Global Policy Forum

Big Powers Still Monopolise UN Top Jobs


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
April 4, 2006

The United Nations has constantly been accused of favouring the world's big powers in appointments to some of the most senior jobs in the organisation-- despite a longstanding General Assembly resolution warning against this monopolistic practice.

The crucial post of U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Administration and Management has long been held only by U.S. nationals over the last several decades: Melissa Wells, Richard Thornburg, Joseph Connor, Catherine Bertini, and currently, Chris Burnham, a former U.S. State Department official. All of these were appointments made by successive secretaries-general, the last two by the incumbent Kofi Annan.

Last month, Annan announced two senior appointments -- apparently after a "global search" for potential candidates for two posts that fell vacant -- executive director of the Nairobi-based U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs in New York. Achim Steiner was named to succeed Klaus Toepfer as head of UNEP: a German national succeeding another German. And Nobuaki Tanaka was named to succeed Nobuyasu Abe as under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs. Both are Japanese nationals.

In a resolution adopted in March 1992, the General Assembly, the highest policy-making body at the United Nations, called for "a more effective application of the principle that the recruitment of staff should be on as wide a geographical basis as possible and that, as a general rule, no national of a member state should succeed a national of that state in a senior post, and there should be no monopoly on senior posts by nationals of any state or group of states". Traditionally, the most senior jobs in the Secretariat have been monopolised by the five permanent members of the Security Council, namely, the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China.

Currently, the Under-Secretary-General (USG) for Peacekeeping is from France (Jean-Marie Guehenno); the USG for General Assembly Affairs and Conference Management is from China (Jian Chen); the USG for Management is from the United States (Chris Burnham); and the USG for Safety and Security is from Britain (David Veness). A second Briton, Mark Malloch-Brown, was recently appointed deputy secretary-general, the second-highest-ranking position in the U.N. system, succeeding Louise Frechette of Canada. The Russians, who also once held a politically important USG post in the Secretariat, are now holding onto an equally key post in Geneva: director-general of the U.N. office there, and also doubling as Annan's special representative to the Conference on Disarmament. The current holder of both positions is Sergei Ordzhonikidze of the Russian Federation.

One of the few occasions when Annan broke the monopoly was when he appointed former Nigerian Ambassador Ibrahim Gambari to the post of USG for Political Affairs -- a post long held by one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. "Annan's grandiose plans for management reform and Secretariat restructuring conveniently bypasses the monopoly held by the big powers," a Third World diplomat told IPS. "Reform must not be selective." He said that Annan is not only in violation of a General Assembly resolution but he has also been playing ball with the big powers. "He does a so-called 'global search' for candidates, and ultimately appoints nationals of big powers to key posts in the U.N. system. Are there really a dearth of candidates from developing nations?" he asked.

Addressing a meeting of the 132-member Group of 77 developing nations last month, Ambassador Nirupam Sen of India pointedly criticised the practice of doling out jobs to the favoured few -- from the same countries. "The issue of equitable geographical representation is understandably a concern for developing countries that have a marginal presence in the Secretariat," Sen said. "While we await what has been termed as the 'proactive' approach to recruitment, any new system that compromises on transparency and which does not address the need to ensure a representative composition of the Secretariat will have no possibility of gaining acceptance," he warned.

Sen also called on the Secretariat to "scrupulously follow" another principle laid down by the General Assembly: "That no member state shall have a monopoly of any post in the Secretariat." A case in point, he said, "is the post of Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Management -- a post which has for years been occupied by incumbents from a single member state", namely the United States. Sen said the 191-member General Assembly should also ensure that there is no monopoly on senior posts by nationals of any state or group of states.

In a letter to the U.N. Staff Union last week, Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown admitted "that there has been an historic over-representation of nationals from some parts of Europe and North America in senior management, and (we) feel very strongly that we need to work harder to ensure a genuinely representative geographic and gender distributions at all levels of the organisation." To do so, he said, "We need to ensure that the United Nations attracts and retains the most talented and committed people from all regions to work at an organisation which does in a very real sense carry the hopes and aspirations of the world."

Asked about the charges of inequitable geographical representation in the higher echelons of the organisation, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for Annan, told IPS: "When making senior appointments, regional representation is considered an important factor. However, there is no official 'lock' on any position by any one country." Told about the longstanding monopoly held by U.S. nationals as head of the department of management, Dujarric said: "I won't dispute those facts, but my first quote stands."

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