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It’s Opaque: Who Runs the UN and How Did They Get There?


UN Secretary-General António Guterres at a press conference in the headquarters’ Visitors Plaza, in front of the “Knotted Gun” sculpture, April 19, 2022. The essayists say that it’s time for decisions on who gets the top UN jobs be based on merit and not politics, as is often the case. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE  

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.

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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.

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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.

Blue Smoke is applying this approach across the UN’s senior leadership cadre via a website and a newsletter that places senior leadership appointments under the spotlight.

The other two members of the editorial team at Blue Smoke, Fred Carver from Strategy for Humanity and Ben Donaldson from UNA-UK, participated in writing this article.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the process of UN high-level appointments?

Maiara Folly is a founder of Plataforma CIPO, a Rio-based civil society organization.

Enyseh Teimory leads UNA-UK’s policy work. She has a master’s degree in Middle Eastern literature and culture from St. Andrews University, in Scotland.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

It’s Opaque: Who Runs the UN and How Did They Get There?
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Goswami p k maj gen
Goswami p k maj gen
1 month ago

Indeed you have hit the nail on the head. Will transparency come to UN system without urgently required reforms? Till that we have to accept supremacy of P5. It’s unfortunate that veto power, which was to reviewed after few years of establishing UN is still in vogue and they will not let it go since they have tasted the blood.

1 year ago

Great article.. It also creates a conflict of interest, where countries back away from criticism and holding UN to account, as it may jeopardise a lucrative future sinecure.

1 year ago

Who can explain why USG Operational Support is still in place and was not replaced after the election of Gutterez as long established usage commands? The man that has most of the power (and controls money) today following the last reorganization he prepared?

Ellen Tolmie
Ellen Tolmie
1 year ago

THANK YOU for this critically important scrutiny of UN high level appointments. It is long overdue and essential to pushing for a UN that practises the democratic ideals that it trumpets to the world and that, at its best, it genuinely encompasses. Bravo to the Blue Smoke exposé! Keep it up please!

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