The UN’s High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda (FACTI Panel) in its interim report identified several problems that afflict global tax governance, and its final report called for a stronger role for the UN in international taxation. Recommendation 14B calls for “building up on existing structures, create an inclusive intergovernmental body on tax matters.” It is therefore important to strengthen the UN’s key institution that shapes international tax standards – the UN Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters, popularly known as the UN Tax Committee (UNTC).
Over time the Committee has seen a gradual improvement in institutionalisation but there is much work to be done. This brief provides practical recommendations on how the Committee can be reformed to be made more effective, especially for the interests of developing countries. This is especially important as the existing Membership expires on 30 June 2021 and a new set of Members have to be nominated by 15 March.
Issues Relating to Committee Members
The first and most important aspect of the UNTC’s functioning is the selection of Members, especially those from developing countries. Having passive Members who do not or cannot perform their duties effectively means that their engagement is reduced to simply approving Committee documents on various issues without substantively contributing to them. This is an unfortunate outcome because even though the Members are individuals serving in their expert capacity, they are nevertheless nominated by countries and the reality is that they to an extent reflect national experiences. Further, the UNTC is meant to be a Committee-driven body and the Members must have as much control as possible and should be able to drive the Committee’s work. For this, members must be selected who are capable, committed and supported.
The Members must have the capacity to perform their duties. For this domain knowledge is essential; candidates must have expertise in international tax matters such as exchange of information or transfer pricing. Practical experience in tax treaties should also be a necessary qualification. This will ensure that at minimum they have the capacity to substantively contribute to the Committee’s work.
The Members must also have a track record which proves their commitment to the issue. This is especially important in the case of Members hailing from developing countries.
Members of the UNTC are tax officials working with their governments but are nominated in their expert and individual capacity, hence their work is not counted as “official” in the eyes of their governments. Working for the UNTC is seen as a personal responsibility and something that eats into their official duties. Several times this trade-off means that they are unable to devote adequate time to their obligations as UNTC Members.
The way out of this is to ensure that the Committee Members have support from their governments in their work as UNTC Members and the time spent in this is important work is given due recognition and support by their governments.
It would be good if the domestic tax administrations can provide additional resources and staff to their Members. This will enable them to provide better inputs and manage their Committee work along with their official responsibilities.
Thus, it is recommended that Member States, especially those from developing countries, take these criteria into account when making nominations, so that they are putting forth the best candidates possible. They must also assess whether their respective tax administrations will be able to provide them with the requisite support so that they are able to do their best. The UN can issue guidelines encouraging countries to follow this approach.
Sometimes Committee Members are re-appointed for the next term. All the aforementioned points are equally applicable when it comes to such reappointments. At present however the process is not transparent. Given the importance of being on the Committee, some criteria and procedures should be developed in this regard. Only those Members should be reappointed who have demonstrated their contributions to the Committee’s functioning. A feedback mechanism can be devised which also takes into account the opinion of Observers, civil society and the UNTC Secretariat itself. The UN can share this assessment with countries when requesting them to nominate or re-nominate candidates.
New members should be given an introduction to the committee and how it works. They have no time to learn the ‘rules of the game’ and as a result cannot function with full efficiency. Often times they join to find that many things have been already pre-decided, such as the agenda and composition of sub-committees. To prevent this and to ensure that they are informed of how things work, it is recommended that outgoing members do some handholding for them and share their experiences. This is especially important for Members from developing countries.
Issues Relating to Committee functioning
The agenda should be decided in a manner which has more substantive involvement by the Members. It is recommended that the inputs of UN Member States should be solicited in preparing the UNTC agenda.
Number of Meetings
One of the compromise outcomes of the 2015 Addis Ababa conference on Financing for Development was to increase the number of Committee meetings from two per year instead of just one. However this is not at all enough for the work to get done. As a result decisions on many pending issues tend to get delayed and their resolution is dragged out. Hence, the number of Committee meetings need to be increased, with the flexibility to have additional Sessions if the work so requires.
Staffing of the Secretariat
The composition of the Secretariat is very important as it works full-time and continuously on the Committee’s work, unlike the Members who also have official responsibilities. So far, the Secretariat staff, especially for the core work of the Committee, comprises largely former OECD officials or officials from developed countries. The reality of this means it is easier for standards originally developed at the OECD and proposed by developed country Committee Members to find their way into the UN Committee. To balance this, the Secretariat staff should have much larger representation from developing countries. There is no dearth of talent.
Another measure in this regard is to lower the emphasis given to knowledge of multiple UN languages when hiring candidates. It should be enough for eligible candidates to know only one language. Many nationals of the developing world do not have the luxury of learning multiple UN languages, which those in the developed world do. The hiring policy should be therefore rational and flexible in this regard with a focus on subject knowledge to prevent over-representation of nationals of former colonial powers.
These are some concrete recommendations for improving the structure of the UNTC so it is better able to discharge its responsibilities. The reforms required are not major but nevertheless have the potential to greatly improve the Committee’s functioning, which in turn means more balanced and efficient international tax standards for a world in dire need of funds to combat COVID-19 and finance the recovery.
An earlier version of this article was published by the South Centre.