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Blue Smoke

A Newsletter Tracking Senior UN Appointments

Blue Smoke: Sounding the Alarm

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International Day of Peace Youth Event
At the UN, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performing for the International Day of Peace Youth Observance, Sept. 14, 2023. The new UN Youth Office is still waiting for an assistant secretary-general to be named to the entity. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO 

Sounding the Alarm

Welcome to the October edition of the Blue Smoke newsletter, part of our project to shine a light on appointments and elections at the UN.

We’re back from a brief summer hiatus recharged and raring to continue our work to sound the alarm and dispel the smoke that shrouds senior appointments. Since launching in February 2023, we’ve called out the inappropriate influence of powerful member states, the bewildering inconsistencies of appointment timelines, the UN’s utter failure to adequately appoint minorities, the P5 clique that helps them maintain a stranglehold on top jobs, and the UN’s misguided insistence that even the most basic information on all this is “confidential.”

By evidencing the dodgy practices that have long been an open secret, we have burnt a few bridges, but we’ve also made a lot of friends. One former senior UN official wrote to us recently to say, “thank you for helping keep the UN honest.” We plan to keep doing just that.

So we’re hitting the ground running with the launching of the Blue Smoke Statement of Principles. We’ve made the point repeatedly that our aim in reporting on the dynamics that persist unchecked is to push for transparent, fair and inclusive practices for the UN to find the best people for these vital jobs. These 10 principles, developed with civil society partners and endorsed by over 40 organisations, are a blueprint that we believe should guide senior appointments at the UN and advice how states should engage with the appointment process.

Blue Smoke has shared these principles with Secretary-General António Guterres and all UN member states in the hope that they will recognise that “We the peoples” have a right to know who is exercising the power vested in the UN and how they got there.

What’s happening with appointments?

ASG Youth Office: The UN is currently without a senior leader on its youth portfolio. The former UN envoy wrapped up her duties in September, with the newly established UN Youth Office expected to come seamlessly online with an Assistant Secretary-General at the helm. Not so, and it is anyone’s guess when the appointee will be named. Observers have for weeks expected an announcement, but so far no clarification has been offered to explain the delay. An email sent by PassBlue to the UN spokesperson’s office on Oct. 11, asking about the post, has provided no answers yet.

Confusion reigns. The advert for the role was published in May 2023, with a wide public circulation on social media. While the ad is still live, we understand that an initial recruitment process concluded in early summer, with a shortlist of candidates drawn up by a hiring committee. However, this process was, according to multiple sources, uprooted after a suspected leak of the shortlist as well as names of the selection committee members. Since then, it appears that civil society observers and member states alike have been left in the dark.

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In a bizarre turn of events, two individuals posted on  X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram, respectively, claiming to be the official “nominees” for this position representing their respective states, although neither country’s foreign ministry has confirmed this information. Our understanding is that these “nominees” are not necessarily included in the shortlist. While we applaud the idea of candidates communicating their intention to stand and their vision for a role, it is inappropriate for them to suggest that they are the nominee of any given state. The position is part of the international civil service, which should show no preference or allegiance to any country. Once again, we see how a poorly structured process and lack of transparency cast doubt over the credibility of the appointment before it is even made. It is not an ideal platform on which to launch a vitally important UN office.

Special Adviser R2P: This post has been vacant since mid-August, following George Okkoth-Obbo’s decision to resign after 17 months in the job. We noted in our July edition that eyebrows had been raised about this departure, as Okkoth-Obbo was highly regarded by state and nonstate actors alike. Questions are now being raised about the challenges associated with this post, which has no salary and whose office has no staff or dedicated budget. There are growing calls for its mandate to be strengthened. It’s essential that the process to find his replacement be robust and transparent to empower them and their office.

Dissent at the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (this bulletin comes from Laura E. Kirkpatrick for PassBlue): Will Rola Dashti of Kuwait have her appointment as executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) extended by the UN Secretary-General? Her tenure at the Beirut entity began in 2019 and has featured at least one Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) audit; a deputy who resigned amid rumours of misconduct and misuse of funding; a UN Dispute Tribunal decision against Dashti; and some staff members taking their complaints both to the media and the UN Secretariat.

