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Blue Smoke

A Newsletter Tracking Senior UN Appointments

Blue Smoke: A Matter of Time


Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
The election of the director-general for the Food and Agriculture Organization is scheduled for July 2023. The incumbent Qu Dongyu, from China, above, is running unopposed after Tajikistan and Iraq withdrew their candidates. FAO

A Matter of Time

Welcome to the May issue of Blue Smoke, the monthly newsletter shining a spotlight on senior appointments at the United Nations.

We talk a lot about timing at Blue Smoke because the calibre of leaders that the world needs aren’t sitting around waiting for the Secretary-General to call: they need time to juggle other commitments and make themselves free to serve. Short, ad hoc timelines mean less scrutiny and more stitch-ups, making it harder for people from the global south and other marginalised groups — who are always the last to hear about such roles — to successfully apply.

Mishandled timelines can lead to serious gaps in the leadership of the organisation, as happened last year when a severely truncated timeline for the appointment of the next High Commissioner for Human Rights meant that — even with the appointment of a close associate of the Secretary-General — there was a vacancy for 48 crucial days.

This month, timing is in the spotlight: appointment processes for critical roles regarding youth and climate have been rushed through in a matter of weeks, while at the same time an important General Assembly working group is thrashing out an agreement that will govern the timelines of top appointments on the horizon.

What’s Ticking

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): The most important multilateral treaty in the fight to preserve biodiversity recently advertised the post for Executive Secretary, after Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, a Tanzanian national, stepped down early to become Deputy Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. The recruitment process, which UNEP oversees, appears rushed and opaque. There is no information publicly available on timelines or on shortlists, and we have received information that recruitment deadlines were very short (barely a month, even after an extension) and interview processes minimal in the extreme.

Names we have heard include two women, from the Philippines and Denmark, and two men, from Uganda and the UK.

The Convention has a history of unstable leadership — just two of its eight Executive Secretaries have completed their terms, and in 2019 Romanian head Cristiana Pașca Palmer resigned after widespread staff resignations and illness, and multiple allegations of discrimination against African staff members.

Ad Hoc Working Group on Revitalisation of the GA: Negotiations kicked off this month on the biennial UNGA resolution focusing on the selection of the Secretary-General and other executive heads. A majority of states, including core groups such as NAM (120 states) ACT (27 states) and CANZ (3 states) have called for a clear timeline for the next SG selection process. Traditionally, the P5 have blocked such calls (presumably to preserve their ability to parachute in a preferred candidate at the 11th hour). This year is no different, with all P5 members frustratingly working in lockstep to nix the resolution’s wording aimed at publishing a timetable. Surely, at the very least, they could agree on publishing a start date?

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The resolution is a golden opportunity to end the “ringfencing” of certain top UN jobs to powerful states. Building on previous language, the resolution should ask the Secretary-General to publicly explain any deviation from the General Assembly’s clear position that such appointments are impermissible. Blue Smoke partner UNA-UK is also advocating for further reforms, which you can read here.

Time is of the essence. The next time the General Assembly will pass a resolution on this issue will be late in the 79th session, when the UN will already by gearing up for the next Secretary-General selection process. This resolution is the final opportunity to establish reforms before that happens.

UN Department of Global Communications (DGC): We have been told that the powerful UN budgetary Fifth Committee is closely following the changing geographical makeup at the senior levels of the DGC, where there seems to have been a sharp decline in staff from the global south in favour of Western European and North American men.

DGC is unlikely to be unique in this regard — according to NYU’s fantastic dashboard, 44.6% of senior appointments made under Secretary-General António Guterres have come from the Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG) despite it only accounting for 12.5% of the world’s population and 15% of UN member states.

But as the public face of the UN, DGC has a particular responsibility to demonstrate best practice in recruitment. Yet recent appointments, most recently that of another British man, mean that we understand that 69% of director-level posts are held by men and 85% by nationals of WEOG or Eastern Europe. In the News and Media division, Britons alone hold 75% of director-level roles.

Office of the UN Youth Envoy: Blink and you missed it. A critical role for the youth-engagement work of the UN — Assistant Secretary General in the new Office of the Youth Envoy — was advertised with a closing date of 1 May. But while the advert may have been placed on the UN’s website on 17 March, circulation and promotion on social media appears to have been minimal and largely unofficial, and we haven’t found evidence of any before 23 April, just one week before applications closed! Numerous applicants or prospective applicants were left with just days to put their applications together. The Global Student Forum have put together a comprehensive briefing on hopes and expectations for the role, and facilitated transparent and public applications by five qualified and diverse candidates.

FAO: The Director-General election is scheduled for July 2023 and incumbent Chinese Qu Dongyu is running unopposed after Tajikistan and Iraq withdrew their candidates. Each Director-General typically has two four-year terms. It’s been reported that China lobbied intensely to have Qu elected in 2019, even pressuring developing countries to provide evidence of how they voted. It gets worse. China allegedly forgave a huge debt owed by an African state in exchange for the withdrawal of its candidate and threatened economic retaliation against smaller countries if they opposed Beijing’s candidate.

Say It Isn’t So

A PassBlue article based on a whistleblower’s account reveals jobs being doled out as favours to powerful governments — in this case, South Korea for positions at a UN regional commission — overriding gender rules and impartial hiring practices.

UNESCAP Meeting, March 2023, in Bangkok
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, overriding the UN’s goal for gender parity and reflecting how national interests can prevail in hiring practices. UNESCAP

An extraordinary article for Devex by Colum Lynch makes a number of startling allegations

  • The Secretary-General consulting with the governments of powerful countries before taking what should be internal administrative and disciplinary decisions regarding their nationals, in contravention of the position of these staff as international civil servants
  • A lack of accountability for serious misconduct in certain missions
  • Low staff morale with discrimination cited as the primary reason
  • The UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) being too stretched to handle the number of allegations of misconduct it receives
  • An incident where the UN’s Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU) allegedly colluded with the alleged perpetrator of a sexual assault to pressure the victim into withdrawing her allegation

Tip line

Do you know something more about the appointments we mentioned or another upcoming appointment? Reach out to us in total confidence at Any information you give us will only be used on the terms you set.



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The Blue Smoke newsletter is a joint project coordinated by the Blue Smoke project and delivered in media partnership with PassBlue. Blue Smoke is a working group of NGOs committed to ensuring that appointments to senior, political, and public roles at the UN are inclusive, democratic, merit-based, transparent, and subject to scrutiny.

Visit the Blue Smoke website to find out more.

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