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Special Envoys: Viceroys of the UN


Sigrid Kaag
Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands is a UN special envoy for Lebanon, the only female representative in a UN political mission.  UN PHOTO

SYDNEY, Australia — As with most innovations at the United Nations, the genesis of the concept of the special representative, or special envoy, of the secretary-general can be traced back to Dag Hammarskjold, the UN secretary-general. Special envoys were dispatched earlier than the Hammarskjold era; they included Folke Bernadotte, a Swede, and his successor, Ralph Bunche, an American. Hammarskjold, however, refined the special envoy role and used it in a more deliberate, specific manner.

After the Cold War, these SRSGs, as they are called, were sent to the four corners of the world to oversee UN presences. In a highly decentralized system, the role, which requires being head of a UN missions in the field, affords considerable power and responsibility. In effect, each representative becomes the UN’s in-country viceroy. (SRSGs hold portfolios in other areas, such as children and armed conflict, but this essay is focused on country-specific envoys, doubling as heads of mission.)

Yet even viceroys need proper training and background, and the UN’s record on successful envoys has been haphazard at best. Isn’t it time for reform?

The special envoy position is considered one of the most impossible jobs in the world for various reasons. The envoys must endure criticism, as they are regularly pilloried and labeled a puppet of a country’s opposing side in any given situation. They must make critical decisions in crises. And they are confronted by an almost never-ending string of challenges they know they cannot solve for lack of resources and money.

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Some envoys are more suited to the office than others. If you talk with most UN staff members, their frustrations with certain envoys rise to the surface. They talk of unproductive, incompetent and even vindictive behaviors.

Many high-level officials in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, who must work, albeit remotely, with the envoys, also speak about their often-antagonistic relationships with certain mission leaders. Some envoys are said to view senior leaders at headquarters more as sparring partners than as counterparts or even equals.

“The SRSG will see the secretary-general, but only if God is unavailable,” the refrain goes.

Peter Nadin, the author.
Peter Nadin, the author.

One way to improve relationships between the envoys in the field and headquarters would be to institute a more credible and meritocratic process of selecting these specialists, rather than sustaining the current ad hoc and often politically influenced processes of such senior mission leadership appointments.

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The recent recommendations from the high-level independent panel on peace operations has advised, for example, that the secretary-general “ensure that selection and appointment of senior leadership is reinforced through consistent application of a defined, merit-based selection process.”

But what constitutes a defined, merit-based selection process?

One way to establish a robust meritocratic process in the UN in choosing highly qualified people to envoy posts — rather than relying on influence and other pressures from member states — is to identify the competencies that separate the greater candidate from a lesser effective one.

Just because a candidate might be a former government minister or an ambassador does not mean he or she has the UN literacy required to manage a field mission. This underlines the importance of building a midlevel pool of talent, and using such a pool to recruit internally. Plenty of capable future leaders are slaving away in the field and at headquarters that if nurtured would make better leaders than a former politician or a diplomat, say, parachuted in from afar.

A cursory survey of the current cadre of country-specific peace operations’ heads of mission shows that only 33 percent are women; 55 percent have previously served as senior mission leaders; approximately 40 percent are from Western Europe; 61 percent have pursued careers, primarily, in government and diplomacy; 33 percent have pursued careers exclusively at the UN; and around 30 percent of SRSGs have had no UN exposure (that is, worked previously for the UN in some capacity).

A total of 18 SRSGs are working from both the Department of Political Affairs and the Department for Peacekeeping Operations. Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands is the only female representative for the UN in a political mission, working as special coordinator for Lebanon; five of the 10 SRSGs in peacekeeping missions are women.

Training and preparation is another area of potential reform. “On Being a Special Representative of the Secretary General,” produced by the UN Institute for Training and Research for internal use, is an excellent source for envoys on what they are likely to encounter when they deploy to their mission. The guide should be mandatory reading. A highly instructive five-day residential Senior Leadership Program is mandatory for all newly appointed senior field leaders but can be done any time in the first six months of deployment.

To avoid a lack of preparation among envoys, the recent recommendations by the peace operations panel also included establishing “an obligatory professional induction programme for new mission leaders, complemented by a follow-on mentoring programme.”

This is a sound idea. When the pressures of the job and the feelings of isolation threaten to overwhelm an envoy in a remote outpost, a mentor becomes a useful confidant.

The appointment of strong envoys is vital, especially as the UN prepares to select the next secretary-general by the end of 2016. Envoys lead a team of senior managers, who typically include deputies, a police commissioner and a force commander, depending on the setting, all of whom should have excellent qualifications themselves.

Leadership is always important in the drive to reform peace operations, but even the best leaders cannot paper over structural defects or a flawed mandate.

[This article has been updated.]

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Peter Nadin is a researcher, policy analyst and consultant based in Sydney, Australia. His research interests include UN peace operations, armed groups (nonstate and state surrogate), leadership in UN missions and the UN Security Council. He has previously worked as a project associate at the United Nations University in Tokyo.

Nadin is a co-author of “Spoiler Groups and UN Peacekeeping,” published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Routledge in 2015. Nadin has also published more than a dozen UN-related articles for the United Nations University and the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He holds a bachelor of social science in peace and humanitarian studies, a bachelor of arts (honors) and a Ph.D. from the University of Western Sydney. His doctoral thesis was a study of the UN Security Council.

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