Are High-Ranking UN Jobs Political Birthright of Big Powers?

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 15 2021 (IPS) – The United Nations has continued to pursue a notoriously longstanding tradition of doling out some of the highest-ranking jobs either to the five big powers, who are permanent members of the Security Council—namely the US, UK, China, France and Russia – or to Western industrialized nations such as Spain, Italy, Canada, Sweden, Germany, plus Japan. As a result, the world’s developing countries, comprising over two-thirds of the 193 UN member states, have been complaining they are not being adequately represented in the higher echelons of the world body –- despite competent candidates with strong professional and academic qualifications vying for these jobs.
The 134-member Group of 77, the largest single coalition of developing countries, complained last year that “persistent imbalances inequitable geographic representation in the UN Secretariat are a major concern.”
And, worse still, some of the big powers lobby the Secretary-General recommending their own nationals to succeed to the same post – and, at times, in consecutive years — implicitly claiming that some of the senior positions in the UN hierarchy are their political birthrights.
With Mark Lowcock’s decision to step down as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) last week, there is a guessing game as to which big power or which Western nation will get that job.
Lowcock is a British national and there are widespread rumours that the UK has already recommended a Briton as his successor.
Since 2007, British nationals have held that post for four consecutive terms: John Holmes, Valerie Amos, Stephen O’Brien and Mark Lowcock.
Is there a fifth Briton in line for that position?
In an “open letter” to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the UN Association of UK has urged him “to champion a transparent, inclusive and merit-based appointment process for the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC)”
Over the past decade, 20% of roles at Under-Secretary-General or above have gone to nationals of the Permanent Members – nearly 10 times higher than is proportional, said the letter signed by over 52 signatories, including former senior UN officials, members of the House of Lords, academics and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
“Ringfencing” roles excludes a large swathe of global talent and creates a perception of partiality, which can undermine the appointee’s authority and compromise the Secretary-General’s independence, the letter added.
Meanwhile, since 1997, the post of USG for Peacekeeping Operations has been monopolized by France with five French nationals succeeding each other: Bernard Miyet, Jean-Marie Guehenno, Alain Le Roy, Herve Ladsous and Jean-Pierre Lacroix.
And since 2007, the US has held the position of Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs: Lyn Pascoe, Jeffrey Feltman and Rosemary DiCarlo.
Not surprisingly, another permanent member of the Security Council, the then Soviet Union clung to that position no less than 13 times since 1952 when the post was designated USG for Political and Security Council Affairs.
Arpad Bogsch, a U.S. national of Hungarian origin, held the post of director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva for an all-time record: 24 years (1973-1997).
Still, the United States, the largest single donor, continues to unreservedly hold the unique monopoly of nominating its own national as the head of the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, since its inception in 1947.
The seven U.S. nationals who have uninterruptedly headed that agency include Maurice Pate, Henry Labouisse, James Grant, Carol Bellamy, Ann Veneman, Anthony Lake and Henrietta Fore.
No other agency at the United Nations has had a stranglehold on such a senior position in the history of the organization.
The independence of the Secretary-General is a longstanding myth perpetuated mostly outside the United Nations. As an international civil servant, he is expected to shed his political loyalties when he takes office, and more importantly, never seek or receive instructions from any governments.
But virtually every single Secretary-General—nine at last count– has played second fiddle to the world’s major powers in violation of Article 100 of the UN charter.
Over the last few decades, successive Secretaries-General have played ball, particularly with the Big Five – caving in to their demands – in order to avoid a veto, particularly when their re-election comes up before the Security Council.
The current SG Antonio Guterres of Portugal has declared his intention to run for a second term in office, beginning 2022. But he has to placate the big Five or curry favour with them – whichever comes first—in order to avoid a veto.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt never got a second term because he was vetoed by the US—even though 14 of the 15 members of the Security Council voted in his favour.
When he took office in January 1992, Boutros-Ghali noted that 50 percent of the staff assigned to the U.N.’s administration and management were U.S. nationals, although Washington paid only 25 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget.
Thomas G. Weiss, Distinguished Fellow, Global Governance, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told IPS the Secretary-General “gave away the store as part of his campaign in 2016. His re-election effort will follow the same path. The electoral college has five members”
Competence has occasionally been a qualification for the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), but not always. Nationality and the SG’s electoral promises and chits, however, are always the primary consideration, said Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science, Director Emeritus, Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Ramesh Thakur, Emeritus Professor, Senior Research Fellow, Toda Peace Institute,
Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, told IPS the basic problem is the General Assembly (GA) has deferred too many times, for too long, and on too many issues to the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the five permanent members (P-5) of the UNSC.
It is past time for the GA to assert itself, use the power of the purse, and use it universal membership against the self-serving narrow clique of the P-5 dominated UNSC, he pointed out.
“The UN’s unique legitimacy flows from its universal membership, which means the GA, not the UNSC. I would like the GA to adopt a formal censure of the SG for violating the 1992 GA resolution,” he argued.
And then follow it up by mandating the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (or its successor if that has changed since my days) to require the annual report on the distribution of senior posts – Assistant Secretaries-General (ASGs), SG, and all special envoys and representatives at that rank – by the UN’s regional groupings, said Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Senior Vice-Rector at the UN University.
And where someone has dual nationalities, this should be reflected in the report, to stop someone who is both the US and an African country national, for example, from claiming 100% representation of that African country. Make that 50% US and 50% second nationality. And the equivalent for all countries noted Thakur.
“In other words, the primary blame for this continued racist domination lies not with the SG, not with the UNSC, but with the GA and its failure to impose standards and accountability,” he declared.
Joseph Chamie, an independent consulting demographer and a former director of the UN Population Division, told IPS while it is understandable that P5 members may wish to maintain their disproportionate advantages, and in some cases, monopoly with respect to USG and higher UN appointments, the world has changed markedly over the past 75 years and appointments at those high levels need to take those changes fully into account.
Simply in terms of demographics, he argued, the P5 members represent substantially less of the world than in the past. In 1950 the P5 countries represented 36 percent of the world’s population; today they represent 26 percent.
In addition, he said, the educational levels, career experiences and professional dedication of men and women in developing countries have also increased markedly over the past seven decades and in most instances are comparable to those in developed countries.
“It should be obvious to any impartial observer of the repeated breaches of the 1992 General Assembly resolution concerning no national of a Member State should succeed a national of that state in a senior post,” he said.
While it is important to have gender equality at high levels of the UN, it is also important to avoid “ringfencing” roles and posts, which contributes to undermining the credibility, effectiveness and support of the United Nations system, said Chamie.
The Secretary-General’s decisions on future appointments to high level positions in the Organization, he said, would benefit greatly from being transparent, inclusive and merit-based.
Mandeep S. Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, who was one of the signatories to the letter addressed to the British Prime Minister, told IPS a key factor holding the UN back from achieving the aims of the UN Charter is the assertion of narrowly defined geopolitical interests by the big powers.
“If anything, the pandemic has taught us, it’s the need to invest in people centred multilateralism to meet the demands of the 21st century”
He said “it could be a beautiful thing if senior UN appointments reflected the diversity of member states while demonstrating a strong commitment to core UN values.”
The hard-nosed assertion of raw power by the P5 without consistent fidelity to international norms has caused much suffering in the world, declared Tiwana.
(The writer is the author of the newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment — And Don’t Quote me on That” –From the Sublime to the Hilarious. The book is available on amazon: