Racism at the UN: Internal audit reveals deep-rooted problems

By Marième Soumaré

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., 20 November 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

In the words of a former senior official at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA): “When you start working at the UN, an institution that was entirely conceived and founded on the basis of equality and human rights, you never imagine this kind of behaviour. Some of my colleagues dropped hints about the culture there when I began my job. But I was in denial until I was personally confronted with discrimination. I’ll never forget the disrespectful looks some people would give me and the colleagues who’d make up bogus excuses to leave meetings I was presiding over.”

Fired after two years on the job at the agency, he claims he was a victim of discrimination. What’s more, he says he is far from alone.

‘I felt I had to file a complaint’

“The UN’s internal rules are awe-inspiring and its administrative structure is beyond reproach,” he adds.

“But some people within the institution, which has an extremely competitive environment, band together against us Africans.” Despite his fear of retaliation, he decided to file a complaint – keeping his expectations low – with an internal UN body a few months after being forced out of the institution.

This was in June 2020, not long after the world had collectively watched the slow, torturous death of George Floyd, an African-American killed on 25 May by a police officer in Minneapolis. His murder sparked an outcry and anger seeped all the way into the UN’s conference rooms.

“I felt I had to file a complaint,” says the source, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I told myself that even if it wouldn’t wipe away the unfair treatment I experienced, it could be useful someday. It was like leaving a formal trace of what happened to me.”

But is the UN ready to have “an honest conversation” on the racism within its own ranks? This is what UN Secretary-General António Guterres has undertaken to do, after acknowledging on 4 June 2020 that this scourge “also exists within the United Nations”.

“But we have not paid enough attention within the organisation to the specific question of racial bias and discrimination,” he conceded during a virtual town hall meeting, adding that “a plan of action” and “an open debate” were forthcoming.

African ambassadors and permanent representatives to the UN are eager to be involved. On 30 December 2020, they drafted a call to action titled “United against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”, which the Permanent Observer Mission of the African Union (AU) to the UN sent to Guterres on 4 January.

Career development, disrespect and exclusion

The document’s signatories underline the complaints they frequently receive and which prove that “a general climate of discrimination” exists within the institution – one that creates barriers to the recruitment and promotion of certain individuals.

“We strongly encourage the secretary-general to step up his efforts to implement measures aimed at eliminating racism and discrimination in all its forms,” write the UN diplomats in the letter.

All of the ambassadors contacted for this article confirmed, on the condition of anonymity, that they have received such complaints, and some even indicated that this wake-up call is a long time coming. They all express a desire for change and believe the system needs to be reformed.

According to one such diplomat: “A number of Africans have told us that they were unable to get a promotion or pursue career advancement opportunities for years, and they realise the problem goes well beyond their individual experiences.”

The same source also says that a first of its kind internal staff survey assessing perceptions of racism in the UN system gave some the courage to speak up. According to the findings of the survey, which was conducted in June 2020 by the United Nations People of African Descent (UN-PAD) – a platform for the coordination of the engagement between the UN administration and UN personnel of African descent – 52% of 2,857 respondents said they had experienced some form of racism.

The survey report lists a host of concrete examples under categories such as career development, disrespect, exclusion, disproportionate sanctions, harassment and discrimination.

As one respondent put it: “The most important decisions such as the recruitment of international staff are based on racial criteria.”

Another complained: “When it comes to downsizing, staff of African descent are often the first to be targeted.” While “microaggressions” are certainly not unheard of in the workplace, it does come as a shock to learn that they are rampant within an international, multicultural institution.

A selection of the accounts of racism compiled in the report give a view into this world:

  • “Once a colleague referred to Africans as still living in trees.”
  • “A colleague once remarked that I did not need a lift because I could run fast because of my heritage.”
  • “I’ve been told, ‘You speak so well. You speak like you have been educated in another country’ [than my own].”
  • “When I complained about blatant racism, I was told I was being too sensitive and that I had no sense of humour.”

UN-PAD went on to conclude: “While it would be easy to describe them as anecdotal, we must be cognisant of the fact that […] these are perceptions that are held by UN personnel” and “the issue of racial discrimination and racial bias is widely witnessed [and] experienced”.

UN, the preserve of the West?

Back in November, The Africa Report published an article with the headline “Is the UN racist?”, in the wake of a story that appeared in Foreign Policy on Westerners’ overrepresentation in the organisation.

The UN-PAD report essentially answered “Yes” to this question, as did most UN diplomats, senior officials and members surveyed for this article. The problem is “structural”.

While the institution has had two African secretary-generals – Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali from 1992-1996 and Ghana’s Kofi Annan from 1997-2006 – in its 76 years of existence, these leaders never made much of an impact where institutional racism is concerned. The UN is said to struggle to offer equal opportunities to its 37,000 employees: the most sought-after and best-paying jobs “go disproportionately to Westerners”.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is a textbook example of these employment disparities. Created in 1991, this UN Secretariat body has been headed by Mark Lowcock, a British national, since 2017. As of 2007, three other UK government officials have led OCHA, including one Black woman, Valerie Amos.

At this time, not one African serves in its 16-member senior leadership team, even though “members of the African country blocs account for 23% of overall posts” according to Foreign Policy. The situation at the UN’s New York headquarters follows a similar pattern, as “[a]t least 90% of employees in some divisions and branches […] are Westerners”.

While the British have made OCHA their preserve, each of the UN Security Council’s other permanent member countries seem to have staked their claim on a particular UN body based on their respective interests.

