'The Untouchables' of the United Nations

Employment in the UN can be bureaucratic and 'socially stratified' if you work from a headquarters.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 370 (R) (photo credit: Ki Price / Reuters)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 370 (R)
(photo credit: Ki Price / Reuters)
Let me tell you a secret. Unknown to many people outside the organization, the United Nations has a caste system of social stratification, with a group of staff akin to “The Untouchables.”
These people may be competent, professional and well-qualified, but UN staff at headquarters duty stations (eg, New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi) prefer to keep them at a distance by forbidding them from entering the sanctity of their offices.
Why? Because while those working in national foreign ministries are subject to a mandatory rotational system, in the UN, if you are firmly ensconced at a headquarters location, you cling to your position with all your might and ensure no outsider (such as field staff who often work in hardship and hazardous conditions) takes it away from you. Just like a coveted crown jewel, safeguarded and protected at all times and at all costs.
I do not condone the use of this term – nor do I agree with it. I merely reveal to others that such a situation exists and is commonly known within the organization itself. When I first started working for a UN peace-keeping mission in Rwanda, I thought it was my moral duty as a human being to assist a country recovering from a horrendous genocide. I’m glad I did, as it ended up being one of the best professional experiences in my life.
However, little did I expect that by agreeing to serve in other post-conflict zones, I would also one day be considered as such: fit for duty in far-off places and removed from the more privileged staff at headquarters.
Similar to the higher echelons of the caste system, many of these headquarter’s staff feel entitled to where they are: they were born to it – and not all earned it.
Family connections, privilege and status, or personal ties, helped place them there.
Once installed, they rarely – if ever – leave.
At the top, are the so-called “godfathers” who protect their protégées in return for their unyielding loyalty and valued information- gathering skills. Just like wily dictators, they carefully choose and groom their successors to ensure their sphere of influence or territory endures after they leave the organization.
These heirs-in-waiting are selected for their personal and professional contributions to their protectors – and not their UN service. The organization only serves as a channel through which rewards (such as promotions and posts) are granted to the favored few.
At the bottom are the untouchables who have not yet entered the power center at headquarters – either because they were not willing to pay the price and climb the greasy pole; or because they were, but did not have the right contacts.
DESPITE KNOWING they would be blacklisted for taking action, some courageous UN staff have tried to change the status quo. In a 2010 case filed with the UN Dispute Tribunal, a staff member contested the hiring of a high-ranking assistant secretary general.
The presiding judge issued several orders requesting documentation and additional information on the selection process, but lawyers representing the UN refused to fully comply and stonewalled the proceedings. They argued that the secretary general has the prerogative of a head of state to make political appointments and his decision could not be challenged. In fact, Article 97 of the UN Charter refers to him as the “chief administrative officer” of the organization – with no mention of his absolute powers or unlimited discretionary authority.
Although the UN claims to have a limited- mobility policy, with maximum or minimum post occupancy periods prior to being reassigned elsewhere in the system, it exists more in theory than practice. Internal surveys are conducted, speeches are given, pledges are made and reports written – but not much seems to change.
This is evident when one enters a headquarters office, where one is immediately struck by the air of stagnancy, inertia and somewhat apathy among the staff. One wishes there was a way of bringing more vibrancy to the place. Maybe these people could be replaced by colleagues banished to the field who would invigorate their working environment a bit.
The current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, seems to agree, as he recently proposed a comprehensive staff-mobility policy as part of his ongoing reforms for the organization. However, diplomats representing UN member states at the last General Assembly session held in December 2012 failed to approve it and deferred the matter for later consideration – even though they are subject to their own mobility policies imposed on them by their own governments.
In other countries, the caste system has been illegal for more than 50 years – now is the time for it to be abolished in the UN.
The writer has served with the United Nations as a political, legal and civil affairs officer around the world.