North Korea Leading Disarmament Body is Just Another of Many Questionable UN Appointments

By Patrick Goodenough | June 30, 2011 | 5:31 PM EDT

Despite criticism for its policies at home and being subjected to U.N. sanctions for its nuclear activities, Iran has held numerous leadership positions on various United Nations bodies in recent years. (Photo: Dean Calma/U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency)

(Update: Canada on Thursday called North Korea’s elevation to chair the Conference on Disarmament “unacceptable, given the North Korean regime’s efforts in the exact opposite direction.” Foreign Minister John Baird in a statement called on North Korea to vacate the chair in favor of “a credible country that will advance the disarmament agenda within the U.N." and said Canada would review its participation in the CD’s activities.)

( – North Korea’s appointment to the rotating presidency of the U.N.-linked Conference on Disarmament raised eyebrows Wednesday, but it is just the latest in a series of jarring appointments at the United Nation’s various agencies.

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) position in Geneva comes because North Korea -- under its official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea -- is next up in the alphabetical rotation for the presidency, which changes hands among the CD’s 65 member-states six times a year.

The custom applies irrespective of a member state’s actual record on promoting the CD’s agenda, which covers weapons of mass destruction, reduction of armed forces and budgets, and the goal of eventual complete disarmament. North Korea has built a nuclear weapons capability in defiance of the international community, is a leading proliferator, and has the world’s largest military in per capita terms.

Still, its turn at the helm of the Conference on Disarmament was welcomed Tuesday by delegates from China, Nigeria and Portugal. In fact, a U.N. summary of the day’s proceedings stated that “[a]ll of the delegations who took the floor welcomed [North Korean delegate] So Se Pyong as the president of the Conference on Disarmament and said that they looked forward to his stewardship and working with him to revitalize and strengthen the Conference.”

While North Korea’s CD appointment is based on convention rather than a direct decision by the body, other anomalous appointments at U.N. and related agencies have come as the result of votes, often following “closed slate” nominations by regional groups. In other cases they have occurred simply because no delegation felt strongly enough about a candidate to raise an objection or call for a vote.

Iranian ambassador Mohammad Khazaee, seen here addressing a General Assembly session on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in January 2009, will be a deputy president of the General Assembly’s 66th session, which begins in September and runs through September 2012. (UN Photo by Devra Berkowitz)

Last Wednesday, Iran was elected as one of 20 deputy presidents of the U.N. General Assembly for its 66th session, which begins in September and runs through September 2012. Iranian ambassador Mohammad Khazaei told the IRIB state broadcaster that Iran’s election “is a good opportunity to assert fair positions in the world order” and noted that the deputies are instrumental in planning Assembly meetings and “the arrangement of internationally significant issues for inclusion in the agenda.”

Iran has assumed numerous leadership positions at the U.N. in recent years. They include chairman of the Vienna-based Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in 2010; chairman of the General Conference of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in late 2009; president of the executive board of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) in 2009; president of the executive board of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2009; vice-chairman of the General Assembly’s Committee on Information in 2009-2010; vice-chairman of the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly, which deals with legal affairs, in 2009-2010; and a member of the country executive board of the U.N. Children’s Fund in 2008-2010.

Although not a leadership position, Iran’s election onto the 45-member Commission on the Status of Women last year raised controversy, with more than 200 Iranian women’s rights activists urging the U.N. not to approve its nomination by the Asian group.

Nonetheless, no country raised any objection or called for a vote, and Iran got the seat “by acclamation.”

Saudi Arabia was elected last November onto the board of a new U.N. women’s agency, U.N. Women, despite having what a leading human rights group called a “dismal record on women’s rights.” The agency’s official name is the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

A World Economic Forum report on the “Global Gender Gap,” which assesses how successfully countries have closed gaps between women and men across a range of sectors, placed Saudi Arabia in 129th place out of 134 countries rated.

Last September, Pakistan was chosen to chair the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), despite being responsible for the most serious known case of nuclear proliferation in history. Neither the U.S. nor any other Western democracy on the 35-member board raised an objection or called for a vote, and Pakistan got the post “by acclamation.”

The U.N.-linked Conference on Disarmament meets in Geneva on May 24, 2011. North Korea this week took the helm. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

Meanwhile, U.N. member states have elected onto the five year-old Human Rights Council (HRC) a number of countries frequently criticized for their human rights records at home. Most have been voted onto the world body’s top human rights watchdog by large majorities of the General Assembly.

They include China, Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Cameroon, Gabon and Kyrgyzstan.

When the HRC began laying the groundwork for the U.N.’s controversial “Durban II” conference on racism in Geneva in 2009, it established a 20-nation preparatory committee chaired by Libya and with Iran, Cuba and Pakistan among its members.

In the end, the U.S. and eight other Western countries boycotted the conference, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s address at the gathering sparked a walkout by several diplomats.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow