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Recruitment of the UN’s humanitarian chief raises questions about the UK’s conduct in Yemen

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Recruitment of the UN’s humanitarian chief raises questions about the UK’s conduct in Yemen

The UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, the head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Mark Lowcock, has announced his intention to stand down from the role as soon as a suitable replacement is found.

OCHA coordinates the UN’s humanitarian relief work. It works to ensure that the disaster responses of countries, NGOs, and UN agencies are mutually supportive and reinforcing, and fundraises to ensure survivors’ needs are met. While the direct budget and staffing of OCHA is relatively small it coordinates the spending of some $35 billion in humanitarian assistance – nearly 10 times the budget of the UN Secretariat and almost as much money as all UN programmes and agencies put together. The role of Emergency Relief Coordinator is thus one of the most important in the UN system.

Like many of the senior roles at the UN, it is informally “ringfenced” for a national of a certain permanent member of the UN Security Council, in this case: the United Kingdom. The last four Emergency Relief Coordinators have been British.


  • The last five heads of UN peacekeeping have been French
  • The last three heads of the UN Department of Political Affairs/Peacebuilding and Political Affairs, the last four heads of UNICEF (and all seven permanent heads of UNICEF) and the last five Executive Directors of the World Food Programme have been American
  • The last three heads of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) have been Chinese
  • A Russian has been head of either the UN Office in Geneva or the UN Office in Vienna since 1993, and Russia is expected to hold the recently created role of head of the UN Office of Counter Terrorism for the foreseeable future.

Overall over the past 10 years 20% of the roles at the rank of Under-Secretary-General or above have gone to the nationals of the five permanent members – a rate nearly 10 times higher than is proportional.

Senior UN officials swear an oath to act as impartial international civil servants and to take no instructions from their home nation. However, the fact that national governments recommend and lobby for candidates creates a perception of influence and partiality. Furthermore, throughout the UN’s history there have been examples of this oath being broken, including a recent, high profile, and unpunished instance at UN DESA. There is no suggestion of British nationals having broken their oath in this manner, but journalists have reported on the various forms of influence the British Government holds over OCHA.

Monopolies on top UN appointments by powerful states also undermine the independence of the UN Secretary-General and can skew the selection process for the UN’s leader. 1 for 7 Billion – the civil society campaign for an open, fair Secretary-General appointment process cofounded by UNA-UK – released a paper examining the unfortunate practise of P5 countries extracting promises from candidates of top jobs for their nationals in return for their support.

For these reasons UNA-UK has long campaigned against national ringfencing, which damages both the legitimacy of the UN as a global organisation with an independent international civil service, and also its performance through a failure to recruit for senior roles on merit. It also goes against the UN’s own regulations: General Assembly Resolution 46/232 demands that no senior official ever succeed an official of the same nationality into the same role. Our recent Together First campaign has reiterated this demand that UN appointments be made on merit and open to all, following a global talent search.

In addition to it being inappropriate for any UN member state to claim ownership of any role, there are specific reasons why it might be inappropriate for the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator to be British. The worst humanitarian crisis the United Nations faces is that in Yemen: a man made crisis primarily perpetuated by a Saudi-led coalition with the strong support of the United Kingdom. With the United States now reconsidering its support for this coalition and suspending arms sales, the UK’s insistence on continuing to fuel the conflict with £1.4 billion in weapons sales despite the dubious legality of doing so, reduces the chance of respite for Yemeni civilians and leaves the UK increasingly isolated and vulnerable to criticism.

With the UK dramatically cutting its aid budget and closing its world-leading Department for International Development, and with questions continuing to be unanswered about the UK’s global role post Brexit, reservations about the propriety of the Secretary-General yet again appointing a Briton as Emergency Relief Coordinator are likely to surface.

UNA-UK firmly believes that all appointments to senior positions in the UN system should be on merit, and not reserved for any one country. But if the UK does want to ensure its candidates have the best possible chance of being appointed, they should end their complicity in the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe by suspending arms sales to parties to the conflict in Yemen.

Photo: Mark Lowcock briefs the Security Council meeting on the situation in Yemen (Feb 2020). Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elías