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State of Asians in the UN: Need for Proactive, Inclusive & Collective Leadership

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 13 2023 (IPS) - The United Nations system has an agreed leadership framework that is inclusive and respectful of all personnel and stakeholders, embracing diversity and rejecting discrimination in all its forms.

It is collaborative, reflecting the interdependent imperatives of the UN Charter and seeking collective “as one” thinking. It is self-applied, so that UN principles and norms are embedded in all areas of work of the UN system by staff at all levels and in all functions and locations to foster broader cultural change within UN system organizations.

The parameters of this inclusive leadership have already been clearly prescribed by the UN Charter.

Article 1 (3) of the UN Charter asserts that one of the purposes of the UN is to promote and encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

Racism and racial discrimination are against the principles expressed in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many international instruments. However, the issue of racism in the UN system is deep-rooted with many forms and dimensions.

The report of the Secretary-General’s Task Force on Addressing Racism agrees that UN staff perceive national or ethnic origin as the primary grounds for racism and racial discrimination. Staff are reluctant to report or act against racial discrimination when they witness it because they believe nothing will happen, lack trust, or fear retaliation, suggesting a low level of solidarity with those who experience racial discrimination and a lack of faith in the mechanisms established to address this issue.

Surveys reveal that UN personnel of Asian descent face specific forms of bias and discrimination.

The recent review of racism and racial discrimination in the UN by the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) – the UN’s external oversight body – finds that while there has been progress in certain parts of the UN system, racism and racial discrimination are major and under-recognized problems that require urgent system-wide responses.

Racism and racial discrimination are widespread throughout the system and the magnitude is high, based on evidence of the prevalence, form, and effects of racism and racial discrimination.

Article 101 (3) of the UN Charter affirms that due regard shall be paid to the importance of recruiting the staff on as wide a geographical basis as possible.

The Asia-Pacific region is home to around 4.3 billion people, which is equivalent to 54 percent of the total world population. In the UN organizations, however, staff from Asia and the Pacific constitute only about 19 percent of staff in the Professional and higher categories.

There is a significant lack of diversity in senior managerial positions (P-5, D-1, and D-2 levels) at the UN. The majority of senior and decision-making posts are held by staff from the global North.

Among staff in senior positions, only 16 percent were from Asia-Pacific States as of 31 December 2020. Among promotions to senior positions, only 14.5 percent were from Asia-Pacific States during the period 2018–2020.

The JIU review on racism found that UN staff from countries of the global South, where the population is predominantly of color, tend to be in lower, less well-paid grades and, therefore, hold less authority in decision-making than those from countries where the population is predominantly white and from the group of Western European and other States.

This finding was corroborated by the JIU’s system-wide survey, and this issue of discrimination in seniority and authority for decision-making in the UN system emerged as a major macrostructural issue to be addressed.

Article 8 of the UN Charter stipulates that the UN shall place no restrictions on the eligibility of men and women to participate in any capacity and under conditions of equality in its principal and subsidiary organs.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also states that there can be no distinction or discrimination on the basis of gender (articles 2, 7 and 23). The Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing adopted a Platform for Action, including the goal of achieving overall gender equality in the staff of the UN system by 2000.

The gender goals that were set by the Beijing Declaration 28 years ago are not being realized.

With regard to regional representation of women in the UN system, women from Western European and other States constitute a little more than half of the population of women in the Professional category (51 percent), while women from Africa, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean combined represent only 49 percent.

Among them, 18 percent are from the Asia-Pacific region. This disparity demonstrates the inconsistencies in the balance of objectives regarding meeting gender targets and geographical representation and emphasizes that there should be a correlation between these two goals.

Taking part in collective leadership: Role of staff interest groups

The role of staff resource groups is most helpful in the journey towards creating a more diverse and inclusive work environment at the UN. All staff resource groups in the UN organizations are voluntary and mostly organized around the mission, purpose, mandates and objectives of the UN.

