– When Antonio Guterres, the former Prime Minister of Portugal, takes office as the new UN Secretary General on January 1, his top management team is likely to be dominated by nominees from the five big powers, namely the US, Britain, France, China and Russia (P5).
As befits tradition, the current management team of mostly Under-Secretaries-Generals (USGs) will submit their resignations – providing Guterres with a clean state before he takes over.
Asked about the longstanding custom, UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS: “I believe there is a tradition for the most senior officials, like USGs, to turn in resignations.”
But heads of UN agencies, he pointed out, “are approved by the boards of those respective agencies for fixed terms, which do not necessarily end now, so they would continue on for the duration of their terms.”
According to an equally longstanding tradition, the P5 stake their claims to some of the most powerful jobs in the Organization, heading UN Departments overseeing Political Affairs, Peacekeeping, Economic and Social Affairs, Management and Humanitarian Affairs.
“For big powers, these high level posts are considered their political and intellectual birthrights,” said an Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
James Paul, who served for nearly 19 years as executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum tracking the politics of the United Nations, told IPS that from the earliest days of the UN, the P5 have greatly influenced the selection of high-level posts in the Secretariat.
In theory, he said, the Secretary General fills these posts independently, drawing on the best candidates worldwide. The Charter mandates independence of UN staff from government interference.
Ban once told the press, he makes high-level appointments “in a transparent and competitive manner, based on merit, while taking geographical and gender balance into account.” In practice, key appointments are made quite differently.
Paul said the P5 carefully vet these appointments and in certain posts they literally name their own appointees. “Under this system, departments have been virtual fiefdoms, controlled over long periods,” he noted.
For the UN’s first 46 years, through a total of 14 appointees, the Under Secretary General heading the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) was always a citizen of the former Soviet Union (now Russian Federation).
Even former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld “named” a Russian to the post – or to be more accurate, accepted the Russian nominee. The US had its own fief over an equally long period, he added.
Paul said that after the end of the Cold War, Russian clout diminished. The Brits took over the DPA post for 13 years, through two appointees. Now, he pointed out, the United States has taken over the appointment, controlling it for the past eight years, through two appointees. “A US fiefdom is clearly in the making”.
Meanwhile, the Brits have been in charge of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) since 2005, through eleven years and three appointees. “A UK fiefdom is definitely in place.”
Palitha Kohona, a former Chief of the UN Treaty Section, told IPS that an incoming Secretary-General (SG) might want to appoint his/her own team of managers because he/she would prefer to have people who can be trusted in senior positions.
“SGs tend to appoint their closest confidants to senior positions in the inner cabinet. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that a new SG would want to continue with the same team of managers who served under Ban Ki-moon.”
Importantly, said Kohona, promises may have been made to influential countries in exchange for their support in the lead up to the appointment of the SG. These need to be honoured.
“Despite every effort made to ensure a more equitable representation of the Member States of the UN in senior positions, certain posts tend to be given to specific nationalities or to certain regional groups,” said Kohona, a former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations.
For example, he singled out peacekeeping, political affairs, legal and humanitarian affairs. “While past appointees could be described as competent, there is no logical reason for perpetuating such a monopoly in a body that aspires to be truly representative.”
The current practice also enables the countries or groups concerned to influence UN activities to reflect their own interests, despite the requirement to maintain neutrality. While merit alone cannot be the only criterion, the need to be representative, must be, Kohona argued.
“Having emerged from within the Secretariat, Kofi Annan could be said to have been more sensitive to the wishes of the staff than Ban Ki-moon. Both attempted to reform the administration to be more reflective of contemporary needs. Both achieved limited success. Much remains to be done. “
A new SG must consider Secretariat reform to be a priority. There is no doubt that the Secretariat must reflect the needs of the contemporary world, and its attitudes and practices must be upgraded to ensure the more efficient delivery of services. Inevitably, the Secretariat will be asked to deliver more with less, he noted.
The selection of appropriate top managers will be a critical element in implementing the necessary changes, Kohona declared.
Paul told IPS France is seigneur of one of the most visible and long-lasting recent fiefdoms in the Secretariat. A French diplomat has now been chief of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations for nearly twenty years, through four successive appointees and two successive Secretaries General.
He said the Department’s culture has come to be visibly French and many of the appointees at a senior level have been French citizens or those of francophone countries.
“DPKO is a highly-prized position, since peacekeeping is a bigger-ticket operation that all the UN departments put together. France is happy to have such a top post under its control.”
Such fiefdoms, he said, do not mean that the incumbents are always less than competent or that they are automatically highly biased. Some appointees, however, would fit that description. The overall record is mixed, he noted.
“The system as a whole increases unfairness and dishonesty in the appointment system, greatly reinforces the control of the P-5 and tends towards mediocrity in the UN’s highest offices.”
Among the UN diplomatic community, such P5 leverage over top appointments is an open secret and cause for occasional fury, said Paul.
“Even the most effective incumbents serving in these P5-controlled posts symbolize a system of disregard for the Charter, disrespect for the opinions of other nations, and contempt for the very idea of neutrality of the international civil service,” declared Paul.
Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant-Secretary-General (ASG) who once headed the Department of Public Information told IPS for at least the first five SGs, it was indeed a traditional step for all USG’s to submit their resignations to allow for a new team.
They were mostly USGs who were Heads of Departments; others with similar rank were designated for special assignments, leaving after a specific accomplishment or lack of feasible outcome; an honorable example was Gunnar Jarring who made seven attempts to implement resolution 242 on the Middle East.
“Now there are dozens of envoys hanging around for years– -some for decades— on the pretext of pursuing a vague resolution or perplexed action,” said Sanbar, who served under five different Secretaries-Generals.
“It erodes the credibility of both the UN, its member states openly seeking posts, however symbolic.”.
“In the interest of a credible dynamic UN, it will be crucial for the new SG to announce new guidelines on senior appointments, limit their framework and-most important-maintain the position designated by the Charter as Chief Administrative Officer leading a dedicated competent International Civil Service, a unique UN asset,” declared Sanbar.
**Image: United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City.| Author: Patrick Gruban, cropped and downsampled by Pine | Originally posted to Flickr as UN General Assembly | Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.