Big-Power Rivalries Hamstring Top U.N. Missions

Big and small powers increasingly handpick U.N. special representatives, testing the authority and independence of the U.N. secretary-general.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres speaks in New York.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres speaks during a press briefing at United Nations headquarters in New York on Feb. 4. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

The U.N. effort to select a leader for an important new mission to promote peace and democracy in Sudan has foundered in the face of internal Sudanese divisions and big-power competition, pitting France against Russia and China and raising questions about the U.N. leader’s authority to select his own envoys.

Since early June, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has proposed two candidates to lead the newly established United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, which was created to help Sudan’s new government in its fragile political transition to democracy. Both have faced pushback.

The first, Nicholas Haysom of South Africa, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter who has led missions in Afghanistan and Somalia, was passed over by Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in early June. The second, a French diplomat with extensive experience in Africa, Jean-Christophe Belliard, was subsequently blocked by China and Russia, on the grounds that he potentially lacked the support of the Sudanese military.

The dispute sheds light on the secretive, and highly politicized, process of selecting leaders of key U.N. peace missions, requiring closed-door politicking by the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council. In the past three years, a growing proportion of U.N. mission chiefs, called special representatives of the secretary-general, or SRSGs, have been largely imposed by host governments or big powers, bypassing the U.N.’s competitive hiring process. 

The trend has raised concerns among some U.N. insiders that the selection process may result in top envoys beholden to governments being foisted on the U.N. chief. It also has fueled concern that U.N. mission chiefs may be unwilling to dole out tough love to governments for fear of being iced out of internal deliberations or declared persona non grata.

The limits of Guterres’s authority in selecting his own representatives came into stark relief early in his tenure. In February 2017, he announced the appointment of a well-regarded former Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to lead the U.N. mission in Libya, only to face protest from the Trump administration. Nikki Haley, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued that Palestinian nationals could not be considered for senior U.N. jobs; the U.S. pushback effectively killed off Fayyad’s candidacy.

The United States has also prevented the United Nations from appointing a new special representative for Libya. Ghassan Salame, a former Lebanese culture minister and U.N. troubleshooter, resigned in March after complaining that key member states, including members of the Security Council, were exacerbating the conflict by channeling arms to the warring factions. 

The United States has said it wants to split the responsibilities of the U.N. mission into two posts: a senior official responsible for managing the U.N. mission in Libya and a separate senior official to oversee peace negotiations between Libya’s warring factions. 

“Because of the nature of the crisis in Libya, whoever is picked as [U.N. envoy] would spend all of his or her time running the humanitarian lifeline out of Tunisia into Tripoli, which leaves no time for high-level negotiations to resolve the conflict,” one U.S. diplomatic source said.

But the United States has neglected to begin negotiations on a U.N. Security Council resolution required to create a two-headed leadership position. The deadlock has left an American national, Stephanie Williams, as the mission’s acting special representative. Williams is scheduled to leave the mission in early fall, potentially deepening the leadership vacuum.

In April, the United States blocked the appointment of two African candidates, including former Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, to replace Salame. Washington has since placed a hold on a second African candidate, Hanna Tetteh, a former Ghanaian foreign minister who serves as the U.N representative to the African Union. U.N.-based diplomats say the United States has been holding out for a European envoy. 

The United States has approached at least two European officials—former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Bert Koenders, a former Dutch foreign minister who served as a special representative to the secretary-general in Ivory Coast and Mali—according to diplomatic sources. Both have turned the job down.

Meanwhile, the United States and France have battled over who should lead the international body’s mission in Mali as terrorist groups gain strength in West Africa’s Sahel region. Both countries are vying for greater influence over the mission: The Trump administration is pushing to have an American fill the role, while the French want an envoy from a French-speaking African country.

The permanent five members of the Security Council have long exercised quiet influence over the appointment of U.N. special representatives. But some critics say Guterres has been too deferential to host countries and big powers in selecting his top envoys, undercutting the U.N.’s independence, or recalling them when they clash with the government’s leaders.

Guterres replaced two of his special representatives following complaints from host governments. In 2018, Guterres reassigned Susan Page, an American who headed the U.N. mission in Haiti, to a job at U.N. headquarters following protests from the government that she had encouraged an investigation into government corruption. Haysom, who was appointed special representative to Somalia in September 2018, was declared persona non grata by the government in January 2019.

The government was infuriated by a December 2018 letter, issued under Haysom’s name, to the security minister in Baidoa, Somalia, that raised concerns about the legality of the arrest and detention by U.N.-supported Somali security forces of a former al-Shabab terrorist leader and about 300 mostly child demonstrators. The incident resulted in the deaths of 15 people. The letter, which was signed by Haysom’s subordinate when the special representative was out of the country, also raised concern about a videotaped statement from a senior police commissioner in Baidoa, who issued a warning to demonstrators calling for the impeachment of the Somali president. “If you participate in a demonstration that we are not informed [about] and you support something bad, we will shoot you in the a** and the law allows for them [police] to kill you [demonstrators],” the police commissioner said, according to the letter.

Haysom was unaware the letter had been sent.

Some U.N. officials privately complained that Guterres—who pressed the Somali leadership to reconsider its decision and publicly supported Haysom—did not mount a sufficiently robust defense of either official, sending a “chilling signal” to other U.N. field representatives.

“The message this sends to all SRSGs is if you ever get into trouble with your host government, you are on your own,” one former U.N. official said. If a government is allowed to choose its own U.N. representative, the official said, it is “always going to choose someone who is going to be its poodle, someone who will never report badly about your country to the Security Council and never criticize you for violations of human rights.”

