The John Holmes memorial lecture: representing the United Nations--individual actors, international agency, and leadership.

Author:Frohlich, Manuel

THE FIRST MAJOR BIOGRAPHY OF JOHN W. HOLMES CARRIES THE EMBLEMATIC title Canadas Voice: The Public Life of John Wendell Holmes. (1) The title implies that here we have an example of one individual speaking for and shaping the voice of a whole nation, embodying the values and principles of Canadian foreign policy. This is, of course, a suitable title for a biography that by its very nature underlines the significance of the person portrayed. It may, however, also illustrate that we quite commonly refer to the fact that it is concrete individuals that represent abstract institutions or ideas. It is also customary for political institutions to regulate specifically who will speak on behalf of the respective entity--be it heads of state and government or executive heads of international organizations. In a static understanding of the term, representation is closely tied to questions of law and protocol defining the situations and responsibilities that are tied to the execution of political offices. But going beyond this understanding of the term for established routines and hierarchies, a dynamic understanding of the term may see it as a crucial ingredient in the growth and development of a given institution or the idea behind that institution.

It is in this context that I discuss a special type of actor in the United Nations system that has not received the amount of attention in academic and political circles that it deserves: special representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSGs). (2) The argument that I present starts with a reflection on what it means to represent an international organization. Then, I analyze how the representatives of the Secretary-General have developed as a specific type of individual actor. Looking both at their origin as well as their development over time, I argue that the actions of these individual actors account for a special kind of agency of the organization that they represent. The question of how individual actions translate into international agency inevitably leads to a discussion of leadership, which I would like to introduce and illustrate as a constitutive feature of that process.

SRSGs are persons appointed by the Secretary-General to fulfill various roles from peacemaking to peacekeeping and peacebuilding. They work in specific conflict situations or are engaged in transregional and thematic issues, with activities ranging from discreet mediation efforts to conducting a peace operation and, as in the case of Kosovo, virtually running a country. Since 1990, their number and the tasks they have been entrusted with have increased dramatically. The current website of the Secretary-General lists about seventy names. (3) The acronym SRSG is used for a broader category comprising a wide variety of high-level appointments. (4) Mirroring different tasks, contexts, and mandates, it includes, for example, special envoys, heads of mission, special advisers, personal representatives, and transitional administrators. Twenty years ago, Donald J. Puchala (coincidentally another Holmes Lecturer), in one of the few articles dealing with the phenomenon, argued that "even some very elementary questions" regarding their origin, development, functions, and performance "remain unanswered." (5) Some twenty years later Puchala's assessment holds true, although a few articles and reports explicitly dealing with SRSGs have been published. (6) The work of Connie Peck especially must be mentioned since she not only wrote several pieces on the SRSGs, but also compiled material from a series of interviews with SRSGs for the UN Institute for Training and Research in an attempt to facilitate training of SRSGs.

With various tasks in peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding, three main subgroups of SRSGs emerge from the titles used: representatives, envoys, and advisers. Although the labels are not the result of strict procedure and originate from such diverse rationales as tradition, preference of the officeholder, and, last but not least, preference of the country to which they are deployed, a rough distinction can be made. Representatives usually have peacekeeping tasks, envoys are more or less focused on peacemaking duties, and advisers normally work on cross-cutting and transnational issues out of headquarters: "These SRSGs [i.e., advisers] are assigned to raise awareness of ... major problems, to develop relevant policy, and to work with member states and the UN system to ensure that the problems receive appropriate attention and action." (7) Examples include the current special adviser on post-2015 development planning, but also the special envoys on climate change and the special representative for migration. So, the distinction by title is far from precise. Talk of SRSGs as a category of actors implies that the concrete appointment or mandate can in fact have what the former head of the Department of Political Affairs, Marrack Goulding, called "a bewildering variety" (8) of titles. A rough functional distinction that can be made is the one between conflict-related SRSGs usually with country-specific tasks deployed in the field and thematic SRSGs with transregional tasks often working from headquarters. SRSGs usually hold the rank of under-secretary-general for the duration of their mission, which gives them further standing. With the aim of building more coherent and integrated peace missions, SRSGs in the field were also given special status, as Kofi Annan's "Note of Guidance on Integrated Missions" in 2006 states. According to this note, the SRSG is "the senior UN Representative in the country and has overall authority over the activities of the UN." But the note goes on to explicitly state: "He/She represents the Secretary-General and speaks on behalf of the UN in a given country." (9)


Representation is a crucial element of international relations in general and diplomacy in particular since the beginning of transactions across borders involved the practice of dispatching envoys, representatives, and mediators from one actor to another. (10) While the rank of ambassador is usually bestowed on the national representative of one country in a different country, new methods of diplomatic interaction, such as the emergence of international organizations, have led to new diplomatic titles. As Paul Sharp argues, representation is "a human condition that precedes and transcends the experience of living in the sovereign, territorial states of the past few hundred years." (11) The term may therefore also apply to the work of representatives of international organizations to the extent that they, too, represent and implement efforts for cooperation, the management of common problems, and the construction of order. (12) In that context, representatives of international organizations are asked to represent not one country with its particular values and interests, but rather--in the case of the UN at least--an organization with universal values and principles. Article (100) of the UN Charter speaks in this context of the "exclusively international character" of the work of Secretariat members. The Secretary-General as their chief administrative officer is then also the principal representative of the organization and is widely seen as the embodiment and personification of its values and principles. (13) Serving in this capacity, the Secretary-General, for rather practical reasons, introduced the practice of appointing representatives that could help in the exercise of the office and work as representatives of the chief representative.

Among the first officials endowed with the title of representative was Wlodzimierz Moderow of Poland, the first director of the UN office in Geneva. (14) He was additionally designated "Representative of the Secretary-General in Geneva" in 1946 in order to negotiate and organize with the League of Nations' last secretary-general, Sean Lester, the transfer of assets from the League. The reasoning behind Moderow's appointment is quite simple and plausible: the first UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, needed someone who could speak for him to negotiate and arrange matters on an equal footing with the League's secretary-general. Since the UN Secretary-General could not spend a long time away from headquarters to deal with technical problems in the context of the League's dissolution, Moderow's task was to represent him in the legal procedures. So, this would be a pragmatic functionalist understanding of representation and this understanding is the background for two more of the first appointments. Lie also appointed, and in fact double-hatted, Victor Hoo, his assistant Secretary-General in the Department of Trusteeship, as personal representative of the Secretary-General on the UN Special Committee on Palestine in 1946--because he could not attend all meetings of the committee but wanted to be kept informed. And in 1947 Lie sent Erik Colban, former member of the Norwegian delegation to the UN, to be the Secretary-General's personal representative to the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan.

Starting in the same vein, but then taking on a quite different nature, was Lie's appointment in 1948 of Ralph Bunche (who served as director in the department of trusteeship) as representative of the Secretary-General in Palestine where he was supposed to support the mission of Count Folke Bernadotte as UN mediator. (15) The type of mission that Bemadotte undertook is in fact compatible with what conflict-related SRSGs do today. Bemadotte's mandate, however, was created by the General Assembly, which installed a particular committee to choose a suitable personality. (16) The members of that committee were the permanent members of the Security Council. Bemadotte, although his name was suggested to the committee by Lie, therefore was not a representative of the Secretary-General and his appointment shows the strong influence that member states...

To continue reading