Issue 128 - March 5 - Holmes Stepping Down from Humanitarian Post

New York, March 5, 2010 - John Holmes will step down as UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at the end of August 2010. OCHA announced his decision on February 24. (His decision had been reported by the Inner City Press on February 12.) 

Holmes, who was nominated by the U.K. government, has served as the humanitarian Under-Secretary-General (USG) for three years, since March 1, 2007. (See UN biography of John Holmes.)

According to the U.K.'s Spectator, Holmes "has by all accounts done very well in the job and will be missed" at the UN.

The upcoming vacancy could begin a "major powers game of musical chairs for senior posts" (Inner City Press), as the U.K., U.S., France, and others may pursue high-level offices becoming vacant in the next few months. While Holmes reportedly has succeeded in his role, the political nature of high-level appointments can pose difficulties for independent, qualified leadership at the UN.

Selection of Next OCHA Head

The UN Secretariat has not disclosed any plans for finding Holmes' successor, whose resignation "creat[es] a vacancy for the most important humanitarian relief job in the world."

The USG is responsible for oversight of all emergencies requiring UN humanitarian assistance and acts as the focal point for relief activities involving governments, intergovernmental agencies and NGOs.

A leading candidate to replace Holmes at OCHA, reports the U.K. Spectator, is Michael Williams. Williams has been the UN's Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and the U.K.'s Special Representative to Middle East.

Possible Impact on Other Appointments

Despite the Spectator's report, U.K. government sources say no such nomination is planned. Instead, the U.K. may pursue another senior post - either Chef de Cabinet to the Secretary-General, currently held by Vijay Nambiar of India, or head of the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), currently held by Lynn Pascoe of the U.S. Both jobs are considered "more powerful" than the humanitarian role.

(The U.K. has a general election planned for early May 2010.Depending on the outcome, a different set of officials and ministers may be making the decision about a nomination.)

Some posts, such as the Executive Director of UNICEF, have been claimed by the same donor government for decades (in UNICEF's case, the United States). (See UNelections Monitor #125 for details on the U.S.' recent nomination of a candidate to lead UNICEF.)

The OCHA position, however, is not the one held by the U.K. historically. The role over which the U.K. has had influence in the past, is the head of DPA. U.K. nationals held this USG role from 1971 to 2005, when Kofi Annan appointed Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria to the post. Gambari was succeeded by Pascoe, DPA's current head.

"It is no secret the [U.K.'s] Foreign Office would like to have that job back," says the Spectator.

The following rotation of posts is predicted by the Inner City Press, based on various reports.






Lets go (Holmes)





Lets go (Pascoe)



Takes (Jean Maurice Ripert, former ambassador to the UN)


Lets go (Alain Le Roy)

However, if the U.K. prefers to take the position of Chef de Cabinet, which some have suggested it would, and Ban agrees, India will have lost its highest-level position at UN headquarters. Since India has expressed a desire to lead DPKO, a possible reshuffling could look as follows.





Chef de Cabinet


Lets go (Holmes)






Keeps (Pascoe)




Takes (Ripert)


Lets go (Le Roy)






Lets go (Nambiar)

In this scenario, the only position that stays with the same country is the DPA role for the U.S..

The prospect of replacing Nambiar with a U.K. nominee was rumored in August 2009 in the leaked internal memo of Norway's UN mission. The memo also suggested the alternative outcome that Ban would replace Pascoe with a U.K. nominee at DPA.

Difficulties with Political Appointments

The UNelections Campaign does not support the traditional claims by donor governments to selected high-level posts in the UN Secretariat. While the individuals nominated may be qualified in their respective fields, the motivations of a political appointment could prevent the selection of the best person for the job from any region or background. Perhaps more importantly, the tradition that the most powerful Member States wield control in the UN via political appointments to key positions implies, and can result in, compromised independence for the UN body.

More than previous Secretaries-General, argues's blog Turtle Bay, Ban Ki-moon has favored political appointees. Ban reportedly "accepted the favored candidates of each of the U.N.'s powerful permanent five members in his first year in office, according to senior U.N. officials."

Conflict between Political Motivations and Qualifications

The current political reality, that "top posts at the UN are an important symbol of national prestige," in the words of the U.K. Times, does not mean that unqualified political figures should be appointed to high-level posts at the UN. When the appointed person is not well suited for the job, the office he or she leads likely will suffer both in effectiveness for the people relying on its services, and in terms of credibility.

The article in Turtle Bay - "The Decline of the International Civil Servant" - characterizes how high-level UN jobs are given out, and it is not a process that depends on relevant expertise: "[M]ost experts in the field need not apply. If history is any guide, Holmes's replacement will be selected from a small pool of influential countries who are rewarded with the most important U.N. jobs. It's more likely Holmes's successor will be a diplomat or politician than someone who has experience managing relief operations."

Conflict between Political Motivations and Independence

The opinion expressed by the Spectator - "Britain needs to send a heavy-hitter to New York ... to enhance London's influence" - is shared by many UN officials and world leaders. However, appointing someone on the recommendation of a donor state not only risks compromising qualified leadership of the office at stake. It also could undermine the political independence of the appointee. At the very least, it can create the perception of a conflict of interest.

Turtle Bay outlines the clash between political appointments and the oath signed by all appointees to act as international civil servants, per UN Charter Article 100: UN officials shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any authority external to the UN, including their home country. 

In addition to the oath of office, the appointees are accountable to a ten-page "Standards of Conduct," which specifies impartiality, loyalty to the UN over their own government, and avoiding conflicts of interest. The oath requires that States "respect the exclusively international character" of UN staff and "not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities."

The reality is different from the promises: "the notion of placing loyalty to the UN blue flag over ones own country has been frequently mocked within UN headquarters.... Alvaro de Soto, a former Peruvian diplomat who came to the United Nations as a political appointee under the Peruvian Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, said that many of his UN colleagues considered him a ‘political naif' when he espoused the importance of affirming one's loyalty to the UN."

In sum, "The UN practice of hiring political appointees ... has chipped away at the UN ideal of the impartial international civil servant, loyal to the founding principles of the UN, and not beholden to the state that helped get them the job."

The Secretary-General's task in finding a successor to John Holmes will be to balance political demands with the expert qualifications for the position. If Ban allows the largest donors to claim control over the top offices, he should require them to put forward a fully qualified candidate for the position, or more than one candidate from which he can choose. He also must make it clear both to the candidate and to the government that political independence is expected and required, to preserve the integrity of the Office and the UN system as a whole.

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