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Palestinian Rejection Underscores Limits of UN Chief’s Powers

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 20 2017 (IPS) - Pointing out an example of the hierarchy of political power at the United Nations, a former Nigerian ambassador once told a group of reporters of an encounter at an international gathering in Africa when he ran into one of his friends who had returned from a visit to New York.

guterres_300“I met your boss,” he told a perplexed Nigerian envoy. “What boss?”, he asked his friend. “I don’t have a boss in New York.”

When his friend explained that he really meant the UN Secretary-General (SG) whom he had met during his visit to the UN, the envoy shot back: “He is not my boss. I am his boss.”

And the Nigerian envoy was dead on target.

But most outsiders, however, do not realise the limitations and restrictions under which a Secretary-General operates.

A creature of the world body’s 193 member states, the Secretary-General is really the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the United Nations and has to do the bidding of member states— particularly on politically sensitive issues and on senior appointments.

And he rarely, if ever, defies the five veto-wielding permanent members (P-5), namely the US, Britain, France, Russia and China, whose nationals traditionally hold some of the most senior positions in the UN Secretariat— jobs doled out mostly under political pressure.

The current Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who took office in January, was a two-time Prime Minister of Portugal (1995-2002) and the first and only UN chief who was a former head of government.

And Prime Ministers, protocol-wise, are known to exercise vast political powers in their home countries – and rarely known to take orders from others.

Still, one of Guterres’ early appointments – of the former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as the Secretary General’s Special Representative in Libya – was unceremoniously shot down by US Ambassador Nikki Haley, purely because he was a Palestinian.

A visibly disappointed Guterres told reporters last week: “I think it was a serious mistake. I think that Mr. Fayyad was the right person in the right place at the right time, and I think that those who will lose will be the Libyan people and the Libyan peace process.”

“And I believe that it is essential for everybody to understand that people serving the UN are serving in their personal capacities. They don’t represent a country or a government – they are citizens of the world representing the UN Charter and abiding by the UN Charter,” he said pointedly directing his answer at Haley.

Asked to comment on the issue of limits of power exercised by a Secretary-General, Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury of Bangladesh, a former UN High Representative and Under-Secretary-General, told IPS that “essentially there are four main constraints to the effectiveness of the Secretary-General”.

Firstly, veto and veto-wielding members of the Security Council, which influences matters in all areas of UN system’s work; secondly, promises and commitments made by the Secretary-General as a candidate to secure his election; thirdly, aspiration to get re-elected for a second term from day one of the first term; and, fourthly, the labyrinthine UN bureaucracy, said Chowdhury, who was one of the senior UN officials in former Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s cabinet and management team.

The late Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, who had a running battle with senior US officials, and particularly with US Ambassador Madeleine Albright, was the only Secretary-General who was denied a second five-year term.

At a Security Council meeting, 14 of the 15 members voted to give him a second term. But the US cast the single veto punishing him for his defiance, and making a mockery of the concept of majority rule– and an overwhelming majority in this case– which it preaches to the rest of the world.

The right course of action for the US would have been to abstain on that vote and respect the views of the remaining 14 members. But it never did.

Martin Edwards, Associate Professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, told IPS: “I think this is a learning process for Guterres in how to work with the new administration.”

The storm over Fayyad will blow over, and it’s clear that the party that loses most here isn’t Guterres, but the White House, which now looks petulant, said Edwards whose expertise includes International Organizations and International Political Economy.

He pointed out that the more intriguing development lies in the appointments announced last Tuesday.

Both Jeffrey Feltman of the US (renewed mandate as Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs) and Jean-Pierre Lacroix of France (Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations) are one-year appointments, setting up potential jockeying with the US and France over these offices next year.

“So these are early days as Guterres seeks to build his team,” he noted.

Asked if the nomination of Fayyad was based on consultations with all of the members of the Security Council, UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters last week: “We do consult broadly in the course of make appointments, and based on the understanding he had at the time, he believed he could go forward.”

Asked if Guterres spoke personally with Ambassador Haley regarding this nomination, he said: “I can’t characterize the full range of discussions he had. Like I said, he did… he and the Secretariat did consult prior to this, and we believed we had the understandings in hand. We… but we did not.”

Clarifying further, Haq said the Security Council is consulted on all appointments having to do with senior officials who report directly to the Security Council or carry out its mandates.

“So, that is part of the standard procedure in which all of the 15 members of the Security Council have a say. Regarding where we go forward from here, the Secretary General will continue his consultations. We’ll let you know of an appointment once something is decided.”

Asked if Guterres’ power or reputation — is diminished by the Fayyad incident, and whether it was embarrassing for him personally and a blow to his credibility, Haq said: “I don’t think it should be a blow to his credibility. I think it’s really suggested there is a problem where people’s perceptions should not blind them to the actual qualifications of a person for the job.”

In a wide-ranging IPS oped piece before the election of Guterres last year Chowdhury said: “Like any leader of an organization, the UN leader’s success or absence of it depends on his team. That is another area I belief needs a total overhaul in UN. It is long overdue.”

As in the case of any new corporate Chief Executive Officer, each time the UN’s Chief Administrative Officer – that is how the S-G is described in the UN Charter – gets elected or re-elected, interested quarters wonder whether he will introduce any new guidelines on senior appointments, and will he be subject to pressure from the big powers — as it happened with his predecessors?

In that context, he said, it is strongly felt that the UN’s so-called political appointments of Assistant-Secretaries-General (ASG) and Under-Secretaries-General (USG), should be more transparent and open.

The pressures from Member States and personal favoritism have made the UN Charter objective of “securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity” (article 101.3) almost impossible to achieve, he added.

It is also to be kept in mind that for his own appointment, the incoming Secretary-General makes all kinds of deals – political, organizational, personnel and others. And those are to be honored during first years in office, said Chowdhury, a former chairman of the UN’s Administrative and Budgetary Committee that approved Kofi Annan’s first reform budget.

“That then spills over for the second occasion when he starts believing that a second term is his right, as we have seen in recent years.”

The tradition of all senior management staff submitting their resignations is only notional and window-dressing. The new Secretary-General knows full well that there is a good number of such staff who will continue to remain under the new leadership as they are backed strongly by influential governments. In the process, merit and effectiveness suffer, said Chowdury, initiator of Security Council resolution 1325 underscoring women’s equality of participation.

It is a pity that the UN system is full of appointments made under intense political pressure by Member States individually or as a group. Another aspect of this is the practice of identifying some USG posts for P-5 and big contributors to the UN budget.

“What makes this worse is that individuals to these posts are nominated by their governments, thereby violating article 100 of the UN Charter which says that “In the performance of their duties the Secretary-General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization.”

“The reality in the Secretariat does not reflect the Charter objectives – I believe it never did.”

One way to avoid that would be to stop nomination and lobbying – formally or informally – for staff appointments giving the S-G some flexibility to select senior personnel based on “competence and integrity”.

Of course, one can point out inadequacies and possible pitfalls of this idea. But, there the leadership of the S-G will determine how he can make effective use of such flexibility being made available to him.

A very negative influence on the recruitment process at the UN, not to speak of senior appointments, has been the pressure of donors – both traditional and new ones – to secure appointments of staff and consultants, mostly through extra-budgetary resources and other funding supports.

This has serious implications for the goals and objectives as well as political mission and direction of the UN in its activities, he noted.

“No Secretary-General would be willing or be supported by the rest of the UN system to undertake any drastic reform of the recruitment process for both the senior management or at other levels. Also, at the end, he has to face the Member States in the General Assembly to get their nod for his reforms,” he declared.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

 
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