Turtle Bay

At Turtle Bay, there’s a job for everyone

Last week, Syrian envoy Bashar Jaafari was re-elected rapporteur of the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization, joining representatives of Ecuador (chair), Cuba (vice chair), and Sierra Leone (vice chair) in the committee’s top leadership ranks.(h/t UN Watch) To be fair, a senior title on the U.N.’s decolonization committee — which is charged with addressing the ...

Last week, Syrian envoy Bashar Jaafari was re-elected rapporteur of the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization, joining representatives of Ecuador (chair), Cuba (vice chair), and Sierra Leone (vice chair) in the committee’s top leadership ranks.(h/t UN Watch)

To be fair, a senior title on the U.N.’s decolonization committee — which is charged with addressing the fate of 16 non self-governing territories, including Western Sahara and the Falkland Islands — is hardly one of the most prestigious postings at the United Nations. (The United States withdrew from the committee on the grounds that it was anti-Western, and the 29 member committee includes no Western members.)

But still, for a country facing widespread international condemnation, it’s probably not a terrible thing to have on your resume. And it provides Syria with a case to argue that it’s not as isolated from the international community as the United States and its European and Arab allies insist.

Sudan, meanwhile, is expected to be granted responsibility for chairing a special session on the coordination of U.N. programs and agencies at a July conference in Geneva convened by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Sudan — a country whose leader stands accused of committing genocide by the International Criminal Court and which faced intense criticism from the U.N. for refusing to permit humanitarian relief assistance into conflict zones in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile State — was initially in line for the chairmanship of a session dealing with humanitarian assistance. It agreed to swap the post with Pakistan following an outcry from the United States and other Western governments. A formal decision is supposed to be announced on Friday.

The reason that controversial governments routinely come under consideration for U.N. assignments that promote causes, like human rights, that they suppress at home, is due to the influence of regional blocs that assign plum jobs.

The principal U.N. regional groups — the Arab Group, the Asia Group, the Africa Group, the Latin American Group, and the Western European and Others Group (which includes the United States) — have traditionally each put forth a slate of candidates for key U.N. posts, thereby forgoing the demands of an open election. The groups seek to ensure each country in their group gets a shot at serving on key U.N. committees and panels.

"This is a problem that has plagued the United Nations for decades," said one Western official. "Clearly, regional groups have fallen down on the job when they put forward embarrassingly inappropriate candidates to represent them."

The United States and other Western powers have sought to block particularly egregious candidates for sensitive posts by persuading blocs to select another government from their region to jump the queue and enter the race, forcing an election. For instance, Western powers have previously derailed campaigns by Iran, Syria, and Sudan to important positions on a range of U.N. bodies, from the Security Council to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

But those countries simply remain at the front of the line for the next opening. Over time, a persistent ambassador, no matter his country’s record, can generally find his or her way on to a senior U.N. committee posting.

In some cases, the big powers have stepped aside to permit a U.N. outlier a clear path to a post. For instance, after Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi agreed to renounce his nuclear weapon program and permit U.S. inspections of its weapons sites, the Bush administration stood aside, allowing Tripoli to secure a Security Council seat and the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly.

So might the United States have allowed Iran, its nuclear negotiating partner and the current chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, a pass when it secured a vice presidency on UNICEF executive board earlier this month?

Absolutely not, said U.S. officials. "We disapprove of the selection of Iran as the Asia Group VP on UNICEF’s bureau," Erin Pelton, the spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, wrote on Twitter earlier this month. "We will register our objection."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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

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