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A UN Regional Commission Aims to Please in Its Hiring Choices

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A regional forum on sustainable development, March 2023, in Bangkok, held by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific. A video clip reveals the organization’s efforts to hire two South Korean males for certain jobs, possibly overriding the UN’s goal for gender parity and reflecting how national interests can prevail in hiring practices. UNESCAP

A short video obtained by PassBlue reveals a United Nations staff member telling a meeting of a regional UN commission about successful efforts to hire two South Korean men for jobs in the entity by seeming to pressure Secretary-General António Guterres to bypass gender-parity preferences.

The video, forwarded to PassBlue by a whistleblower, consists of a 2:56-long clip made in October 2022. The whistleblower, who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, confirmed that the clip shows part of a meeting among staff members of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific, or Escap, and officials from South Korea’s ministry of foreign affairs. The only identified participant is Adnan Aliani, the director of strategy and program management division in the commission. The Bangkok-based organization promotes the sustainable development goals among its 53 member states and nine associate members. The UN has five such regional commissions.

The clip shows a power-point presentation outlining the number of South Korean nationals working for the commission at every level, from director (D1) through the professional ranks (P1-5) up to professional officer (JPO). Aliani talks about how much UN officials worked to get more South Koreans appointed to director positions. The country is a top donor to the commission.

The overall dynamic reveals how making appointments for staff jobs in the UN system can be based on national preferences despite the UN’s public avowals in hiring matters. At the most basic level, such decisions go against the UN Charter: Articles 100 and 101 establish UN “staff” as an international civil servant responsible to no nation and who “shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the Organization.” The UN System Leadership framework also states that one of the eight defining characteristics of UN leadership is that it is “it is inclusive of all personnel and stakeholders, irrespective of . . . nationality.”

The South Korean instance suggests that Guterres’s UN gender parity ambitions can also be manipulated to ensure that a man gets a job despite systemwide rules. A new report published by the independent consulting firm Dalberg for the UN on its gender parity challenges highlights “uneven and inconsistent leadership and accountability for the gender equality agenda at all levels of the organization,” noting that “[entity] Heads, Resident Coordinators, SRSGs, and other senior leaders across the System reported feeling . . . that gender equality is something that ‘may need to go.'”

Here is the relevant clip of the Escap meeting with South Korean officials:

“I must say here that in particular, getting Mr. [redacted for privacy] appointed director of [redacted], the Executive Secretary [Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana of Escap] herself had to use a lot of her own political capital to get the appointment through. . . . in the beginning, when Korea had proposed that appointment, it seemed . . . almost impossible . . . because we have this rule about gender parity. . . . But the Executive Secretary went out of her way, talked to the Secretary-General to make an exception and then got [name redacted] appointed. So similarly, with Mr. [redacted] who is the P5 in [director, redacted] . . . also because of the gender parity issue we had to go out of our way and use our political capital to get him selected and appointed to that post. Both of these — all of these posts — have been at the request of the Government of Korea and I must say that, thus far, all the requests the Government of Korea has made, we have been able to fulfill.”

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The remarks reflect that while major progress has been made on gender parity at top levels of the organization, the process is being undermined by political interference from member states at lower levels, with men continuing to be appointed in contravention of UN policy. It is unclear if the two Koreans were given the jobs over women candidates.

Through an Escap spokesperson, PassBlue was told that Aliani “misspoke” in the video clip. Aliani’s statement: “I am aware of the leaked video/audio of the closed meeting between the ESCAP secretariat and officials from the Government of the Republic of Korea, in particular the excerpt of my remarks about the recruitment of ROK nationals at the senior level. My response was an attempt to dampen any further queries about the topic. I would like to emphasize that I was not involved in any of the hiring panels for any of the candidates, nor was I privy to the details of these particular cases. I regret the impact my statements had on all those concerned. ESCAP management is taking steps to ensure that the correct facts of the recruitment process are shared.”

The spokesperson noted that all candidates for commission jobs must go through the recruitment process, in line with UN Secretariat policies and that “due process was followed in line with the established policy under the temporary special measures for achieving gender parity (ST/AI/2020/5) when male candidates are selected.”

It is no secret that appointments to top leadership slots in the UN can overlook its requirement for independence and nondiscrimination, with positions handed out as political favors to powerful member states or demanded by them. Nevertheless, these appointments are made at the discretion of the secretary-general, based on General Assembly Resolution 51/226.

“Politics has always scented senior U.N. appointments,” Jeffrey Feltman, an American and former top UN official, has written. “But as global polarization deepens, political bullying over U.N. hiring at the upper level risks becoming a stench, weakening the septuagenarian body’s independence and effectiveness. Of course, there is a root tension between the impartiality that U.N. officials swear to uphold and the influence that the U.N. Secretary-General (SG) may desire from his senior advisors on their respective national capitals.”

The clip of Escap business, however, suggests that the practice goes deeper than uppermost appointments, with even jobs at the lower D and P levels seemingly vulnerable to lobbying by individual countries and UN staff appearing comfortable discussing such efforts in meetings.

Arthur Bassas is a researcher and writer who graduated from St. Andrews in Scotland, majoring in international relations and terrorism. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and speaks English and French.

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A UN Regional Commission Aims to Please in Its Hiring Choices
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Antoine Lagarde
Antoine Lagarde
9 months ago

Very well written article! It’s eye opening to see how countries are able to flex their financial muscles to force appointments through.

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