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POLITICS: U.N. Top Jobs Under Scrutiny

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 10 2007 (IPS) - Less than two weeks after taking charge as the new U.N. chief, Ban Ki-moon has come under fire from civil society groups that closely work with the world body.

Soon after taking his oath of office last month, Ban said he would fill top U.N. posts on merit, but critics charge that he has failed to match his pledge with actions.

Last week, Ban named a British diplomat as the new under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. Observers say John Holmes, the new humanitarian affairs chief who is a close friend of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, did not deserve the job because he lacks any experience in the field.

Holmes has served as Britain’s ambassador to France since October 2001. He spent stints in Moscow, New Delhi and Lisbon among other places. In 1995, he became the diplomatic adviser to then British Prime Minister John Major, and continued in that role under Blair from 1997 to 1999.

Announcing the appointment, U.N. spokesperson Michele Montas said that Holmes has “offered a proven record of strategic vision, crisis management, multilateral negotiation, dedication and hard work” throughout his diplomatic career.

He will replace Jan Egeland of Norway, who was highly respected by the international community and aid activists for his passionate involvement in humanitarian work. During his career at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), he not only refused to yield to political pressures, but often strongly criticised major powers for their inaction.

After the end of the war in Lebanon, for example, he strongly deplored Israel’s use of cluster bombs, which he described as “shocking”. He also earned the wrath of the George W. Bush administration for suggesting that the world’s richest nations were “stingy” in their response to the December 2004 tsunami disaster.

“Was Ban influenced by P-5 pressure when deciding to appoint John Holmes?” asked William Pace, a longtime U.N. observer and director of the Institute for Global Policy, referring to the five permanent members of the Security Council which hold veto power. They are the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.

“How can the UK – a proponent of accountability at the U.N. – engage in the placement of someone widely described as a political ‘crony’ and whose qualifications hardly match an office of such importance?” Pace asked.

Describing the decision as “an early negative sign” of Ban’s independence, Pace and others said letting a few powerful member states influence key appointments undermined the legitimacy of the U.N. and confidence in its secretary-general.

“It’s not just one appointment,” said Jim Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum. “When we look at the pattern, we know that there’s a very serious problem here.”

Aside from criticism of Ban’s recent controversial decision, those keenly observing the U.N. have often raised questions about why most high-profile positions are dominated by the rich and powerful nations.

“It suggests that this is the business as usual,” Paul told IPS.

Noting that the leadership of OCHA ranks as an under-secretary-general and is one of several posts in the Secretariat, Pace said the decision reinforced the “fiefdom” practice that traditionally allocates top U.N. positions to the control of the permanent members of the Security Council.

This practice, according to both Pace and Paul, continues alongside an oath taken by members of the Secretariat that they will not to act as representatives of the governments of their home countries, but will remain impartial and loyal to the vision of the U.N. as a whole.

“Holmes’s appointment suggests a paradox,” said Pace. “So far for the new secretary-general, words differ from action.”

Ban has made only a few appointments thus far, most significant among them the office of the deputy secretary-general, Dr. Asha-Rose Migiro of Tanzania, and the under-secretary-general for management, Alicia Barcena Ibarra of Mexico. They replace nationals from Britain and the United States, respectively.

Reacting to Holmes’s appointment, civil society groups urged the new secretary-general to adopt “appropriate and publicised procedures” for assessing candidates, with a commitment to filling all U.N. jobs based on qualification and merit, as well as gender and geographical distribution.

They also called for the new U.N. chief not to let any permanent member or other major powers exert influence or control over appointments.

“This is the kind of perceived reciprocal agreement that contradicts member states’ own claims that they want to see reforms,” said Pace about the role of the major U.N. powers, adding that those suffering from natural disasters and humanitarian crises “deserve the most qualified and experienced international leadership”

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