Whisper it softly, but whisper it we must. Does the United Nations discriminate on grounds of nationality?

Singapore’s scholar-diplomat-public intellectual Kishore Mahbubani famously wrote a book asking if Asians can think. The U.N. does not seem to believe so.

Some years ago, a widely admired U.N. official was pulled out of the Balkans because Europeans would not accept a non-European as head of the U.N. mission. Hypocritically Europeans do not apply this logic to excuse themselves from serving as heads of U.N. missions elsewhere.

We have seen the same double standards in the choice of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund chiefs. Under a cozy, self-serving EU-U.S. arrangement, an American gets the former and a European the latter. Neither Americans nor Europeans blush when they lecture others on good governance norms.

The position of U.N. secretary general (SG) is protected against such shenanigans by the rotation principle for each geographical grouping. But almost all the top U.N. posts after that, at the ranks of deputy, under and assistant secretary-general, are within the SG’s personal discretion. So too the large number of his special representatives and envoys.

Unlike parliamentary systems, the top ranks of the U.N. service are not filled by career officials chosen by an independent commission. The practice is closer to the U.S. system where the president chooses his own inner circle. But there, senior appointments, including ambassadors, are subject to independent confirmation by the Senate. The U.N. does not have a comparable check on whimsical and unsuitable senior appointments.

Ban Ki-moon has been commendably conscious of and good at appointing women to senior ranks. But he and the system are yet to be sensitized to the fact that the top-level under-representation of non-Westerners is even worse.

The situation persists not just because Western donor countries use money power and are more focussed in lobbying for their nationals. An even more telling explanation is that the developing countries fail to act in pursuit of their collective interest, are not equally committed to backing their own, and some do not wish to jeopardize their individual chances of a cushy U.N. post.

Almost all the powerful and big-budget senior posts in the Secretariat and wider U.N. system are filled by developed-country nationals: peacekeeping, political and humanitarian affairs, development and environment programs, management, children’s fund, refugees, etc.

For the same ability, qualifications and experience, Western U.N. officials can usually expect to retire two ranks higher than the rest.

Asians contribute about half the U.N.’s total peacekeepers and one-quarter of its regular and peacekeeping budget (most from Japan) and have suffered one-quarter of U.N. peacekeeping deaths.

Yet when I looked into the statistics a decade ago, two-thirds of senior peacekeeping officials were Westerners. In the U.N. Secretariat overall, Asians comprised a mere 17 percent at director rank and above. This for a continent that accounts for 60 percent the world’s population, is not short of experienced and sophisticated diplomats, and has many high achievers. Between them, Canada and the United States, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, had the same number of senior staff in the Secretariat as Asia.

I don’t know the comparable numbers today, but another set of figures is publicly available. A decade ago, Asians comprised a mere 12 percent of high-level representatives.

Today, according to the U.N. website, of the total of 94 special representatives/envoys of the SG, 16 percent are Asian, 30 percent African (almost all dealing with African crises), and 52 percent from Europe, North America and Australia, with nine out of ten of the latter dealing with non-Western and global problems. This is like Western academia. If you are Western, you can specialize in any topic or region. If you are non-Western, you are expected to inhabit the intellectual ghetto of your own country or continent.

Consider two examples. To avoid being misunderstood: my comments do not apply to particular individuals. I am interested only in the patterns of over and under-representation and the consequences for the U.N.’s legitimacy and effectiveness.

We would have been rightly outraged if the first two heads of U.N. Women had been men, no matter how capable and eminent the individuals.

Why is there no matching outrage and unacceptability when the head of the Development Program is a Westerner? No matter how well intentioned, they cannot possibly know the political and social imperatives driving development strategies, policies and choices. The developing-country background and experiences of Mahbub-ul Haq and Amartya Sen were crucial, not incidental, to the emergence and enduring appeal of the notion of human development.

Or take the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). The likely sites and targets of intervention in the foreseeable future will be developing countries. Their people will benefit if mass atrocities are stopped and suffer if not, or if geopolitical and commercial interventions are masked in humanitarian language. The interveners can come from advanced and/or developing countries.

Therefore, conversations on R2P should occur primarily among the civil societies and governments of developing countries, and secondly between developing and advanced countries. And the SG’s special adviser on R2P to help develop and refine the norm should be a powerful intellectual from the global South to facilitate the two sets of conversations.

Instead we have had two North Americans. This will not be helpful in combating re-emerging sentiment that the norm, in whose origins Africans (Kofi Annan, Francis Deng, Mohamed Sahnoun) played crucial roles, is being hijacked and appropriated by the West to serve the old and discredited humanitarian intervention agenda, or to pursue regime change (Libya, Syria). How long will the division of labor last, of Westerners as norm setters and enforcers and the rest as norm takers?

Why, with their numbers, do developing countries put up with such clear bias?

One dispiriting answer might be that, as a particularly insidious consequence of the century of European colonialism, non-Westerners have themselves internalized the sense of racial superiority of Westerners. The immigration, customs and security officials in developing countries are often more obviously racist than in the West.

Which champion of developing countries will bell this U.N. cat and take the lead in demanding an explanation-cum-correction of the bias?

Ramesh Thakur, a former senior U.N. official, is professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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