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Blue Smoke

A Newsletter Tracking Senior UN Appointments

Blue Smoke: Service and Sacrifice


UN flag is lowered to half-mast to pay tribute to fallen colleagues in Gaza.
The UN flag was lowered to half-staff in front of the headquarters in New York City and its offices worldwide to pay tribute to the colleagues killed in Gaza, Nov. 13, 2023. As of Nov. 18, at least 103 staffers, all Palestinian, have died. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

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

Much is asked of UN officials, and none more so than the many thousands of UN personnel who have lost their lives in the line of duty since the founding of the institution in 1945. Ole Bakke, a Norwegian serving in Palestine, was the first to die – murdered in July 1948. Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden, a UN mediator in Palestine, was the second – assassinated two months later. Not far from where they were slain, at least 103 staffers of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), have been killed in the last six weeks as the organization toils to mitigate the worst of the humanitarian suffering wrought by Israel’s response to the 7 October terror attacks by Hamas.

This newsletter is dedicated to the UN staff and to the quest to ensure that the colleagues who survive them get the leadership that their heroism deserves.

As we gear up for another year, Blue Smoke is ramping up its activity, building on the momentum generated by over 40 NGOs that have signed our Statement of Principles. We aim to make the UN more transparent and representative as we begin to shape the transformation that will take place when the next Secretary-General – with any justice, the first woman in the role – takes the reins just 37 months from now.

Stay tuned and you will see us refresh our website to provide the internet’s most comprehensive database of the UN’s senior appointments and the state of its recruitment processes.

Meanwhile, here’s our latest news.

What’s up?

Felipe Paullier, a 32-year-old former doctor and political organiser from Uruguay, has been named as the first Assistant Secretary-General for Youth Affairs. Everyone at Blue Smoke is wishing Dr. Paullier the very best of luck in this important role. We are continuing to look into some of the more peculiar aspects of the overall selection process (some of which we flagged in the last newsletter) and plan to say more about it in the next newsletter.

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We had no hand in a recent article in the Carib Daily on the current informal state of the race to replace António Guterres as Secretary-General, but it does nicely summarise most of the rumours we have heard thus far: Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados is a front-runner. Other names include former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos; Rafael Grossi (of Argentina), the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency; Alicia Bárcena, Mexico’s foreign secretary; Rebeca Grynspan (of Costa Rica), Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development; and María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (of Ecuador), a former president of the UN General Assembly. Regional rotation of Secretaries-General is an inconsistently applied and unmeritocratic tradition at the UN, but the Latin American and Caribbean bloc are staunch in their conviction that 2026 is “their turn.” The East European bloc, who feel they missed out last time around, view it differently.

Our advocacy last year helped secure significant reforms to the selection process, but countries also missed crucial opportunities. They failed to set a start date or clear timeline for the process. Still, we expect the respective Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council to jointly fire the starting pistol in autumn 2025, so there is ample time for candidates to show their hand.

Candidates who declare their intentions early can influence the process somewhat by driving up the standards that later candidates will be expected to follow. We hope candidates embrace this opportunity by announcing at the earliest time possible their intention to engage with civil society and to disclose any funding sources relating to their candidature, as requested by the General Assembly. Countries also have a role to play in establishing positive norms by using, for example, opportunities ahead of the official process to publicly state that they will only consider the nomination of female candidates, look for candidates beyond their own nationals and welcome civil society involvement in the selection.

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You can read more about our work shaping the selection process.

Repeated recent calls for Guterres’s resignation from Israel’s UN representative and its foreign minister have led some to wonder: what would happen if the current Secretary-General leaves office early? Publicly, at least, there is no consolidated process to handle the interim period before a new SG is appointed. But if you piece together the available documentation and guidance, there is a reasonable basis to surmise that the Deputy Secretary-General (DSG) could discharge the functions of the SG (regardless of whether they are explicitly endorsed by the Security Council and General Assembly). We covered scenario planning for interruptions to an SG’s term of office in detail in our summer 2023 report.

It should be noted, however, that Israel’s ambassador and its foreign minister are entirely on a limb in their request; even Israel’s closest ally, the United States, has voiced its strong support for the SG. His handling of the situation in the Mideast would also appear to be appropriate, given his mandate. Were an SG to lose the confidence of member states, they would doubtless have to consider their position, as Trygve Lie ultimately did after seven years of hostility from the Soviet Union and its allies, although that is not a similar situation to now. Members of the Blue Smoke coalition organised a joint letter for the SG’s support from former senior UN staff. The FOGGS nongovernmental organisation also produced a declaration supporting Guterres.

UN Habitat will shortly name a new Executive Director. Maimunah Mohd Sharif of Malaysia was elected to the post on 22 December 2017 and reappointed on 20 January 2022. Diplomats, particularly from G77 countries, widely praised her performance. When her name was submitted for reappointment, she was endorsed by the G77, GRULAC (Group of Latin America and the Caribbean), Asia-Pacific groups and China. No country is known to have raised concerns or objections. Diplomats were therefore surprised when Guterres recommended her reappointment for a shorter, second term of two years. Nevertheless, the General Assembly approved the recommendation, and the post will fall vacant in January 2024.

