«We Need Youth and Women to Shake Up the UN»
Simone Disegni 21 May 2021

Israel vs. Hamas/the Palestinians, again, and with utmost anger and violence. But also, more subtly in the background, China vs. India, Iran vs Saudi Arabia, Turkey vs pretty much anyone else. As the world slowly starts to see the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, the curtain is lifted again on a handful of inter-State conflicts and sources of tensions which, far from disappearing, may well turn the world into a much more dangerous place, again. That is without mentioning the gross violations of human rights within leading global countries – in Xinyang, for instance, or Kashmir –, the unapologetic repression of domestic revolts/demands across the globe – such as in Myanmar, Belarus or Hong Kong – or the high risk of new emerging “failed States” – take Lebanon – with all the daunting possible consequences.

In the multilateral international order built after 1945, and strengthened after 1989, there was one institution designed to address precisely those sources of international tension, as well as to enforce a universal “responsibility to protect” those blatantly oppressed by their own government: the United Nations. As evidently as depressingly, the New York and Geneva-based organization is finding an increasingly hard time in solving any major international dispute. Why is that? Many would point to the blocking-prone structure of the highest decision-making body of the organization: the Security Council, where China, Russia and the US – with France and the UK just a step behind – regularly making use of the veto right, or threatening to do so, to protect their key interests, allies or spheres of influence.

The UN auditing consultant Arora Akanksha (pictured above) invites however to take a different perspective. A 34 years-old Canadian citizen, born in India and raised partly in Saudi Arabia, she has embarked on a global campaign with no precedent – running for the highest executive post at the organization, that of Secretary General, with the formal support of no member country and in open defiance to the seemingly already brokered international deal: the reconfirmation for the next 2022-27 term of the outgoing Secretary, the 72-years old former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres. The overarching problem of the UN, she claims, is the ineffective use of its vast amount of financial as well as political resources, itself descending from a widespread lack of leadership and true commitment to its mission: one, she claims, that only a new generation born and raised with a real global mindset – including a substantial injection of female leadership – may bring.

Her critics, and many UN experts, claim she is not fit for the post: first, because she has by no means the appropriate resumé – a lot of promising ideas, but no serious political-diplomatic experience; second, because she lacks, for now at least, the support of at least one member State expected to formally endorse her candidacy. She challenges both objections. She explained us why on an early New York morning, and European afternoon, just as violence in the Middle East started to spiral out of control.

If the sky is the limit, as the saying goes, you are aiming at the sky: challenging what world countries seem to have already decided behind the doors of diplomacy, the choice of the next UN Secretary-General. Why?  

Very simple: I believe in the UN, I know the UN is capable of doing great things in the world today, and yet up today it is failing. It’s not serving those it’s supposed to serve. Today, we have the highest number of refugees and displaced and stateless people in the world: 85 million. These are people who are not voters in any countries. They don’t have social media to tell their stories. They only have the UN, but the UN is not able to meet their basic humanitarian needs of food, clothing, shelter, security. So they’re left to fend for themselves, and rich countries see the consequences of this through migration. When it comes to the climate crisis, which is an existential threat to all of us, for every dollar the UN receives, 15 cents are used for the cause, with nature-based solutions; everything else goes on holding conferences, writing reports, discussing and not doing. That’s why I believe the UN has failed to fulfill its mission, and that today we need a new UN; the world cannot afford after Covid to go back to old ways of doing things.

Why would you be the right person to bring about such change?

What the UN needs is to be led by a new generation that is willing to take responsibility, bring innovative solutions and fresh perspectives to all problems and take the baton forward. With my candidacy, I represent not just one different point of view, but three. For far too long, we’ve given this position of Secretary General to one profile of person: old man, having served for decades in politics and diplomacy. Where are we today? Are very proud of the UN that we have? Is this the best we can do? We’re not happy with the results, so to see different results we need to do things differently. We need an employee perspective because that’s what has always been missing from the UN: asking employees, who know how best to do things. Secondly, I bring the perspective of a woman: feminine leadership is absolutely different, it is about conversation and finding compromise. And I think that perspective of unity, harmony and inclusive problem-solving is what’s needed. Third, as a generation, our generation has moved mountains when it comes to every other profession. We’ve moved the arc of history forward; we’ve led progress in different industries. Yet when it comes to politics, we are just given something like a visitation right, but not participation rights. The older generation tells us to come visit and to clap on their speeches, but doesn’t give us a seat at the table. We will inherit this UN, and we need to take ownership of it as soon as possible.