But others have defended Guterres, noting that he has little power to prevent a country from rejecting the U.N. representative. They also noted that Guterres recently refused an effort by Cameroon to withdraw the U.N.’s top official there, Allegra Maria Del Pilar Baiocchi, after Cameroon threatened to expel her.

“The secretary-general has always backed his envoys, in many circumstances in very robust dialogue with member states,” a senior U.N. official told Foreign Policy. “In the rare situations of absolute refusal by governments to work, cooperate, or engage with the envoy, the secretary-general … has to acknowledge a situation that de facto renders the U.N. work and mandates nearly impossible.”

“The Secretary-General’s envoy and representatives in the field operate with his full confidence,” Stéphane Dujarric, the U.N. chief’s top spokesperson, told Foreign Policy in a written statement. “He has always ensured that they have the right tools to do their job and his political backing.”

While Guterres is responsible for senior hires, he is also required to consult with the Security Council over appointments to positions mandated by the 15-nation council, Dujarric added. “The core principle is always based on merit and takes into consideration geographic and gender diversity.”

In his first two years in office, Guterres appointed only about half of his top envoys through a competitive selection process, according to internal U.N. figures produced by the Department of Peace Operations and obtained by Foreign Policy

Last year, only six out of 16 special representatives were hired through a competitive selection process—the other 10 were selected by direct appointment. (That not only underscores the growing influence of member states, but it has also undercut Guterres’s plans to promote gender parity. While four of six heads of mission selected through a competitive hiring process were women, only one of the 10 mission heads appointed directly was a woman.)

Dujarric countered that under Guterres’s tenure the total percentage of women in senior field positions—including deputy heads of mission, the vast majority of whom are hired from within the U.N. ranks—reached 42 percent in 2019. Dujarric said that was “the highest proportion ever reached. He will continue his efforts towards full gender parity.”

In Khartoum, the wrangling over the U.N. position also highlights divisions within Sudan’s fragile post-revolution government, as well as France’s ambitions to expand its diplomatic role in the former British colony.

More than a year after protests ousted longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, military and civilian leaders are in an uneasy coalition in a transitional government. The military and civilian factions are at odds over who to back to be the new U.N. envoy, officials and people familiar with the matter said, emblematic of larger fissures that some analysts fear are hampering Sudan’s democratic transition.

Tapping a U.N. envoy for Sudan has become more urgent in light of the civilian-led government’s precarious position, as it faces headwinds from a weak economy, the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across East Africa, the looming power of the military and security services, and Sudanese people impatiently pushing for faster democratic reforms. Khartoum-based foreign diplomats say a strong U.N. envoy could play a key role in helping to address these challenges. 

“If you have a good SRSG, they can help stem the influence of the military and other bad actors from the Bashir era. That’s not saying they will be the tipping point, but they can be part of a broader network of people that help push forward the democratic transition,” one diplomat said.

Guterres initially approached Hamdok, the Sudanese prime minister, to inform him of his decision to appoint Haysom, whom he had appointed senior advisor in April 2019 to support the African Union’s mediation efforts in Sudan after Bashir was removed. But Hamdok demurred.

Haysom’s initial relationship with the military leaders who ran Sudan after Bashir’s fall was rocky, as they associated him with the international effort to promote a transfer of power to civilian rule. But Hamdok welcomed Haysom to Khartoum after he was sworn in as prime minister. The relationship, according to U.N. insiders, was cordial and productive.

But Hamdok, who was being courted by France, and was hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in late September, said he would prefer Belliard, the French candidate, for the job. Diplomats say that Hamdok was convinced that Belliard was in a better position to attract more funding from France, and the European Union.

Guterres assented.

But the deal was far from done.

Belliard faced opposition from within the Sudanese military, which enlisted the support of Moscow and Beijing to scuttle the appointment. Russia is said to have raised concern about the need for broader geographical representation at the head of U.N. missions. Russia also raised concern about a potential conflict of interest: Belliard is married to a Sudanese woman.

But France, which is trying to persuade the Sudanese military to relent, has continued to press for Belliard. 

Some U.N. diplomats have speculated that Russian opposition to the French candidate was fueled in part by the role France, along with Britain and the United States, played this year in blocking a senior Russian security official from being hired for a top-level job with the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization, one of the U.N. oldest missions, in the Middle East.

“This is a tit for tat for the Western powers blocking a Russian general for a mission earlier this year,” a senior Western diplomat said. 

Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. diplomat now at the Atlantic Council, said Guterres’s decision to select a candidate favored by the Sudanese government may suggest that he wants to put somebody in that would strengthen the power and influence of Sudan’s civilian prime minister during a particularly challenging transition. But he worries the gambit might result in the U.N. developing too cozy a relationship with Hamdok.

“I don’t think that is a successful strategy. For all the hope and optimism in Sudan, there have also been a number of missteps by the transitional government,” Hudson said. “They need tough love by the international community. Having an SRSG who is there as a friend of Hamdok’s and as a cheerleader is probably not what is needed.” 

This story has been updated to include responses from senior U.N. officials.

Correction, July 23, 2020: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the U.N. sent a letter in December 2018 to the Somali government encouraging Mogadishu to allow a former terrorist leader to participate in Somali elections. The letter, which was obtained by Foreign Policy, expressed concern about the legality of the arrest and detention of a former al-Shabab official and 300 child demonstrators at a protest.

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer