The American policeman’s knee on poor George Floyd’s neck is the symbol of an era. As if awakened from his voluntary blindness, the whole world discovers the ordeal of men of colour, African-Americans or, to depart from politically correct language, “negroes”. Let’s face it, American police officers do not have a monopoly or trademark of discrimination. International institutions in general and the UN in particular are not exempt from it.
Within the UN system, discrimination is resisting the passage of time and is even experiencing a second youth in an agency like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a freewheeling organization since the appointment of Panamanian Natalia Kanem as its head on 3 October 2017, succeeding the late Nigerian Professor Babatunde Osotimehin. Many Africans reproach “this sister” for looking for the little beast on the basis of colour alone. Paradoxical. When questioned, UN officials refer us to the preamble to the United Nations Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaim the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, “without distinction as to race, colour or national origin.
Admittedly, the United Nations system and its specialized agencies have prohibited discrimination through the adoption of conventions and declarations and have disseminated specific information on the subject and proposed solutions. However, our interlocutor acknowledges that “despite these efforts, many individuals and groups belonging to minorities continue to be subject to various forms of discrimination, even within the United Nations system”. In fact, what is happening at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA))?
Discrimination and disparities within UNFPA
On the one hand, the institution is shaken by an unprecedented wave of abuses of authority and dismissals that mainly target African executives, such as those in the Multilateral Affairs and Governance Division, apparently dissolved at the request of donors.
On the other hand, a policy of reducing the resources allocated to the continent in favour of the headquarters is being developed within this agency. It is disturbing to note that, from now on, in the representations of UNFPA in Africa, the discriminatory trend is also asserting itself. Thus, out of 47 countries where UNFPA has a presence on the continent, 45% of the representatives are non-African, whereas less than three years ago, the African executive representatives were estimated at 30% of the staff in this category.
On the other hand, the presence of UNFPA representatives of African origin in other regions of the world, such as Latin America and Europe, is almost non-existent. “Unfortunately, if the trend at UNFPA is worsening, this is not a specificity of this organization but a sad reality for the majority of UN agencies,” generalizes an African framework under the cover of anonymity. The situation has moreover caused the group of African ambassadors accredited in New York to the UN to react, which has, through authorized channels, brought its concerns to the attention of the UN institution by questioning first, according to our information, behind closed doors, then in the middle of a public meeting of the Board of Directors, the Executive Director of UNFPA on its discriminatory practices and its random management of the institution…
In addition to paradoxical expenditure issues, such as during the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Cairo Plan of Action for Population and Development, where the cocktail party organized on that occasion by the Executive Director had cost US$ 220,000, UNFPA is said to have had a rather peculiar attitude towards African executives.
Indeed, as indicated above, since the death of the former Executive Director of UNFPA, Babatunde Osotimehin, his replacement appointed to the post with, ironically, the unfailing support of the African continent has become the bête noire of the continent’s nationals.
Natalia Kanem, who became executive director in October 2017, dismissed several African executives from the institution in violation of the ethical principles, regulations and procedures that govern the institution. In addition, the management of Babatunde’s replacement at the helm of UNFPA has left several informed observers perceiving a deficit of UN practices and a lack of institutional culture characterized by disregard for Member States, particularly African States. In our cross-checking, we noted, for example, in February and March of this year, that two posts of Deputy Executive Directors were vacant in this UN agency. One of the incumbents resigned for incompatibility and institutional drift, while the other, the Deputy Director-General in charge of programmes, of Ethiopian origin, was simply dismissed under obscure circumstances. This, moreover, constitutes a precedent, because since the creation of the United Nations 75 years ago, never has an organization seen its two deputy posts become vacant in the space of a month. This does not seem to be of concern to the United Nations hierarchy. In 2018, one staff member of Nigerian origin and another of Ghanaian origin had to leave unfpa. The Ghanaian was transferred to the level of the president of the General Assembly first, before leaving the organisation.
In addition to the cases mentioned above, we have learned of other discriminatory acts targeting senior African officials. Most recently, a senior Togolese official within UNFPA serving as a representative in Addis Ababa was unfairly dismissed. The most astute and lucky ones have applied to other UN agencies, while others, including an African executive working for UNFPA in the Indian Ocean, have been dismissed outright.
Senior African officials within UNFPA are marginalized and discriminated against in the workplace and are regularly threatened and harassed by Ms. Kamen’s new chief of staff. In this tense atmosphere, needless to say, junior civil servants of African origin have no voice.
All in all, it is clear that the UNIFPA administration under the leadership of Mrs Kanem is violating the regular principles and procedures of the United Nations in this matter. The Executive Director is reportedly disregarding the decisions of independent UN structures such as the UN Office of Audit and Investigation and even the UN’s own internal administration of justice. More seriously, Mrs Kanem is doing her utmost to disregard the decisions of these bodies when they rule in favour of African executives, thus hampering internal dispute resolution procedures within the UN system.
With regard to the Executive Director of UNFPA, an independent investigation is needed, like the one carried out for Michel Sidibe of UNAIDS, for the same reasons of independence and probity, in order to get around the lack of credibility of the investigation and internal control services, which are subject to pressure and manipulation from the UN hierarchy. Let us not be told that for Africans, independent commissions are used and for others, an internal investigation system that can be stifled.
Doing so demonstrates that there are no different instruments for Africans and others.
The only closed Africa office
Another fact that demonstrates the discriminatory nature of the current director of the UNIFPA, vis-à-vis the African continent, is her decision to close the only Africa office out of the six existing ones. The Africa Liaison Office in Addis Ababa, in the historic capital of Africa, which is home to the headquarters of its emblematic institution, the African Union, has for more than 50 years housed, among other things, the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). The Africa office is the only office in the Executive Director’s sights. In view of the above, and the fact that only African managers are being witch hunted within the new UNIFPA administration, it is more imperative than ever that the UN General Secretariat take adequate measures to address the issue of discrimination against managers within UNIFPA in a timely manner.
Will Africa, with its 54 votes, representing a quarter of the member states of the UN General Assembly, when the time comes, be able to speak with one voice?
As for the UN SG, Antonio Guterres, in a tweet published on June 5, 2020, in connection with the victims of racism, declared that “the fight against racism is at the heart of the UN’s work, should he not move from indignation to action. “Racism exists everywhere, it exists within the United Nations …” he said in a kind of admission of powerlessness.
Will he come and inspect the UNFPA to assess the treatment of “minorities”? Will he dare to go down to those many departments of the UN Secretariat, such as the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), where the presence of African professionals is almost non-existent? Will he look at UNDP, UNICEF, WFP and all those agencies that have their knees on the necks of managers who will not be able to breathe if nothing is done?
A member of the African Group of Ambassadors to the UN told us about something that was investigated within the UN but subsequently hushed up. He pointed out to us that an African and a “Caucasian” who are recruited on the same day at the same grade and with equal competence at the UN do not evolve in the same way. After a decade, the Caucasian will have risen through the ranks while the African will have remained at virtually the same level. This was stated in the conclusions of an internal UN commission on racism within the venerable institution . A team that was quickly dismantled to better stifle this embarrassing agenda.
Are we to conclude that in the UN, gender issues, which should prevail over equal competence, have largely taken precedence over questions of geographical distribution and competence, values so deeply rooted in the San Francisco Charter?