part, proposed that inter-sessional meetings of a subsidiary body be maintained but that a unified Standing Committee be created in the place of the existing Sub-Committees. This Standing Committee would be able to accommodate on its agenda items relating to international protection and/or programme, administrative and financial matters and would be well situated to consider policy issues that cut across the mandates of the existing Sub-Committees. It also suggested that a certain level of decision-making authority could be delegated to this Standing Committee and that it could prepare other decisions and conclusions for adoption by the plenary.

In discussing these options, a number of delegations indicated that their remarks were preliminary, pending additional views from capitals.

Although several delegations participating in the Working Group expressed a preference for Option A, there was a clear tendency towards a consensus on Option B, providing that the following factors can be taken into account:

  • It was seen as important that the unified Standing Committee foreseen under Option B give sufficient priority and visibility to international protection. In this respect there was support for the idea of devoting one meeting of the Standing Committee to protection issues and their programme implications.
  • In order to ensure that Option B provides for better management of decisions and conclusions, it was also stressed that there needs to be sufficient delegation of decision-making authority from the plenary to the Standing Committee. It was agreed that further discussion would be required to define the scope and limitations of this delegation. One area where some delegation of decision power could be necessary and relevant, it was suggested, would be in making adjustments to budgetary targets. It was decided that the Secretariat would prepare an analysis of the decisions and conclusions of recent sessions of the Executive Committee to assist the Working Group in determining which of them could have been delegated to the proposed Standing Committee.


There was agreement that the current agenda of the annual Executive Committee plenary is not conducive to focused debate and effective decision-making.

The discussions of the Working Group revolved around the formulation of an agenda which would introduce a number of specific and focused items on the one hand and, on the other, link the work of the plenary more closely to that of its subsidiary body. Also considered was the length of the annual session.

There was broad support for the proposal to introduce an annual theme onto the plenary agenda. The majority of delegations were of the view that this would ensure greater focus than the current general debate, which should be discontinued.

It was emphasized, however, that the discontinuation of the general debate should not hinder Governments from bringing pressing refugee concerns in their own countries to the attention of the Executive Committee. There was thus seen to be a need to accommodate such statements on a flexible basis, within the agenda item most appropriate. Special consideration would be given to Ministers or other government officials of similar rank, who would, upon request, be accorded the opportunity to make a statement on their concerns at an early stage of the meeting.

There was also some discussion of whether international protection should appear as a separate topic on the agenda of the plenary. It was suggested by one delegation, with support from a number of others, that there is a need to ensure that the timing of the debate on protection allows the authors of the draft conclusions to reflect the debate. It was difficult to see how this could be done if international protection was a plenary item. It was therefore proposed that the last Standing Committee meeting before the annual session could specifically focus on protection. This would avoid the problem of negotiating draft conclusions within too compressed a time frame.

There was a good measure of agreement that the agenda of the plenary session could be along the following lines:

(i) Opening of the session

(ii) Election of Officers

(iii) Adoption of agenda/organizational matters

(iv) Debate on annual theme

(v) Reports of the Standing Committee on international protection and programme, administrative and financial matters

(vi) Consideration and adoption of programme budgets

(vii) Matters for consideration by the inter-sessional meeting of the Standing Committee

(viii) Any other business

(ix) Adoption of report

While three delegations expressed a preference for lengthening the annual session of the Executive Committee by making use of the time currently allocated to the pre-sessional Sub-Committees (which are not foreseen in the new cycle of meetings), the majority were of the view that the annual session should be limited to one week. It was stressed that the extent to which this will be possible will depend, in part, on the effectiveness with which decisions and conclusions are prepared in the course of the year. It was also recommended that time limits on statements be more effectively applied.


Pending a decision on any changes to the structure and cycle of Executive Committee meetings, it was decided by SCAF in January 1995 that the Sub-Committees should, with immediate effect, play a more systematic role in preparing decisions and conclusions on matters considered at inter-sessional meetings for subsequent adoption by the Executive Committee at its plenary session.

In discussing the structure and cycle of Executive Committee meetings (see above) the Working Group stressed the importance of spreading the process of decisions and conclusions throughout the year and of defining the role of the Standing Committee in this respect. It was agreed that the Working Group would revert to this subject on the basis of additional documentation to be prepared by the Secretariat.

