LONDON — One of the most powerful positions in the United Nations is the head of its peacekeeping wing. The post of under secretary-general oversees 100,000 peacekeepers and administers an annual budget of $6.5 billion, nearly double what the UN secretary-general works with. You’d think that basic questions like how the peacekeeping boss is chosen and when the person’s term of office ends would be simple to know. It turns out that it is not, at least under Secretary-General António Guterres, who makes these decisions.
Despite proclamations of progress and initiatives to support transparency and merit-based appointments, the UN Secretariat still asserts that basic information, like the start and end dates of high-level posts or upcoming renewals of such posts, is, to quote a recent letter sent to us by Guterres’s spokesperson “confidential.” Previous secretaries-general, and even the current one on some occasions, have made this information public. There is no justification for keeping a top-level appointee’s term a secret.
“A United Nations leader is expected not just to preach United Nations principles and norms to others, but to live them,” the UN Leadership Framework tells us. A UN chief, it adds, “rewards merit and operates with integrity, transparency and fairness.” In reality, top UN jobs are often given out based on politics and not on merit — a contradiction so obvious it is hiding in plain sight. This does not imply that those who are rewarded high posts are not qualified, but it suggests that the process of appointing the people is murky.
Everyone knows that you must be American to get the job of running the prestigious Political and Peacebuilding Affairs office; that you need to be Chinese to get the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, British to get the humanitarian affairs office and Russian to get the Office of Counter-Terrorism. For peacekeeping, you should be French. The secretary-general ring-fences these roles for the powerful — often for powerful men — even though the General Assembly states that a national of a member state should not succeed a national of that same state.
These monopolies by the permanent members of the Security Council play out in the UN and across the wider multilateral system. Take the election for the president of the World Bank underway: an incredibly complex system that on 13 previous occasions has gone to an American man to run and is about to do so once again. Lofty goals for gender and geographic diversity evaporate on contact with money and politics. And in light of Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, which has been condemned by 141 UN member states, Guterres will be closely watched this June to see if he will reappoint a Russian national, Vladimir Voronkov, to head the counterterrorism office.
The upshot is a deeply uneven distribution of leadership positions and lack of due process that can sometimes lead to questionable results: a UN official appointed to a new post while being under internal investigation, officials accused of abuse, appointees so bad they have entered into folklore like “Potato Jack” Hutson — and perhaps the most notorious vetting oversight: appointing a secretary-general who was later found to be a former Nazi credibly accused of war crimes. The UN’s credibility and effectiveness suffer and the people the UN serves, everyone across the world, pay the cost.
Highly politicized or opaque recruitment practices not only mean that the most efficient candidates can be overlooked but also that the appointee, no matter how qualified, is denied the legitimacy conferred by a robust vetting process. It leaves the UN vulnerable to charges of unfairness and conflicts of interest.
To quote the first woman to rise to the rank of under secretary-general, Dame Margaret Anstee, a Briton, “People — the best possible people, in the right place — are a surer recipe for success than the most elaborate organogram.” Such change is achievable, and civil society can make that difference.
We want to discourage further politicization of top appointments: UN officials should be independent civil servants, not subject to political pressure from member states. That much is enshrined in the UN Charter. However, the current lack of public scrutiny around the UN’s top appointments does not mean the absence of political pressure; it just means that this pressure goes unchecked and hidden, so that the public never knows why or how an appointee got a job. Where countries jockey for the soft-power spoils of top jobs and put the secretary-general in an impossible stance, it is not only justified, but vital that this conduct be called out.
Healthy interrogation of these practices can help senior-level UN leaders to stand up to countries and assert their independence while doing their jobs, defending the UN Charter and adhering to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.