LONDON — Should the world’s top humanitarian official be chosen through a meritocratic selection process open to candidates from any country, or should the choice be restricted to a single nationality and nomination by that government?
The answer is obvious — but may be the opposite of what is about to happen again during the imminent appointment of a new head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha). British-government nominees have filled the post since 2007, in one example of the stranglehold that the five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) have on certain top Secretariat posts. It is therefore worth recounting some history of the appointments of the seniormost British official at the UN and how the humanitarian agency came to be the UK’s “slot,” as revealed in memoirs.
The imposition of nationals of each permanent-five country to serve next to the secretary-general goes back to the first appointments in 1946. The results, according to Brian Urquhart, the most distinguished British official in the history of the UN, whose death the institution mourned only months ago, were from the beginning “not uniformly impressive.” Urquhart was not one of these governmental appointees. He rose through the ranks of the UN to become the trusted senior political adviser to several secretaries-general. In his autobiography, he wrote, “I was proud to have got to the top in the Secretariat under my own steam, instead of being a political appointee as most of my senior colleagues had been.”
Urquhart recalled that when he was about to retire, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lobbied then-Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar a number of times to extract a promise that Urquhart’s successor would be British. First Marrack Goulding, and then Kieran Prendergast, were appointed from ambassadorial careers to be successive British under secretaries-general. Goulding was positive about the opportunity; Prendergast, however, was initially unenthusiastic about being sent to the UN — “Nice town, shame about the job” — but felt he had to agree to be put forward when it was suggested that he should not expect another ambassadorship as an alternative.
When Kofi Annan was compelled by then-US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and others to save his secretary-generalship amid US attacks by sacrificing some of his closest staff, his chef de cabinet, Iqbal Riza, was replaced by Mark Malloch Brown. There were now three British nationals at the under secretary-general level — Malloch Brown, Prendergast and the head of Safety and Security, David Veness. Prendergast was told he had to go.
Prendergast, to his great credit, had upset both the Bush and Blair governments by his criticism, as he put it, of the “terrible mistakes” the coalition was making in Iraq. He recalls that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw “had said in terms of my succession that it would be better to have a nice Scandinavian in my post because he would be less trouble than a Brit.” But, in fact, when Ban Ki-moon succeeded Annan and it was all change at the top of the Secretariat, the British government was desperately eager to get back the post of under secretary-general for political affairs, which for once had been filled briefly by an African, Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria.
The UK ambassador to France, John Holmes, who was due to leave that post, received a call from Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose diplomatic adviser he had been. Holmes recalls Blair as a little embarrassed as he told him there were no obvious diplomatic jobs available for him, but Britain was hoping to get back the political affairs post at the UN. Holmes went to New York City to see Ban.
While seeking support for his election, Ban had been told by US Ambassador John Bolton that the US wanted one of the top political posts, either political affairs or peacekeeping, instead of its traditional management post. Bush himself specified peacekeeping, but that remained (as it does to this day) firmly in the hands of France, which had been given it by Annan in a deal brokered by the US when France lifted its repeated veto on Annan’s election as successor to Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Although the UK told Ban that it considered the Department of Political Affairs “to be its slot,” Ban chose an American to run it. (Which remains the case, in what is now called the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.)
Already unenthusiastic about being sent to the UN, Holmes was again surprised when he saw Ban, now to be told that political affairs was not available, but he was offered instead the post of heading the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — Ocha. Holmes explained that he knew nothing of humanitarian affairs, nor was he sure that he had the right nationality for the job. “We were seen by many as military interveners, particularly after Iraq — not the best recommendation, even if the UK was a generous aid contributor,” he said. Ban was unimpressed by these arguments — and Holmes became the first of (to date) four British heads of Ocha.
When Holmes’s successor, Valerie Amos, a Labour politician who had served for five months as International Development Secretary and later High Commissioner to Australia, was leaving Ocha in 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron saw an opportunity to solve a problem that had arisen in his government. He had sacked from his Cabinet Andrew Lansley, once Cameron’s boss at the Conservative Research Department but a controversial Health Secretary; Lansley had said he would not seek re-election as a member of parliament, but that he hoped to find an international role. After the post of the British member of the European Commission had gone elsewhere, Cameron told Ban that he wanted Lansley to succeed Amos. Lansley’s evident lack of humanitarian qualifications spurred public protests, including a call by more than 80 nongovernmental organizations for the UN to seek someone with expertise in disaster relief, through “a robust, open and transparent process.”
Ban then called for nominations from the entire UN membership, but when Cameron submitted a list of three members of parliament of the governing Conservative party, Ban appointed another British national: Stephen O’Brien, who had been a junior minister in the Department for International Development, or DFID. O’Brien was in his second year at Ocha when António Guterres became secretary-general; Guterres decided not to reappoint O’Brien and chose an alternative Briton, Mark Lowcock, who was the top civil servant at DFID.
It is hard to argue from this history that successive British governments have always been motivated to put forward the best qualified of their nationals for the role in question, if they had a domestic personnel problem to be solved. Notably, only one of the six appointees since Urquhart has been a woman. All have come directly from careers in national government, as has been the case with the nominees of the other four permanent members. Whatever the qualities of politicians and government servants, they are hardly the only skills and experience required for senior professional posts in the world’s leading multilateral organization.
The practice of repeated appointments of nominees from the same government to specific posts has been widely criticized — not least by the UN General Assembly, which has resolved often 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.”
The UN ought to recruit the best person for a senior appointment irrespective of nationality, through an open process based on merit and qualifications that respects the independence and authority of the secretary-general.
The dubious nature of the process does not imply that people appointed in this way have not proved to be principled and effective international civil servants. Moreover, the British government has been less inclined to expect those it has nominated to further its national interests than have some other permanent-five governments. But Guterres has openly advertised for a new head of Ocha, especially welcoming applications from women candidates. This means, hopefully, that he will hear the appeal of major humanitarian groups that he “suspend the custom of allowing an individual Member State to maintain a hold on this position.”
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Ian Martin is a former under secretary-general and special representative of the UN secretary-general to Libya (2011-2012) and Nepal (2005-2006); special envoy to Timor-Leste (2006); and former secretary-general of Amnesty International.