There was broad agreement that decisions and conclusions to be adopted by the annual plenary session should, in principle, be prepared in advance by the Standing Committee, with an active role to be played in this process by the Rapporteur. This would require documentation and drafts of decisions and conclusions to be received sufficiently in advance of the Standing Committee meeting for consultation to take place with capitals.

Given adequate advance preparation of decisions and conclusions, there was agreement that the Friends of the Rapporteur drafting mechanism would no longer be required. There would, however, continue to be a need for a flexible consultative arrangement to put the finishing touches to a number of decisions and conclusions. This could, however, be done on an ad hoc basis, assuming that there would be a clearly defined focal point among delegations and/or within the Secretariat on each of the texts concerned.


It is recalled that the January SCAF adopted suggestions 6, 7 and 8 of EC/1995/SC.2/CRP.2, namely:

Suggestion 6: That a clear distinction be introduced between information papers and those requiring substantive discussion and endorsement by the Executive Committee. In the latter case, that each document should conclude with a proposed decision/conclusion for adoption by the Committee.

Suggestion 7: Wherever possible, that documents should be limited to six pages (single space), including the text of the accompanying decision. Country programmes could be excepted from this.

Suggestion 8: That where policy documents exceed the page limit they should contain a one-page executive summary which facilitates the work of delegations.

In introducing this sub-item of the agenda, the Secretary of the Executive Committee presented the Working Group with the results of additional analysis undertaken by UNHCR of the documentation prepared for the forty-fifth session of the Executive Committee. This revealed the following:

  • that the great majority of documents exceeded six pages;
  • that many documents were issued in languages other than English and French either after the Executive Committee or have not yet been issued at all;
  • that country chapters comprise some 60 per cent of current documentation; and
  • that the translation, editing, reproduction and distribution of documentation is the most expensive aspect of the running of an Executive Committee annual session and cost some $ 1.2 million in 1993, of which $ 383,000 were charged to UNHCR voluntary funds.

On the basis of this analysis and of further reflection in UNHCR concerning the feasibility of including country chapters within the new six-page limit, the Secretary made the following two proposals to the Working Group:

  • That, contrary to the Secretariat's prior proposal, the six-page limit also be applied to country chapters. A small number of chapters which deal with more than one country or refugee population may continue to need a longer treatment and such exceptions would be handled on a pragmatic basis. Together with a number of other measures to streamline the regional overviews which form the first part of each regional grouping of country chapters and to eliminate overlap with the general overview document, this measure would lead to a reduction of some 500 pages.
  • That consideration be given to limiting translation of documentation relating to country programmes as is done in UNICEF. While all policy documents would continue to be produced in the official languages of the Executive Committee (Arabic, Chinese, English, French and Spanish), country chapters could be produced in their totality in the working languages (English and French) only and be made available upon selective request in the other official languages.

It is estimated that these two measures would reduce the cost of producing Executive Committee documentation by some 50 per cent.

The Working Group welcomed these suggestions and it was agreed that the 4 April meeting of SCAF be asked to take decisions in this respect so as to facilitate preparations and reduce costs in relation to the forty-sixth session of the Executive Committee in October 1995. While subject to endorsement by the Executive Committee, these decisions would, in practical terms, take immediate effect.


The Working Group noted that the implication of the revised agenda and time frame that it was discussing were not yet fully known. It was therefore felt that it would be premature to consider extending speaking rights to additional participants at this stage of discussion. The keen interest of a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in obtaining enhanced participation in the Executive Committee plenary was nevertheless noted as an important issue which might be considered further once other aspects of the reform of Executive Committee working methods had been fully clarified.

Proposed decisions

It is proposed that the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters, subject to subsequent endorsement by the Executive Committee at its forty-sixth session, take the following decisions in relation to Executive Committee documentation:

That the six-page limit on the length of Executive Committee documentation will also be applied to country chapters;

That all country chapters will henceforth be made available only in the Working Languages of the Executive Committee and that individual country chapters will be made available in other official languages upon request by any member delegation.