For instance, France exercises its influence over the Department of Peace Operations (DPO). Granted, the secretary-general has been careful to appoint Africans to oversee peacekeeping missions in Africa:

  • Senegal’s Mankeur N’Diaye leads MINUSCA (Central African Republic);
  • Algeria’s Leïla Zerrougui heads up MONUSCO (Democratic Republic of Congo) and will shortly pass on the reins to Guinea’s Bintou Keïta;
  • Chad’s Mahamat Saleh Annadif is responsible for MINUSMA (Mali);
  • And Ethiopia’s Kefyalew Amde Tessema is tasked with UNISFA (in Abyei, a contested region between Sudan and South Sudan).

Nevertheless, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, a French national, is currently in charge of the DPO, carrying on a 24-year tradition of French leadership.

Then, there is China, which has led the Department of Economic and Social Affairs for more than a decade. The United States, for its part, dominates the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.

Africans left on the sidelines

The underlying question is a financial one. Now, more than half of the UN’s total budget, which reached $3.2bn in 2021, comes from five sources. The United States, by far the largest contributor, accounts for 22% of the overall budget, and US nationals make up 7% of the entire UN workforce, more than any other country. One UN official puts it succinctly: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

“Our General Assembly has 193 member states, but decision-making ultimately falls to five countries [the US, Russia, China, France and the UK, as permanent members of the Security Council],” says a regional head of a UN agency in Africa. “This completely corrupt system is in place at UN agencies and offices, where nationals from main donor countries get special advantages.”

This same senior civil servant bitterly recounts how he was once forced to hire a national from a contributor country on the basis of their country of citizenship rather than their qualifications. Several UN staffers describe this same flawed system that allows certain Western officials to hire – or have others hire – their fellow countrymen and women, even though such practices flout transparency in recruitment policies.

Africans are being left on the sidelines. “The UN is a Western-built institution,” says a former UN official. “Western countries dominate the international policy apparatus just as much as the human resources side. This highly pernicious system helps perpetuate a culture of racial imbalance at the institution.”

Last June, Collen Vixen Kelapile, ambassador of Botswana to the UN and the then representative of the African Group, broached the issue of racism during a meeting with the Secretary-General.

Is zero tolerance a mirage?

Underlining the importance the group places on ensuring “equitable geographic representation” and improving internal justice mechanisms, Kelapile also reminded Guterres of his commitment to enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on misconduct.

“We have taken note of your firm, unequivocal stance on racism,” he said. “We want to know what measures the UN is taking to address this issue.”

Shortly before this meeting took place, Guterres had issued an internal memo requesting that the organisation’s staffers refrain from participating in Black Lives Matter protests. After the memo caused a stir, Guterres quickly back-pedalled.

Around the same time, more than 20 senior officials of African descent published a statement condemning racism and calling on the institution to “step up and act decisively to help end systemic racism”.

But, as one UN civil servant says, the editorial “was a flop”. The initiative rubbed the organisation the wrong way in part because one of its signatories, Panama’s Natalia Kanem, has come under heavy criticism within the UN.

Kanem has been in charge of the UNFPA ever since the 2017 death of Nigeria’s Babatunde Osotimehin. Several members or ex-members of the fund have anonymously spoken out against instances of African nationals being unfairly dismissed from their posts. As a person of African descent, Kanem spent a portion of her career on the continent and African countries have come to her defence, as they backed her appointment.

Internal audit revelations

In the wake of an internal audit carried out in 2019 by the Office of Audit and Investigation Services, the representative of the African Group sounded the alarm on a certain number of abuses by management during the fund’s Executive Board meeting.

He mentioned “fraudulent practices and financial irregularities” and “work harassment and abuse of authority”. In reaction to the report, the representative said that “Certain problems […] deeply concern the African Group.”

According to another UNFPA civil servant, this statement sent a strong signal, but once again, no action was taken. While appearing before the Executive Board, Kanem denied all allegations of racism.

Is the UN’s zero-tolerance policy actually enforced? Many sources say they “don’t want to make waves” and some even fear they will face retaliation if they file a complaint with the institution’s various dispute resolution bodies, such as the Ethics Office, the Office of the Ombudsman and Mediation Services, and the Office of Internal Oversight Services.

As a last resort, cases may be referred to the UN’s internal dispute tribunal, but the procedures for filing an application with the legal body are complex and often misunderstood.

“In disputes involving racism, case law requires clear and convincing evidence. And, [in such disputes], finding objective facts is very complicated,” says an African adviser to the tribunal, adding that Africans tend to receive harsher punishments when they face disciplinary proceedings.

“The system doesn’t work and lacks independence,” he says. “The tragedy is that African countries are unable to play their role and express their solidarity.”

Is the statement released on 4 January a sign that African ambassadors, who at times have been criticised for their inaction, intend to tackle the problem head-on? To give more weight to their call to action, African member countries decided to send the document to all 193 member states, some 20 of which agreed to sign it. Donor countries were, however, absent among them.

Guterres to stand for a second term

As of 11 January 2021, the ninth UN Secretary-General is officially running for a second term. Prior to taking up his duties in 2017, Guterres, currently 71, had served as prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 and later as head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR) from 2005 to 2015.

In October 2017, for his first trip to promote UN peacekeepers’ work, he chose to visit the Central African Republic. Known to prefer closed-door discussions over dramatic statements, the diplomat has no announced challenger, at least for the time being.

“The Security Council likes leaders who don’t stand up to it, and Mr Guterres falls neatly into that category,” says Louis Charbonneau, UN director at the non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch. “His strategy consists of avoiding confrontation with the major powers, as in the US, Russia and China.”

If he is re-appointed UN chief at the end of 2021, will he decide to make combating racism one of his (new) key priorities?

The Africa Report

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