In the ongoing global battle against Covid-19, the top leadership of the World Health Organization has kicked up a storm. It is alleged by many that the multilateral entity helped the Chinese authorities cover up the severity of the pandemic. This denied the international community the necessary time and information to take adequate precautionary steps to prevent the catastrophe that has wrecked the global community. The role of the WHO in failing to execute the mandate has been called into question.
It has been insinuated that the current director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian politician appointed in 2017, owes his present position to China’s lobbying in his favour. Without going into the merit of the argument whether or not China exploited the WHO for its own objectives, there is a need to dispassionately assess the various vectors that impact multilateral entities, including recruitment procedures for top positions. The sweeping generalization of China capturing the multilateral arena also requires to be looked at with facts and granular nuances given the complex framework structure of various multilateral entities. Unpacking the vast, complex and mostly disjointed elements of the multilateral world becomes essential and a distinction needs to be made among the specialized entities of the United Nations, the UN Secretariat entities and the UN funds and programmes as they are governed by their own regulations, including recruitment procedures for top leadership.
In reality, multilateral agencies, a derivative of complex inter-governmental processes, have never been immune to the influence of the member states. This includes terms of recruitment. There is variance of how this influence is acted upon within the vast multilateral world. China heads four of the 15 UN specialized agencies — the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the UN Industrial Development Organization. Each of these specialized agencies is a legally independent inter-governmental organization with its own Constitution, rules, membership, organs and financial resources. At the same time, the president of the World Bank, one of the UN’s specialized agencies, has been a US citizen proposed by its government since its inception. The World Food Programme is also headed by citizen of the United States of America since 1992.
China’s assessed contribution has increased stupendously in the context of the UN Secretariat entities coming directly under the secretary-general. They consist of critical departments relating to peace and security issues. Assessed contributions, which are mandatory for member states, to both categories is as per a formula that takes into account a member state’s gross national income, population and other variables such as debt burden. China has emerged as the second-largest contributor to the peacekeeping budget with 15.21 per cent contribution from 10.24 per cent. The same trend is visible in the Regular Budget of the UN which funds 24 Special Political Missions across the world and staffing costs in the headquarters in New York and the regional headquarters. China’s contribution will be 12.01 per cent in the next three years from 7.92 per cent for the 2016-2018 period, whereas the US contribution in this category is nearly 22 per cent. China has overtaken Japan and Germany that are also major contributors.
Notwithstanding this fact, Chinese representation in terms of manning top positions of various entities at the UN Secretariat has not increased. These positions are directly appointed by the UN secretary-general although member state lobbying is an open secret in this category as well. A paper, “How the U.S. Should Address Rising Chinese Influence at the United Nations”, published by an American conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation, in August 2019 states that “the United Nations lists only three Chinese nationals among 202 total senior U.N. officials, that is, those holding the rank of Deputy Secretary-General, Under-Secretary-General, Assistant Secretary-General, or equivalent ranks. By comparison, 23 U.S. nationals are currently serving as senior U.N. officials.” Actually, some of the departments are headed by a national of the same member state for consecutive terms. The Department of Peacekeeping Operation, now known as the Department of Peace Operations, a critical entity in the realm of peace and security, has been headed by a French national for the last 23 years. In the past, the former Department of Political and Security Council Affairs was headed by a national from the erstwhile Soviet Union from 1952 to 1991. A US national heads Unicef, one of the UN funds and programmes, for the last 25 years. The secretary-general usually appoints the heads of the funds and programmes.
China belongs to the elite club of P-5 Security Council, one of the most important legislative bodies of the multilateral system. On April 3, a request for a Covid-19 meeting of the UN Security Council reportedly came from the body’s elected members (minus South Africa) because the P-5 couldn’t agree on how the council should proceed. The differences between the P-3 (the US, UK and France) and the P-2 (Russia and China) on various files have often created a logjam at the council. The ongoing pandemic has shown that no single P-5 member of the council is capable of bringing the present crisis to an end. Globalization has led to supply chains and manufacturing units of drug companies becoming geographically dispersed based on the economic premise of comparative advantage.
The current secretary-general, António Guterres, has said that the “makeup of the Security Council must reflect the current realities, not the world as it stood at the end of World War II.” Every year, since February 2009, as part of the intergovernmental negotiations on the question of equitable representation and increase in the membership of the Security Council, diplomats from various countries ritualistically make their respective statements but nothing changes. At a practical level, geopolitical rivalry among member states within various regions that manifests in opposition to each other’s case for inclusion in the council is cited as the prime impediment over a consensual expansion of the council. Also, the current membership of the council is hesitant to lose its privilege.
Finally, the argument of China’s growing domination in the arena of multilateral bodies, whether real or imagined, is a wrong diagnosis of the problems afflicting multilateral entities. China continues to operate in the same structural framework as the past. Greater transparency and accountability of the multilateral entities with structural reforms is the only way in which one can prepare them to adequately respond to the crisis. For this purpose, greater inclusivity and representation at all levels, both in terms of legislative bodies such as the Security Council as well as the composition of the staff that make up the various categories of multilateral entities, particularly the critical ones, will bring in the relevant domain expertise from all quarters of the international community. Otherwise, the status quo would progressively corrode multilateralism in terms of policy and practice at a time of emerging global challenges and realities. The pandemic has only hastened that process.