Additionally, there are complaints about budgetary misuse that has shelved some capacity-building programs for member states until the start of the new fiscal year, January 2024, while allegedly millions are being spent on a lavish event to be held in Marrakech later this year. A second investigative audit by OIOS reportedly began in late September.

As one ESCWA staffer, who requested anonymity, told PassBlue, “If she’s renewed, there’s going to be a rebellion, something’s going to happen.” Dashti’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Stéphane Dujarric, the Secretary-General’s spokesperson, said that he cannot comment on the job status of a serving senior official, noting that “the appointment (the selection of the senior official and duration of their term) falls under the discretionary authority of the Secretary-General.

A nepotism problem? For the past several years, an Italian-English language newspaper, the Italian Insider, has been engaged in a prolonged legal battle regarding alleged corruption and nepotism at the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Their two most recent stories allege related incidents of nepotism at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). Blue Smoke approached several contacts in Vienna to try to verify these claims. We found a lot of support for IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi — particularly his work to prevent a catastrophe at the Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, under siege by Russia — but we also sensed valid concerns regarding how his wife received a role at the UN Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization and how a daughter of his got a role at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. 

UNODC/UNOV: In 2019, the Secretary-General announced Ghada Fathi Waly of Egypt as the next chief of UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the UN Office in Vienna, which is usually bundled together as a single post. The appointment of Waly raised eyebrows given her previous record as a minister under President El-Sisi. Now, as her first term ends, there are rumblings again in Vienna. Her term is thought to be ending in January 2024, but it remains to be seen if she will be offered a second one, or if this will be an open, competitive recruitment process. On principle, Blue Smoke believes it is healthy for the accountability and legitimacy of the UN to run rigorous processes even when the incumbent is a candidate. This is even more important given the disquiet among Vienna civil society, some of whom feel Waly has been dismissive of widespread calls for the UNODC to champion the reform of drug laws and policies that violate human rights.

An important election in Geneva

Fifteen new members of the UN Human Rights Council were elected by secret ballot on 10 October. While elections were uncontested in the regional blocs of Africa (although Nigeria received three votes as a write-in candidate), Asia-Pacific and the Western Europe and Others Group, the contests were hard fought in Eastern Europe and Latin America/Caribbean.

In Eastern Europe, Russia received a desultory 83 votes, losing to Bulgaria (an impressive 160) and Albania (123). The Latin American contest results were much closer, but Cuba (146), Brazil (144) and the Dominican Republic (137) won while Peru (108) lost.

Russia’s results suggest a continued diplomatic cost to its decision to invade Ukraine: post-invasion, the General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council in April 2022, and Russia responded by resigning from the Council simultaneously.

There was an attempt by civil society and human rights organizations to encourage states to symbolically withhold their vote from China to protest its own human rights record. The impact of such actions is hard to measure, however: China’s 154 votes in an uncontested election is notably fewer than the 182 Malawi won and even the 160 votes that Bulgaria managed in a competitive election. But France, also running unopposed, got a near-equal 153 votes with no campaign.

IOM: In a long-overdue landmark decision, the International Organization for Migration finally has a woman Director General: Amy Pope. However, the demolition of one form of privilege came in the form of the reimposition of another – the US reasserting its historic monopoly over the role. In that context, the IOM’s commemorative video, including Pope’s use of a chauffeured car to arrive at the office, was viewed by many as tone deaf.

Don’t miss it:

Ahead of next month’s COP28 in Dubai, we will be publishing a briefing from Plataforma CIPÓ, examining the inequalities in senior appointment processes at key UN bodies working on environment and development issues.

Endorse:

Do you work for an NGO that might like to endorse the Blue Smoke principles? Email us at hello@bluesmoke.blog

Tip Line

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

 


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Blue Smoke: Sounding the Alarm
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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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