Who will stop UN’s racism?
Posted on August 14th, 2013

Ramesh Thakur – Courtesy Canberra Times

Whisper it softly, but whisper it we must. Do international organisations exempted from national anti-discrimination laws discriminate on grounds of race or nationality?

Some years ago, a widely admired UN official was pulled out of the Balkans because the Europeans would not accept a non-European as head of the UN mission. Rather hypocritically, Europeans do not apply this logic to excuse themselves from serving as heads of UN missions elsewhere.

We have seen the same double standards in the choice of the World Bank and IMF chiefs. Under a cosy, self-serving EU-US arrangement, an American gets the former and a European the latter, even if clearly better candidates from elsewhere are available.

The position of UN Secretary-General is protected against such shenanigans by the rotation principle for each geographical grouping. But almost all the top UN posts after that, including the large number of special representatives and envoys, are within the SG’s personal discretion. Unlike parliamentary systems, the top ranks of the UN service are not filled by career officials chosen by an independent commission. The practice is closer to the US system where the president chooses his own inner circle. But there, senior appointments, including ambassadors, are subject to independent confirmation by the Senate. The UN does not have a comparable check on unsuitable senior appointments.

 Ban Ki-moon has been commendably conscious of and good at appointing women to senior ranks. But he and the system are yet to be sensitised to the fact that the top-level under-representation of non-Westerners is even worse. The situation persists not just because Western donor countries use money power and are more focussed in lobbying for their nationals. An even more telling explanation is that the developing countries fail to act in pursuit of their collective interest, are not equally committed to backing their own, and some do not wish to jeopardise their individual chances of a cushy UN post.

Almost all the powerful and big-budget senior posts in the Secretariat and wider UN system are filled by developed-country nationals: peacekeeping, political and humanitarian affairs, development and environment programs, management, children’s fund, refugees, etc. For the same ability, qualifications and experience, Western UN officials can usually expect to retire two ranks higher than the rest.

Asians contribute about half the UN’s total peacekeepers and one-quarter of its regular and peacekeeping budget (most from Japan) and have suffered one-quarter of UN peacekeeping deaths. Yet a decade ago, two-thirds of senior peacekeeping officials were Westerners. In the UN Secretariat, Asians comprised a mere 17 per cent at director rank and above. This for a continent that accounts for 60 per cent the world’s population, is not short of experienced and sophisticated diplomats, and has many high achievers. Between them, Canada and the US, with only 5 per cent of the world’s population, had the same number of senior staff in the Secretariat as Asia.

A decade ago, Asians comprised a mere 12 per cent of high-level representatives. Today, according to the UN website, of the total of 94 special representatives/envoys of the SG, 16 per cent are Asian, 30 per cent African (almost all dealing with African crises), and 52 per cent from Europe, North America and Australia, with nine out of 10 of the latter dealing with non-Western and global problems. This is like Western academia. If you are Western, you can specialise in any topic or region. If you are non-Western, you are expected to inhabit the intellectual ghetto of your own country or continent.

Consider three examples. To avoid being misunderstood: my comments do not apply to particular individuals. I am interested only in the patterns of over and under-representation and the consequences for the UN’s legitimacy and effectiveness.

We would have been rightly outraged if the first two heads of UN Women had been men, no matter how capable and eminent the individuals. Why is there no matching outrage and unacceptability when the head of the Development Program is a westerner? No matter how well intentioned, they cannot possibly know the political and social imperatives driving development strategies, policies and choices. The developing-country background and experiences of Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen were crucial, not incidental, to the emergence and enduring appeal of the notion of human development.

The only part of the system that has its global headquarters in Asia is the UN University. Only one of its six chiefs to date has been Asian, when equity and justice would have seen none or only one non-Asian.

Or take the responsibility to protect (R2P). The likely sites and targets of intervention in the foreseeable future will be developing countries. Their people will benefit if mass atrocities are stopped and suffer if not, or if geopolitical and commercial interventions are masked in humanitarian language. The interveners can come from advanced and/or developing countries. Therefore, conversations on R2P should occur primarily among the developing countries, and secondly between developing and advanced countries. And the SG’s special adviser on R2P to help develop and refine the norm should be a powerful intellectual from the global South to facilitate the two sets of conversations.

Instead we have had two North Americans. This will not be helpful in combating re-emerging sentiment that the norm, in whose origins Africans (Kofi Annan, Francis Deng, Mohamed Sahnoun) played crucial roles, is being hijacked and appropriated by the West to serve the old and discredited humanitarian intervention agenda, or to pursue regime change (Libya, Syria). How long will the division of labour last, of westerners as norm setters and enforcers and the rest as norm takers?

Remarkably, this is not a new but a long-festering problem. In 1996, the UN’s own Joint Inspection Unit warned that a rush to promote women into senior positions risked reverse discrimination against qualified men. In 2001, three African employees alleged racial discrimination, intolerance and bigotry by the UN mission in Kosovo. In 2009, an investigation by the Washington-based Government Accountability Project concluded that the World Bank had a case to answer with respect to racial discrimination against blacks: of the 1000 plus US nationals in professional grades, only four were African-Americans. But the charge could not be proven because of lack of access to internal documents. The charges were aired again in an article in The Guardian in November.

Why do developing countries put up with such clear and heavy bias? One dispiriting answer might be that, as a particularly insidious consequence of the century of European colonialism, non-Westerners have themselves internalised the sense of racial superiority of Westerners.

Which champion of developing countries will bell this UN cat and take the lead in demanding an explanation-cum-correction of the bias?

  • Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
Read more: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/who-will-stop-uns-racism-20130811-2rq4q.html#ixzz2bvIZTFL2

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