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Germany Gets What’s Fair: Some Top UN Jobs


Achim Steiner, a German-Brazilian, ran the United Nations Environment Program from 2009 to 2016. He was recently named to head the UN Development Program. Here, he rides an electric bike at the UN Environment Program base in Nairobi.

BERLIN — It is a widely held view in political circles here that Germany has not been adequately represented in the United Nations, apart from its relatively frequent elected membership to the Security Council, which Germany has held five times and which last year announced its candidacy for a sixth term for 2019-2020.

To be more precise: the criticism in Germany concerning fair representation refers to leading positions in UN funds, programs, specialized agencies and the Secretariat. There is some truth to the view: Germany has held the leadership position in the UN Environment Program, or UNEP, only twice: Klaus Topfer, from 1998 to 2007, and Achim Steiner, from 2009 to 2016. It has held no top position in a UN specialized agency.

As to the latter, at the UN in New York, only four Germans have led Secretariat departments as under secretaries-general: Helmut Debatin (Management, 1979-1981); Carl-August Fleischhauer (Office of Legal Affairs, 1983-1994); Karl-Theodor Paschke (Office of Internal Oversight Services, 1994-1999); and Angela Kane (Management and Office for Disarmament, respectively, 2008-2015). All four Germans acted in managerial functions and not in politically influential positions.

So there was quite some relief in Berlin when UN Secretary-General António Guterres named Achim Steiner as the new administrator of the UN Development Program, to succeed Helen Clark of New Zealand in June. Steiner, who has German and Brazilian nationality, is considered a good choice in UN circles because he achieved remarkable successes as head of the UN Environment Program, from 2006 to 2016, strengthening, above all, the financial basis of the program.

In Germany, the sense of satisfaction in political arenas was pronounced after Steiner’s appointment as well as the naming of Ursula Mueller of Germany as assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

Nevertheless, Germany has not been consistently successful in recent years in placing candidates in top UN jobs:

  • In 2011, Angela Kane, having served the UN in many functions for more than 30 years, applied as an incumbent under secretary-general for management for the post of director-general of the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG), but without political support from Berlin. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ignored her brilliant qualities as a candidate and appointed instead a former Kazakh prime minister, Kassymschomart Tokajew, who had no UN experience but was obviously an appointment to please the permanent Security Council members Russia and China.
  • In 2015, Steiner, the UN Environment Program head, ran for the post of UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Once more, Ban decided against the German candidate and appointed an Italian, Filippo Grandi.
  • The same thing happened in 2015 to the candidacy of a longstanding UN top official, Franz Baumann, a German who was running for deputy high commissioner for human rights. But Ban picked Flavia Pansieri of Italy instead, whose reputation was clouded amid revelations related to allegations of sex abuse by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. The job is now held by an Australian, Kate Gilmore.
  • Angela Kane became a candidate again in 2016, after she had been urged by Ban in March 2015 to resign from her post as head of the Office of Disarmament Affairs after only three years to make space for Ban’s Korean colleague in the Secretariat, Kim Won-soo. Kane was then presented as the official German candidate for the post of the executive director of the World Food Program in addition to another official German candidate, Martin Kobler, a well-proven mediator in many UN missions and now special envoy of the UN support mission in Libya (Unsmil). Both candidacies were unsuccessful because of strong pressure from Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the UN, to give the job to a fellow American, David Beasley. Guterres assigned the post to Beasley in March 2017. Again, the interests of a big power prevailed over the excellent candidacies of two German UN insiders, with the US keeping the post traditionally under its control.
  • Also in 2016, Jochen Flasbarth, the German candidate to succeed Steiner as head of the UN Environment Program and a well-respected international negotiator, lost out to Erik Solheim of Norway.

This series of candidacies unable to obtain these posts has been particularly disappointing for Germany, as it still is markedly underrepresented in high-level positions in the UN. At the uppermost level, Germany is represented only by Kobler (in rank equivalent to an under secretary-general, or USG); Mueller (assistant secretary-general, or ASG); and now Steiner, with the rank of under secretary-general.

To sum up: If one takes Germany’s role as the fourth-largest payer to the regular budget of the UN into account (contributing 6.39 percent, after the US with 22 percent, Japan with 9.68 percent and China with 7.92 percent), the persistent lack of adequate representation of Germany in leading UN positions cannot be considered politically fair.

Other member countries contributing less financially are far-better represented, according to the current list of senior officials issued in April 2017 by the UN Secretariat:

France, fifth-largest payer (4.86 percent), has five UN officials in under-secretary-general level positions and three in assistant-secretary-general level positions.

Britain, sixth-largest payer (4.46 percent), has six UN officials in under-secretary-general level positions and nine in assistant-secretary-general level positions.

Japan (9.68 percent) and China (7.92 percent) are significantly underrepresented: China has one official on each level and Japan has two under secretaries-general and one assistant secretary-general.

• Russia, the eighth-largest payer (3.088 percent), has also only one official on each level, comparable to China.

Notwithstanding the differences in quantity, the five permament members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US) make effective use of their political weight to gain important top positions in the UN Secretariat: an American is leading the Department of Political Affairs; Britain heads the Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs; France has the Department of Peacekeeping Operations; Russia, the director-general of the UN Office in Vienna, functioning also as the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime; and China provides the under secretary-general for Economic and Social Affairs.

It is not surprising that Angela Kane criticized the unsatisfactory situation for Germany in a public hearing of the Subcommittee on United Nations Affairs of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag in June 2015, saying, “With regard to UN top positions, Germany is miserably represented.”

Kane noted at the hearing that she thought the main reason for the low numbers was the reserved attitude of German politicians toward the UN, saying, “Other states use a rather robust and forceful approach in UN personnel policy.”

The lessons to be learned from the lack of strong support from Germany are evident: German politicians should understand the importance of having excellent experts and negotiators in the UN, back their candidates for top jobs robustly and accompany that effort with financial commitments, as this has proven to be helpful in competition for these UN jobs.

On the other hand, the UN secretary-general and the General Assembly should learn from the examples of Kane and Steiner that it is worthwhile to choose the best woman or man for a top position and not to follow the questionable habit of giving a certain UN post traditionally to a certain nation.

This article was updated. 

This is an opinion essay.

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

Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (

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Germany Gets What’s Fair: Some Top UN Jobs
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A Edward Elmendorf
A Edward Elmendorf
6 years ago

The emphasis on choosing the best person for a UN position in the final paragraph of Helmut Volger’s article on hiring of German nationals, with comparisons of recruitment of other nationals, contradicts the remainder of the article. Overall, the article gives the impression not only that countries fight to be “represented” at higher levels in the UN Secretariat, but that this is a good and normal practice. Yet, the notion of country “representation” in the secretariats of international organizations flies in the face of international civil service requirements. What about appointments on merits, and the efforts of Mark Malloch Brown and others to introduce open competition and applications for senior positions? What about the requirements of the Charter? In Article 100, the UN Charter requires that “The Secretary-General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or any authority external to the organization.” The Charter continues in Article 101 that the “paramount consideration in the employment of the staff … shall be the necessity of securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity” while only calling for ‘due regard” to recruitment “on as wide a geographical basis as possible.” Volger’s proposals, and the practices and strenuous efforts of many government to promote the recruitment of specific nationals for specific positions, undermines the UN’s independence and its long-term strength.

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