Let’s put “boots on the ground”. We’ve witnessed over the last two weeks the tremendous return of violence between Israel and Palestinians, within and beyond its borders. What would you tell a teenage Israeli or a teenage Palestinian which are suffering and fearing for their own lives, in terms of the response the UN could provide to their grief?

This conflict has been going on from 1948, and I think it perfectly exemplifies the damages of not having any serious mechanism for conflict resolution, and any leadership. In the UN system today, we have close to a hundred agencies, yet we don’t even have one specifically dedicated to conflict resolution and mediation. And I think that is something that has always been missing from the equation. On a political level, the precursor to all that is happening today is the fact that over the whole US Trump administration, there haven’t been any conversations to mediate. Formally, there is a Quartet in place – that includes the UN, the US, Russia and the EU – tasked with bringing about the two-state solution. Well, the last time they met was in 2016; nothing more since then. The first order of business under the new US administration was to resume conversations, but there hasn’t been until this. So, this is where we’re lacking. We now have to react to the situation – mediation is immediately required, and it needs to be led by professional negotiators – but we could totally have prevented it from arising. And the same thing happened, for instance, in Myanmar. The coup happened on February 1st, but for the first conversation to happen with the Junta, at the ASEAN conference, we had to wait until this month. Until then, all we’ve done was tweeted and written reports.

If the UN has such little impact, as anyone watching the organization knows, that is also because the way it functions makes it so hard to take effective decisions: with 5 veto powers, finding a consensus at the Security Council on the most pressing international crises proves almost impossible. There are regular discussions, and regular frustration, on how to reform the Council – reviewing that mechanism and/or “updating” representation to today’s global balances in different ways. What avenue would you recommend following?

I agree with you that ‘unblocking’ the UN to resolve conflicts requires addressing the way the Security Council works. That’s where it’s blocked, with the major five players acting in their own interest versus the whole world. The other elected 10 over the last decade have become extremely powerful in trying to limit the use of veto and trying to get consensus in in decision making. But clearly all the 188 members who don’t have veto power have to become very strong in order to secure a reform. So, I of course believe that it should be expanded, it should be more democratized. But in terms of the priority list, what I want to shed light on with my candidacy is the fact that there are two UNs: there is a UN that makes decisions, and there’s a UN that implements decisions, and the latter is absolutely not discussed. But if we’re feeling the UN is a failure, that’s not only because of the decision making that is flawed, but as a result of our lack of implementation. Decision doesn’t mean anything without implementation.  For our own lives, success is always implementation, but when it comes to the lives of the others, we live in this academic bubble, where we discuss and don’t look at things beyond the decisions. Take Libya. Every decision was passed in the swiftest manner possible. And where are we with Libya today? Where did the failure happen? Implementation. That is where the narrative, the conversation must be focused more. And this is where I urge everyone to just have that empathy. It’s important to talk about decision making; 25 five percent of the problem lies there, but 75 percent actually concerns implementation.

Less academic debate on the way the UN takes decisions, more engagement and passion to make it work on a daily basis. Is that what you claim?

Absolutely. Ans as I said, I think what we need right now to reignite that passion is a new generation to bring in renewed energy into the organization. That’s the only thing that could renew the people’s faith in the UN, that could make it relevant and not die a death of irrelevance like the League of Nations. That’s why as my part of my candidacy, one of my strongest proposal is 25 percent of leadership positions to the youth. Half of the world is under 30; the majority is under 35. Just pause for a second, and think about it. Half of the world is under 30; the majority is under 35. This is the majority, and yet the UN leadership average age is 62: the leadership of the UN today does not reflect the realities on the ground. That’s why there’s a disconnect. So we need to bring in youth to be involved in decision making of an organization that they will inherit. That is a destination we all share. It will be passed down to us; we might as well be involved sooner, instead of living with the consequences of others’ decisions.

You propose a target of 25 percent in UN posts to youth under 35. That would still need to be coupled, I imagine, with the right competencies or skills.

Absolutely, that’s exactly the point. What’s important to understand is right now UN’s leadership job positions are based on who you know, on how much each country can donate and similar factors rather than the person’s ability to get the job done. And I think innovation and creativity is what’s needed right now.

You are calling, essentially, for a comprehensive shake up of the organization.

