Is the United Nations racist?
Posted on February 20th, 2016

RAMESH THAKUR Courtesy The Hindu

Western countries occupy almost all powerful and big-budget posts in the organisation, and sadly developing countries, despite their numbers, have allowed the bias to persist

Ask it quietly, but ask it we must. Is the United Nations racist, either deliberately or unconsciously? Many years ago, the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, universally admired as one of the brightest and best U.N. officials, was pulled out of the Balkans because the Europeans would not accept a non-European as head of the U.N. mission there. This despite the fact that in personality, outlook and ways of thinking, he was more European than most Europeans. Their stance might have had credibility if, by the same logic, Europeans excused themselves from serving as heads of U.N. missions outside Europe. In fact, westerners dominate this category.


We have seen the same double standard, rooted in the belief in the innate superiority of the westerners, in the choice of the chief executives of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The former is always headed by an American. On any objective measure, the U.S. nominee last year would not have made it to the short list against the other two main candidates from Africa and Latin America. But under the cosy EU-U.S. arrangement, the American candidate got the job. This causes neither Americans nor Europeans to blush when they lecture others on good governance norms.

When Dominique Strauss-Kahn had to resign in the wake of a sex scandal, his successor as IMF chief was another French nominee. Again without blushes, where all the years previously they had justified the self-serving arrangements on grounds of how well Europe had done economically, this time it was because only a European could understand the grave crisis afflicting the eurozone and lead the IMF.

The position of U.N. Secretary-General (SG) is protected against such shenanigans by the rotation principle whereby each continent gets its turn for the top job. But almost all the top U.N. posts after that, at the ranks of deputy, under and assistant secretary-general, are within the personal discretion of the SG to fill. The same applies to the large number of his special representatives and envoys.

Unlike the parliamentary system of government, the top ranks of this international civil service are not filled by career officials. Instead the practice is closer to the U.S. system where the President gets to choose his own senior people. But in the U.S. system, senior appointments, including ambassadors, are subject to independent confirmation by the Senate. The U.N. practice does not have any comparable check on whimsical and unsuitable appointments.

Ban Ki-moon has been commendably conscious of and good at appointing women to the senior ranks. But both 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 focused 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 do not wish to jeopardise their own individual chances of a cushy U.N. post.

Remarkably, many commentators seem to believe that the alleged waste, inefficiency and corruption in the U.N. system is rooted partly in affirmative action policies that prioritise incompetent and unqualified personnel from developing countries in recruitment and promotion. When I looked into the statistics almost a decade ago, I was astonished at the reality as compared to the myth. Almost all the powerful and big-budget senior posts in the Secretariat and in the U.N. system are filled by westerners, including peacekeeping, political and humanitarian affairs, management, development and environment programmes, children’s fund, refugees, etc. I suspect that for the same ability, qualifications and experience, western U.N. officials can expect to retire two ranks higher than the rest.

Asians contribute about half the U.N.’s total peacekeepers and one-quarter of its regular and peacekeeping budget (although most of this comes just from Japan). They have also suffered around one-quarter of total U.N. peacekeeping deaths. Yet a decade ago, two-thirds of senior peacekeeping officials were westerners. In the U.N. Secretariat overall, Asians comprised a mere 17 per cent of senior U.N. staff at the grades of director and above. This for a continent that accounts for well over half the world’s population, is not short of experienced and sophisticated diplomats, and has many high achievers. Between them, Canada and the U.S. had the same number of senior staff in the Secretariat as all of Asia, when they account for 5 per cent and 60 per cent of the world’s population respectively.

I no longer have access to U.N. data and cannot guess what the numbers might be today. But another set of figures is publicly available. A decade ago, Asians comprised a mere 12 per cent of high-level representatives. Today, according to the list available on the U.N. 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), 2 per cent from Latin America and the Caribbean: and 52 per cent from Europe, North America and Australia with nine out of ten of them dealing with non-western and global problems. This is like western scholarship. If you are western, you can tackle 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 specific 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 U.N.’s legitimacy and effectiveness. We would have been rightly outraged if the first two heads of U.N. Women had been men, no matter how capable the individual might have been.