There are many staff interest groups focusing on anti-racism, gender equality, diversity and inclusion. Such groups build bridges between staff and management as well as make connections between inequities and policies, and they play a significant role in bringing about effective change in the organizational culture.

Towards addressing racism in the UN, the tone set by the Secretary-General António Guterres and the space presented to the UN staff interest groups to work towards driving organizational culture change are commendable.

This approach is especially important in developing “inclusive” or “collective” leadership as established in the UN leadership model, which demands that all stakeholders play interdependent roles to achieve a collective impact system-wide.

The JIU review on racism also promotes the importance of “collective” leadership that provides a high level of support for personnel resources and special interest groups and whereby such groups are able to leverage support for actions to address racism and racial discrimination.

It further notes that the UN is in the initial stages and has a long way to go to develop the kind of effective leadership coalition that is critical to driving reforms to address racism and racial discrimination.

Taking part in collective leadership: Advice to my younger self

The UN Charter, the founding document of the UN, is an inspiring document that was signed 77 years ago. It made promises to respect each and every one of us, to reaffirm our fundamental rights and to value men and women equally. While we have achieved some progress in many areas, we still have a long way to go towards realizing the ideals enshrined in the UN Charter. Hence, I would tell my younger self that:

    • I should not be surprised when I am not treated equally by the UN and the world.
    • I should learn as early as possible to speak up if I am not treated fairly, if I am disrespected, or if my rights are violated.
    • I should talk to colleagues to share my experiences and identify any patterns of unfair treatment in the workplace.
    • I should understand that merit, along with hard work, commitment and credentials, is not enough to get into senior positions in the UN.
    • I should be taking initiative as an individual to address any discriminatory actions.
    • I should focus on more concrete and specific initiatives that would bring change in the UN.

The sum of my experiences in the UN, together with learning that many colleagues in the UN system were also having similar experiences, led me to realize the importance of a staff interest group for personnel from Asia and the Pacific, even though this took years to come into being.

Taking part in collective leadership: Solutions to overcome barriers to Asian talent

It is important to take part in the collective leadership approach in order to explore solutions to support overcoming barriers to Asian talent in the workplace, within and outside the UN system.

    (1) If there is no staff resource group representing the Asian community in the Organization, we should create one immediately.

UN-ANDI, established in 2021, is the first ever effort to bring together a diverse group of personnel from Asia and the Pacific (nationality/origin/descent) in the UN system.

    (2) We must speak up loudly and proudly as Asians, as members of an interest/resource group or network. It should be done in a focused way, with facts, trends, and patterns to bring global, regional, national, and local attention to our issues and concerns. This was emphasized by Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, former Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN and former UN Under-Secretary-General, at UN-ANDI’s first public event on 2021 UN Day.

UN-ANDI is currently finalizing its report on racism and racial discrimination in the UN system faced by personnel of Asian descent or origin based on its survey conducted in summer 2022.

    (3) Once we have a staff interest/resource group, it is important to explore and/or create opportunities to collaborate and complement our mutual goals towards creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizational culture.

UN-ANDI works closely with the UN Staff Union in its efforts towards combating racism. It also promotes a collaborative spirit with other networks and institutions with similar objectives, within and outside the UN. Since its inception, UN-ANDI has been collaborating with Asia Society to promote mutual understanding and stronger partnerships among peoples and cultures within and outside Asia.

Shihana Mohamed, a founding member, one of the Coordinators of UN-ANDI and a Sri Lankan national, is a Human Resources Policies Officer at the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC).

Please email UnitedNationsAsiaNetwork@gmail.com to connect and/or collaborate with UN-ANDI.

This article is based on the presentation made by the author, in her personal capacity, as a panelist in the discussion on “State of the AAPI Community in the U.S. and the Need and Impact of Proactive, Inclusive Leadership” at Asia Society’s 2023 Global Talent, Diversity and Inclusion Symposium on 17 May 2023.

IPS UN Bureau


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