Turtle Bay

The decline of the international civil servant

Sir John Holmes, a former British official who serves as the U.N.’s top emergency relief coordinator, will step down from his job later this year, creating a vacancy for the most important humanitarian relief job in the world. But most experts in the field need not apply. If history is any guide, Holmes’s replacement will ...


Sir John Holmes, a former British official who serves as the U.N.’s top emergency relief coordinator, will step down from his job later this year, creating a vacancy for the most important humanitarian relief job in the world.

But most experts in the field need not apply.

If history is any guide, Holmes’s replacement will be selected from a small pool of influential countries who are rewarded with the most important U.N. jobs. It’s more likely Holmes’s successor will be a diplomat or politician than someone who has experience managing relief operations.

The U.N. practice of hiring political appointees has ensured American, French, and British dominance of key U.N. jobs in management, peacekeeping and political affairs. But it has chipped away at the U.N. ideal of the impartial international civil servant, loyal to the founding principles of the U.N., and not beholden to the state that helped get them the job.

The U.N. Charter’s Article 100 set out the loyalty standard for U.N. employees, saying U.N. staff “shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the organization.” It also requires states “respect the exclusively international character” of U.N. staff and “not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.”

The late Swedish Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold championed the culture of the impartial U.N. civil servant, clashing with both the United States and the Soviet Union over the importance of ensuring a level of U.N. independence in hiring, according to his biographer, Sir Brian Urquhart.  And former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who rose from the U.N. civil service himself, frequently promoted his colleagues within the U.N.’s own ranks to senior political posts.

But the pendulum has swung back in favor of political appointees under Ban Ki-moon, who accepted the favored candidates of each of the U.N.’s powerful permanent five members in his first year in office, according to senior U.N. officials. Ban has used appointments to strike a careful geographical balance among the interests of influential member states.

Earlier this month, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, circulated a letter nominating a single candidate, Tony Lake, to lead the U.N. Children’s Fund, an organization that receives most of its funds from the United States, when President Bush’s candidate, Ann Veneman, steps down in April. It remains unlikely that Ban, who is ostensibly responsible for hiring the UNICEF chief, will challenge Rice.

Holmes himself was serving as a top foreign-policy advisor to Tony Blair before he started his job at the United Nations. The British had pushed him to serve in the traditional British slot, the under secretary-general for political affairs, a job for which he seemed well suited. But Ban gave that post to an American, and Holmes was given a consolation prize, the under secretary general for the coordination of humanitarian relief, a field in which he had no experience.

The creation of the international civil service dates back to the League of Nations, though its roots lie in the establishment in the 19th century of an apolitical British foreign service, which sought to promote efficiency and competence over political affiliation. Arthur Balfour, the British delegate to the league, outlined those principles by saying that “members of the secretariat once appointed are no longer the servants of the country of which they are citizen, but become for the time being the servants only of the League of Nations. Their duties are not national but international.”

But the notion of placing loyalty to the U.N. blue flag over one’s own country has been frequently mocked within U.N. headquarters. Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev told the American journalist Walter Lippman that “while there are neutral countries, there are no neutral men.” Summing up the Soviet view, Lippman wrote “that there can be no such thing as an impartial civil servant in this deeply divided world, and that the kind of political celibacy which the British theory of the civil servant calls for, is in international affairs a fiction.”

Alvaro de Soto, a former Peruvian diplomat who came to the United Nations as a political appointee under the Peruvian Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, said that many of his U.N. colleagues considered him a “political naif” when he espoused the importance of affirming one’s loyalty to the U.N. But he said that he and many top officials have been transformed into “U.N. patriots” during their time at the United Nations.

“What happens to people is that they turn blue; there is that expression,” he told Turtle Bay. “I have to say that’s what happened to me. And it happens to a lot of people I know around the house.”

Not all top U.N. officials are converts. Christopher B. Burnham, a former GOP fundraiser who was put forward by the Bush administration for the top U.N. management job, remained an unabashed American nationalist.

“I came here at the request of the White House,” he told me five years ago. “It’s my duty to make the U.N. more effective. My primary loyalty is to the United States of America.”

Marrack Goulding, who succeeded Urqhuart during the 1980s as the top British official at the United Nations, aspired to emulate Urqhuart’s reputation for independence after Britain put him forward for a top U.N. job.

“I wanted to be an impartial international official and had already decided that I would decline invitations to stay at British embassies when on my travels,” he wrote in his memoir Peacemonger. What he didn’t realize, he recalled, “was that distancing myself from Whitehall could reduce my usefulness to the secretary general himself … It reduced my value to my boss.”

“Boutros Ghali, in particular, expected his British USG [under secretary-general] to give him private insights into Her Majesty’s government’s thinking and their likely reaction to initiatives which he might take,” he wrote. “My insistence on my independence as an international civil servant this made me something of a misfit on the 38th floor,” where the U.N. secretary-general’s office is located.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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