Big Powers Clip U.N. Secretary-General’s Wings

In an early challenge to António Guterres' independence, the United States and other veto-wielding powers insist on filling U.N. jobs with their own picks.

António Guterres attends a press conference presenting the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre report in Geneva on May 14, 2014. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
António Guterres attends a press conference presenting the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre report in Geneva on May 14, 2014. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres may be the world’s most visible diplomat. But he is quickly learning that he is far from the most powerful.

The former Portuguese prime minister is facing stiff resistance from the United States and other key U.N. powers to filling his top cabinet posts with diplomats of his own choosing, raising early concerns about how much independence he will be able to exercise.

In his first weeks on the job, Guterres sought to shake up the great-power monopoly on top U.N. posts, and cast a wider recruiting net, hiring a Nigerian politician as his deputy and a Brazilian diplomat as his chief of staff.

But his attempts to install aspirants outside the exclusive club of the five veto-wielding U.N. powers — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — to lead the U.N.’s sprawling peacekeeping, political, and humanitarian relief operations have largely run aground. That has dashed the hopes of smaller member countries and outside groups seeking a break from his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, who was criticized for being too beholden to the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The U.N. announced Tuesday that a French diplomat, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, will head up the U.N. peacekeeping department for one year, extending a 20-year lock on the job. Meanwhile, Britain and China remain favorites to retain control over the departments responsible for coordinating U.N. emergency relief operations and economic and social affairs, respectively. And the United States will keep the top political job, which it has held for the past decade, after Guterres tried and failed to persuade Obama administration officials to allow a national outside the big five powers to take on the role. Guterres has asked Jeffrey Feltman, a retired career foreign service officer who was recommended for the job by the Obama administration, to remain as under-secretary-general in the department of political affairs until April 2018.

The U.N. head made it clear to American officials during the final months of the Obama administration that he would have liked to have had “some flexibility to rearrange the deck chairs” in his cabinet, a former U.S. official familiar with the discussions told Foreign Policy. “We were not willing to show him goodwill on this issue. I expect that was disappointing to him,” the official said.

The French and British “dug in,” insisting that they hold on to the top jobs at heading the U.N. peacekeeping and emergency relief efforts, according to the official.

Any hope the Trump administration would show more flexibility on the jobs front were quickly dashed when Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, publicly blocked Guterres’s appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as the head of the U.N. mission in Libya.

The scuttling of Fayyad’s appointment has driven home the fact that Guterres faces “serious political constraints” in calling his own shots, said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. But Gowan said Guterres may have an ace in his hand.

Guterres placed a time limit on Tuesday’s appointments, committing only to keeping French and American leadership of the peacekeeping and political departments for a year. In the meantime, his office will carry out plans for a reorganization of the U.N. bureaucracy that could eliminate some of these posts or merge them.

“If Guterres is smart, he can use the reorganization to strengthen his own position” by reducing the power of the department heads beneath him, Gowan argued.

Guterres is now grappling with simmering resentment from the rest of the U.N.’s 193 member states, who sought assurances during his campaign that he would end the big-power monopoly that they believe runs contrary of the spirit of the U.N. charter and a succession of resolutions by the U.N. General Assembly that explicitly call for an end to the practice.

A group of 25 countries recently called on Guterres to open the top jobs up for competition among nationals from the U.N.’s 193 member states. The push comes after a successful global campaign last year by governments and good-governance groups to open the race for the U.N.’s top job. Those groups are now frustrated that the selection of senior appointees is largely playing out in secret.

Breaking the big powers’ hold on the senior jobs “is the only way he can truly ensure the independence of the U.N.’s policies or advice,” argued Carne Ross, the founder of Independent Diplomat, a New York-based nongovernmental organization that provides diplomatic advisory services.

The appointment process has long fueled suspicions that U.N. secretaries-general have traded top jobs to big powers in exchange for supporting their candidacies. That perception can do “serious damage” to the U.N. ability to serve as an honest brokers, said Bob Orr, a former top official in Kofi Annan’s and Ban Ki-moon’s administrations.

The U.N. charter prohibits its civil servants from acting on behalf of any government, and each new employee is required to swear an oath of loyalty to the United Nations. In practice, top U.N. political appointees — who generally owe their job to their governments — often had divided loyalties.

A high-ranking official during the Bush administration, Christopher Burnham, used to wear an American flag pin on his lapel. His first loyalty, he once said, was to the U.S. taxpayer.

Some say it is only sensible to recruit nationals from the big powers to help ensure they have a stake in the success of the U.N. The placement of senior officials with close personal relations with the world’s leading powers can reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings. And both Feltman and Lacroix are widely viewed as capable diplomats.

“It’s like the LBJ line” about the controversial FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, said Simon Adams, the executive director of a human rights advocacy group, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. “Better to have them inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.”

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

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