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 and policies. This is compounded by having an American as a special adviser on development goals. A practising economist from a developing country would be an infinitely superior choice, instead of people whose knowledge of development is derived from books or as an aid donor. 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 U.N. University. Only one of its six chiefs to date has been Asian, when equity and justice would have seen only one non-Asian. On every table of university rankings, the Asian universities (although not, alas, Indian universities) have made the most dramatic progress. Asian university presidents and vice chancellors must be doing something right. How then to explain the bias against them?

Or take a third example, the responsibility to protect (R2P). The likely sites and targets of intervention in the foreseeable future will be developing countries. It is their people who will suffer if mass atrocities being committed are not stopped, or if geopolitical and commercial interventions are masked in humanitarian language. Conversely, people in developing countries will primarily benefit if interventions are motivated mainly by humanitarian concerns and executed responsibly. The interveners can come from advanced and/or developing countries. Conversations on R2P should occur therefore first among the civil societies and governments of developing countries, and secondly between developing and advanced countries.


And the SG’s special adviser on R2P should be a powerful (public) intellectual from the global South. Instead we have had an American and now a Canadian. This is not going to help as sentiment firms that the norm, in whose origins Africans (Kofi Annan, Francis Deng, Mohamed Sahnoun) have played the most 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).

Why, with numbers to put a stop to it, do developing countries put up with such clear and heavy bias and permit it to persist? One dispiriting answer might be that a particularly insidious consequence of the century of European colonialism is that non-westerners have themselves internalised the sense of racial superiority of westerners. My own extensive experience suggests that the immigration, customs and security officials in developing countries are more obviously racist than in the West.

Part of India’s national identity is the self-belief in being a champion of developing countries. Is it prepared to take the lead in demanding an explanation-cum-correction of this anomaly in the U.N. system?

(Ramesh Thakur, a former senior U.N. official, is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University)

Courtesy: The Hindu

Comments (selected)

1)  The author has used a very good reasoning. Racism is so loosely spread in the
western society. The west could only build institutions that can serve its end. Hence,
it does not surprise to say that the UN is racist. All the institutions spread from or via
the western society are mostly racist. We can see how disturbed they are when the
reversal happens. Of course the reversal is hard to come by. Even if it happens the
power centre is elsewhere. This can all the more benefit them to further their
agenda. United Nations in every sense is nothing but UNITED WESTERN NATIONS!

from:  A. Raj

Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 


I agree with the author. for me the problem lies with disunity among
the developing countries. when India proclaims itself being a champion
of developing countries is its just self belief but not true. because
in recent times it did not use the platforms like UN Security Council
as a non-permanent member to protest or just raise some very important
global problems, especially in the garb of R2P, human rights
violations and regime change in Libya and continuous Western efforts in
Syria do so.therefore India should do much more home work before eyeing
on global leadership as permanent member of the UNSC and declaring
itself as a leader of the developing countries.

from:  Santhosh Juvvaka

Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 10:42 IST

The report is not shocking as we know world bodies created for global help have always been dominated and manipulated by American and Western powers in order to keep their sense of superiority safe.

from:  Khaleelulla Khan

Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 10:41 IST

Racism is not only one reason for the westerners filling up top positions in UNO. It is power and money. They are used to these positions for long and do not easily let go of it. that s the reality…

from:  raghav uchil

Posted on: Jul 19, 2013 at 10:36 IST

Firstly the concept of the United nations. is a hoax. Perpetrated by neo fascist western nations as a means of twentieth century colonial imperialism, where the institutions concerned, is actually a tool to implement legal terrorism, legal blackmail and legal subjugation of world opinion to western opinion.,using the age old method of carrot and stick.what is the alternative?unfortunately,there is no cut and dried solution,no human conceived sociopolitical philosophy will do,but,only that which makes you fear the consequences of even the trivial act you commit,can affect a change!

from:  Dr N M SUDHIR

4 Responses to “Is the United Nations racist?”

  1. Ancient Sinhalaya Says:

    It’s not racism. It’s catholic west’s agenda to make Sri Lanka a catholic country. MR scuppered the grand plan.
    So he is being skilled alive for the ‘crime’!