The UN is about to appoint one high-profile mediator and just named another:

The role of Special Envoy to the peace process in Cyprus has been vacant since October 2021, when Jane Holl Lute, an American (who had controversially combined the role with heading the UN’s office on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse), resigned after an ethics panel warned that her seat on Shell Oil’s board of directors posed a conflict of interest. Since then, Colin Stewart of the UK, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Cyprus, who also heads the UN peacekeeping mission there, has been taking on the envoy role as well. But the UN prefers the political and operational roles to be kept separate. Julie Bishop, a former foreign minister of Australia, was a recent candidate, but Türkiye rejected her name, on the grounds that nationals of Commonwealth states might have a bias towards Cyprus, a fellow member. The search goes on.

Meanwhile, the former UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) in Sudan, Volker Perthes, has been appointed to oversee the Independent Strategic Review of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. Former Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra replaces him in a somewhat different role. Lamamra will be a personal envoy of the Secretary-General, based remotely. The Sudanese government pushed for this change to avoid scrutiny of the atrocities taking place in the country’s current war. SRSGs are required to give regular public briefings to the UN Security Council on these and other human rights matters.

The UN’s presence in Sudan has been considerably diminished since the war erupted in April, and the UN will almost certainly be reduced further. When the security situation deteriorated last spring, Perthes oversaw the difficult decision to evacuate many members of the UN from the country. Some of his tweets around then were considered to be insensitive, given the extreme peril faced by the Sudanese people that UN officials were leaving behind. In June, he was named persona non grata by the Sudanese authorities. On Nov. 16, Sudan declared that it was withdrawing consent for the UNITAMS technical assistance mission.

A personal envoy of the Secretary-General is an incredibly flexible role with few formal obligations or defining characteristics. In this case, it is imperative that the envoy and the Secretary-General do not allow the change in the role and reduction of the UN’s presence in Sudan to diminish the attention that the UN and particularly the Security Council give to the crisis at this critical moment.

What’s happened?

During a tumultuous time for the region, Rola Dashti, whose role as Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) we covered in the last newsletter, was indeed reappointed for a period of one year.

We also reported last month about civil society concerns regarding the reappointment of Ghada Fathi Waly as chief of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the UN Office in Vienna. Now Inner City Press reports that the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services have opened two investigations into allegations against her. Yet she has recently been reappointed for another two years. Egypt’s role in the humanitarian crisis at its border with Gaza may have strengthened their hand in securing her renewal.

Five new judges (a third of the court) were elected for nine-year terms to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). They are elected by the General Assembly (GA) and the Security Council (SC) in parallel votes. States have five votes each and candidates need to receive a majority of the vote in both the GA and the SC to be elected. Unlike in other elections, this is an “absolute majority”: 97 votes in the GA, eight in the SC.

Each regional group may nominate up to four candidates, but states can vote for any candidate they wish, regardless of the regional bloc. Generally, states are reluctant to change the regional representation levels in the court, so they will almost always elect the same number of candidates from each region as those they are replacing. On rare occasions, however, the balance can shift.

In 2017, two candidates from the Asia-Pacific group had such strong support in the GA that the two came in the top five, despite their replacing only one Asia-Pacific vacancy. These results provoked a lengthy impasse between the SC and GA, which was resolved by the withdrawal of the UK candidate, allowing the Indian candidate to take the last seat. This move caused a shift in the regional distribution, with one seat moving from WEOG (Western Europe and Others Group) to the Asia-Pacific cluster.

No complications like that were likely this time, so it was no surprise when Hilary Charlesworth (of Australia, already serving on the court since being voted in a by-election in 2021), Sarah Hull Cleveland (of the US) and Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo Verduzco (of Mexico) were elected with no challengers from their respective regional groups. In the other blocs, ultimately Bogdan-Lucian Aurescu (of Romania) beat Kirill Gevorgian (of Russia, who despite having been on the court since 2015 and serving as its current vice president, came second-to-bottom in the GA) for the Eastern Europe position; and Dire Tladi (of South Africa) beat three other candidates from the Africa Group. The full results are available here.


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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on UN appointments?

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Blue Smoke: Service and Sacrifice
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Keith Hindell
6 months ago

Your objective of opening up the UN’s jobs market is admirable but every time you talk about the need for “full disclosure” I ask myself “who are you?”
There are no names on this site! There is no indication as to provides the money for your operation yet you have gall to ask for donations.
As far as I can tell you don’t publish your accounts!
So are you holier than all those “wicked people” who parcel out all
the top UN jobs among themselves and their friends?
Full disclosure please. Practice what you preach.
Keith Hindell former BBC UN Correspondent

6 months ago
Reply to  Keith Hindell

Thanks for your reply.
The information you seek is here:

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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