By Shihana Mohamed
NEW YORK, Nov 20 2023 – In the midst of the Israel-Hamas conflagration, a significant anniversary at the United Nations –October 24th was the 78th year since its founding–went unremarked by the larger world. But the work of–and significant problems with–the UN continues. Among the problems is embedded institutional racism. It’s time that it be deeply addressed–not just by lip service.
The UN was founded in the aftermath of World War II to prevent the recurrence of such catastrophic events, with a commitment to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, the dignity, and worth of the human person” and, proclaiming “the right of everyone to enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms, without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”
Marking International Day on Eliminating Racial Discrimination on March 21, 2023, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Racial discrimination is a deeply damaging and pervasive abuse of human rights and human dignity that affects every country. It is one of the most destructive forces dividing societies, responsible for death and suffering on a grotesque scale throughout history. Today, racial discrimination and the legacies of enslavement and colonialism continue to ruin lives, marginalize communities and limit opportunities, preventing billions of people from achieving their full potential.”
There are visible contradictions in how the UN addresses racism and racial discrimination that go against the stipulations of the UN Charter. Some of this is attributable to systemic issues that date back to the founding of the UN.
The UN was established in 1945 as a solution for countries of European descent as they looked for a stable new international (and European) order. At that time, most parts of the world remained under European colonial domination, so the creation of the UN was led by those colonial and former enslaving powers.
The wave of decolonization between 1945 and 1960 changed the face of the world order as well as the World Body. The membership of the UN grew from 51 founding members in 1945 to 127 by 1970, and currently there are 193 member states. This aspect contributed towards altering the balance of power within the UN. These new member states were not from Europe and not white.
These new members persuaded the UN to embrace the change in the world order and brought new ideas to the General Assembly, the main deliberative body of the UN, which now practices the noble principle of “One Nation One Vote” and with five Regional Groups of member states – Africa, Asia – Pacific, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe and Other Group (including North America).
However, a similar transformation did not take place within the staffing of the organizations of the UN system.
In UN organizations, the staff experience or witness workplace discrimination largely on the basis of national origin, race, or skin color, according to the findings of several recent surveys. Most mentioned their lack of trust and confidence in the system, including existing recourse mechanisms and believed that the organization would offer no recourse if they complained about the racism they experienced.
The JIU review on racism and racial discrimination confirms that racism and racial discrimination are widespread throughout the system and the magnitude is high, based on evidence of prevalence, form, and effects of racism and racial discrimination. It further revealed that the “likelihood of experiencing racism and racial discrimination is higher” among black/African descent, Indigenous, South Asian and Middle Eastern/North African respondents.
The review of the JIU found that one in every five surveyed respondents (20 per cent) had experienced racial discrimination or harassment while the 2020 UN Secretariat survey on racism found that one in every three respondents (33 per cent) had experienced discrimination. The recently released findings of the survey conducted by the UN Asia Network for Diversity and Inclusion (UN-ANDI) revealed that three in every five respondents (61 per cent) experienced racism and bias, as well as the distress caused to them in terms of health, career and well-being.
More than half of the staff in the Professional and higher categories in the UN organizations are from Western countries or European descent. Hence, there is disproportionate representation among the five regional groupings. This disparity, directly and indirectly, contributes to the current organizational culture that enables racism and racial discrimination.
All organizations in the UN system should implement measures to reduce the proportion of the most highly represented regional groups and to increase the proportion of less represented regional groups, thereby reducing the overall imbalance among regional groups and making the UN organizations more representative of the populations they serve, including at decision-making levels.
Tackling systemic racism and racial discrimination within the UN system is not only an ethical issue but also a business issue. Racism and racial discrimination cause significant financial losses for all parties. Staff members suffer from loss of income, health, morale, enthusiasm and job satisfaction during their career span, while organizations suffer in terms of loss of time, resources, talent, committed staff, quality of work, timely delivery, productivity and reputation, among others.
It is therefore important to assess the tangible impacts of racism, in monetary terms, on staff, organizations and their capacities for programme delivery, especially the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Such an exercise is critical if the UN organizations are genuinely committed to eliminating racism within.
The world urgently needs the UN leadership to fight systemic racism. Hence, the organizations of the UN system do not have time to spend another year on internal discussions and dialogues. Immediate implementation of the Secretary-General’s Strategic Action Plan on Addressing Racism and Promoting Dignity for All in the UN Secretariat would be a starting point, and similar action plans should follow urgently in all other UN organizations.
The time is now for the UN to act to fully eradicate racism and racial discrimination within its organizations.
Shihana Mohamed, a Sri Lankan national, is a founding member and one of the Coordinators of the United Nations Asia Network for Diversity and Inclusion (UN-ANDI) and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and Equality Now.
UN-ANDI is a global network of like-minded Asians of the United Nations system who strive to promote a more diverse and inclusive culture and mindset within the UN system. UN-ANDI is the first-ever effort to bring together a diverse group of personnel (staff, retirees, consultants, interns, diplomats, and others) from Asia and the Pacific (nationality/origin/descent) in the UN system. Please contact via email at UnitedNationsAsiaNetwork@gmail.com to connect or/and collaborate with UN-ANDI.
IPS UN Bureau