    This started a long time ago by sjv chelva. A catholic, not even born in Sri Lanka, sowed the seeds of hatred.
    Then hitler pira(mala)paharan, another catholic, carried out the hatred to dizzying heights and killed more
    than 100,000 Buddhists, at the same time destroying Buddhism in the north and the east. No justice for the victims of catholic tigers because they were mainly Buddhists.

    During the long 30+ years war catholic-run UNPatriotic party didn’t want to hurt their brethren. When Buddhist
    jvp rebelled, they were massaccred, burnt in tyres, heads chopped. UNPatriotics managed to get rid of 60,000 Buddhists. When catholic tigers of tamil drealam rebelled catholic-run UNPatriotic party gave half the country to rule.
    Real brotherhood. One has to remembers during their murderous campaign the terrorists killed scores of Buddhist monks, killed pilgrims at Sri Dalada Maligawa, Sri Maha Bodhi etc. But they never damaged a single church or
    hurt a catholic priest.

    MR and the army being punished for stopping catholic tigers carving out a catholic country from Sri Lanka. That’s the reason. Just look at the countries clamouring for him to be skinned alive. Norway, us, uk, italy, brasil, argentina,
    macedonia, serbia etc. etc. All staunchly catholic countries. Do you get the picture now? UN is nowhere to be seen
    in syria, where millions are being displaced and killed. They are impotent there because west is involved. But in Sri Lanka UN is like a rampaging rapist. Remember vietnam, hiroshima, nagasaki, cambodia, afganisthan, iraq, libya? Millions and millions killed by world’s policeman US. Nobody utter a word against them. Today US is the world’s policeman!
    UN A THERAPIST OR THE RAPIST? A rapist of course as long as Sri Lanka is concerned.

    The above link should give us some idea about their handy work. Is it any wonder, UNHCR wants to
    skin MR alive for scupperting their grand plan of carving out a catholic country in the north and the east by
    catholic hitler pira(mala)paharan. All the staunchly catholic countries (norway, us, uk, brasil, argentina, macedonia
    etc. etc.) voted to skin MR and the armed forces alive. Even archbishop two three of south africa thousands miles away clamouring for MR to be skinned alive. Brotherhood of course.Still a lot of traitor Sinhalese donkeys believe this pathalogical liars of the UNPatriotic party and voted for them.

  2. Christie Says:

    July 19, 2013
    Updated: July 19, 2013 02:28 IST
    Is the United Nations racist?
    International Studies – Get a bachelor degree online anywhere, anytime. Start July
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    I am loosing faith in this website as a Sinhalese to see articles like these being published. This is old rubbish see the dates of the articles and it is closed for comments.

    See the opinion in the Hindu of 20 Feb 2016 yesterday and see what Hindu is about.

    Nepal and Sri Lanka are moving to the parliamentary democracy that has stood India in good stead, and they too are exploring devolution as a means of reconciliation and unification.

    Hardly any opinions or comments that is explaining about the Indian Empire or Indian imperialists and colonists are not published by the Hindu.

    The above is an article by an Indian imperialist from an Indian imperialist institution attacking Sri Lanka and Nepal that are slowly becoming another Mauritius or Guyana.

  3. Christie Says:


    Hardly any opinions or comments that explains about the Indian Empire or Indian imperialists and colonists are published by The Hindu.

  4. Christie Says:

    “MR and the army being punished for stopping catholic tigers carving out a catholic country from Sri Lanka. That’s the reason. Just look at the countries clamouring for him to be skinned alive. Norway, us, uk, italy, brasil, argentina,
    macedonia, serbia etc. etc”

    Indian terrorist arm trained, armed, financed, managed and branded Tamil tiger by the Indian Empire are not Catholics. They are Hidu extremists. They have managed to hoodwink the Christians while in the Indian Union the RSS is doing reconversion of Muslims and Christians.

    Ancient Sinhalaya has been mislead by the Indian imperialists brain washing.

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