Opinion: Is the UN racist?

By François Soudan

Posted on Monday, 2 November 2020 11:14
During the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the headquarters in New York, Wednesday, September 26, 2018.
During the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the headquarters in New York, Wednesday, September 26, 2018. © Richard Drew/AP/SIPA

Seventy-five years after its founding, the UN is still largely the preserve of Westerners and, more specifically, the subspecies of white males.

To ask this question – is the UN racist? – about an organisation whose foundations are based on values of equality between peoples, races and genders, and whose legitimacy was forged in the struggles for decolonisation and against apartheid may seem misplaced.

However, a survey in mid-October in the journal Foreign Policy suggests that asking that question is tantamount to answering it.

Yes, the UN is still very much the preserve of Westerners, and more precisely of the sub-species of white males.

The fact that two of the nine Secretaries-General of the Organization since its foundation in 1945 – the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali and the Ghanaian Kofi Annan – have been Africans is beside the point.

Of the UN’s 40,000 or so permanent employees, nationals from half a dozen Western countries (United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Spain) occupy a disproportionate place among the best paid and most secure jobs in New York and Geneva.

Conversely, people from the South, and more particularly Africans, are assigned primarily to “field jobs” in conflict zones such as the DR Congo, Mali, the Central African Republic and Somalia.

The sprawling Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which coordinates the activities of the multiple UN emergency relief agencies, is in this respect an almost cartoonlike case in point.

Headed for thirteen years by four successive Under-Secretaries-General, all British, the UN has reserved 70% of the jobs in its New York headquarters for Westerners, a proportion that rises to 90% in certain strategic directions such as communication and policy.

Africans, who account for 23% of the workforce, are invisible at the upper end of the hierarchy.

Colonial heritage

An invisible hand seems to have placed not a glass ceiling but the lid of a pressure cooker on any expression of diversity within OCHA. ‘Money talks’ seems to be the rule at the UN where the famous P5 – the five permanent members of the Security Council – shares the main departments with the elegance of a gentlemen’s agreement.

READ MORE “There is no military solution to the conflict in Libya” – UN Sec-Gen António Guterres

For the Americans, political affairs; for the Russians, security and counter-terrorism; for the Chinese, economic and social affairs – a godsend for their New Silk Roads project – for the British, as we have seen, humanitarian affairs; and for the French, peacekeeping operations, which have been the preserve of Paris for more than twenty years.

It is an illusion to believe that we live in a post-racist world” – Guterres

The current Secretary General, the Portuguese António Guterres, is not unaware of this problem: “African countries are under-represented in international institutions, which were created before most of them became independent,” he explains. “Make no mistake, the legacy of colonialism is still present.”

And he adds: “It is an illusion to believe that we live in a post-racist world.”

To believe that we live in a post-racist world is an illusion.” Guterres, who is doing what he can, with the leeway he has, to promote women from the continent to positions of responsibility, can’t say it enough.

READ MORE Exclusive – UN’s Antonio Guterres: “In the face of the pandemic, a moratorium on African debt is necessary”.

Within the organisation he heads, 52% of staff of African origin say they “have experienced racism,” according to a June survey.

Foreign Policy says another internal survey, commissioned three months ago, had to be cancelled in extremis on the grounds that respondents were asked to specify the colour of their skin: white, black, brown, mixed race and even … yellow.

And who would have thought that in this summer when America burned, following the assassination of George Floyd, the UN Ethics Office would ban the employees of the UN from participating in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, in the name of the sacrosanct neutrality of the organisation?

A democratic deficit

Fifty years ago, however, Ralph Bunche marched alongside Martin Luther King in the famous Selma Civil Rights Marches. Bunche, an African American, was a high-ranking United Official who would later go on to become Assistant Secretary-General and win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Half a century later, the United Nations would do well to take a close look at itself if it wishes to remain the only place where the law is still upheld in a world in the midst of a pandemic of democracies in crisis.

For four years, the president of the most powerful Western democracy, Donald Trump, worked daily to undermine its foundations. For six years, the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, Indian Narendra Modi, has turned Islamophobic Hinduism into a quasi-state religion.

Conversely, but with the same methods and for the same period of time, the new Sultan of one of the few democracies in the Muslim world, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, has been frightening his partners with his Islamo-nationalism and his dreams of expansion.

READ MORE Egypt and Turkey head-to-head in Libya, stalemate looms

Even better (or, rather, worse), a very recent survey by the NGO Freedom House notes that like the Chinese leaders – who have never been as popular at home as in this year 2020 – hyperpopulist but democratically elected heads of state, such as the Brazilian Bolsonaro and the Filipino Duarte, have become ever more popular despite their disastrous management of Covid-19.

It was well known that a democratic election, like a change of power, does not necessarily lead to a “real” democracy. But, at the end of the second decade of the 20th century, even the notion of a democratic election has never seemed so threatened.

And never before have those who persist in teaching Africans lessons in this area been so lacking in credibility.

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