Yes, that’s the only way to bring in that renewed energy, because if you bring in a new leadership, that leadership has to be balanced with regards to the world it represents. More broadly than that, there are so many opportunities we are missing in not employing young people. To be honest, to be a young person today – just think about someone who is Generation Z – is so difficult. This is a generation that has gone through three life changing, almost catastrophic incidences: they’ve gone through 9/11, then through 2008 financial crisis, then through Covid. This is a generation that has the most uncertain future facing them when it comes to economic opportunities, to employment, with AI taking over, or to climate. They don’t know if they would ever be able to have the privilege to even have children, forget grandchildren. They are going through so much that we really need to look out for them. We need to empower them by giving them employment opportunities, including through the UN. Not just leadership – I think there’s so much work to be done. In humanitarian emergencies for instance, where you need to plan and implement programmes rapidly and with great flexibility, there’s wide ground to employ young people on a volunteer basis: that will just open their eyes to the world, allow all the resources to go to meet the needs of the people, and empower them with relevant experience.

So how you are bringing about these ideas, beyond interviews with the media like this, on the political ground? Have you received any sign of interest from UN countries so far?

I have emailed all ambassadors requesting meetings. So far, I’ve got around 10, and I will continue to reach out to other member states who have been less responsive. But to be honest, when I was thinking about my campaign and my candidacy, over 2019 and 2020, I always thought that when I would announce it, we would be talking about policies, about what the future of the UN should be. And here we are, member states exhibiting discriminatory behavior towards candidates who are self-nominated. So my time goes on educating member states of their biases and informing them that just because I’m different, it doesn’t mean I don’t deserve a seat at the table. Look at my vision statement, ignore my name and just evaluate it on its own merits. No prejudice. And indeed once I’m able to get those meetings, most of the time it is obvious that they fully agree with my vision. It’s the fear of retaliation from members of the European Union and the Security Council itself that prevents them [from endorsing me]. But that’s what all the think-tanks in the UN universe are saying too: why are self-nominated people not on the official list of candidates? Why do we have a hearing with just one candidate? Have you ever heard of an election with one candidate?

Well, the obvious response would be that you need at least one member state to endorse you in order to be officially recognized as a candidate.

Resolution 69/321, paragraph 36 does not say that. It does not say candidates have to be presented by member states. That’s where self-nomination is allowed, and that is why the member states are now becoming judge and jury of their own case. And yet what the president of the General Assembly said is that a supporting member state is needed, and even then the Security Council might not accept the candidacy. So the bar keeps getting higher, and that’s why I am talking explicitly of discriminatory behavior. So far, that has been the most shocking and disturbing experience for me.

You were born and raised in India, then at the age of six moved to Saudi Arabia, then back to India for the boarding school, before moving with your family to Canada at 18. Based on this background, what would be the first thing you would tell the global audience if you were elected Secretary General?

I would say, first, that we might look different, we might sound different, we might think different, but by the end of the day, we’re all humans and we feel the same. We have the same needs of giving love, taking love, provide progress for our society, well-being for our family and our children, and just achieving our potential: our needs are deep down, all of the same, our feelings are all the same. So I think it’s our collective humanity which should be our guiding principle over the next decades, and that is what would lead us to progress. And then I would definitely acknowledge as a Secretary General, the importance of the UN staff: that is one of the most diverse and most talented workforces perhaps any organization could ask for, and yet they are not given the due respect and fair treatment that they deserve. And for any organization to achieve its objectives, it needs its foundation of employees to be motivated and feel respected.

To conclude, you’ve insisted much on the power of a new, globally-minded generation to bring about change and progress. Do you think that in the coming decades, as this generation comes to maturity, we shall see less conflict and more cooperation, or economic and other forces will still be driving to rift and division?

That is such a pertinent question. I think this generation is ready to show its talent in international organizations, but the old guard is not giving away. So I don’t think the question is when we take over; it’s when we are given the chance to do so. But the thing is our generation doesn’t choose this profession. The impatience of the generation makes them go into private sector; it makes them spend their talent and energies into other areas rather than this just because the recruiting process is so long and complicated. So overall, I don’t actually have a good forecast. The more delayed the involvement by this generation, the worse things are going to get, the more likely the UN will just die a death of irrelevance. That void of opportunities will be filled by the private sector, and then it will be too late for anyone, because the private sector has become too big and powerful. Well, that’s because when you got a chance to lead, you didn’t – you didn’t allow a new generation to come in.


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