/Relocation of the UN Headquarters – Kamogelo Seitireng

Relocation of the UN Headquarters – Kamogelo Seitireng

Kamogelo Seitireng
South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU)

The United Nations (UN), as well as its predecessor the League of Nations, have continuously attempted to create a world without conflict as well as mechanisms that facilitate peaceful social dialogue. However, since its inception, there has been continued global conflict with countless lives lost and millions displaced. The organisation is currently located in New York in the United States (U.S.). There has been a suggestion that the UN headquarters should be moved to the African continent and this discussion document will attempt to critically engage on this possibility as well as its implications.

Track Record of the UN
The question of whether the UN headquarters should be moved from where they are currently located, to somewhere on the African continent (which is very heterogeneous in many respects) is very provocative. This is because it triggers other questions that should precede it. Furthermore, this initial question raises debates concerning the efficacy of the UN. Put differently one cannot ask the question of whether the UN headquarters should be relocated to the African continent without asking other related questions such as:

1. Has the UN been effective in its primary mandate of ensuring world peace since its inception following WWII?
2. What are we to make of the role and efficacy of the UN in a world that has seen:
a. the invasion of Iraq and Iran as well as other countries in the Middle East by foreign governments, in particular the U.S., which is
part of the U.N Security Council?
b. the massacre of millions of Palestinians in a decades-long genocidal campaign on the part of the successive Israeli governments?
c. the collapse of the global economy on many occasions (with acutely negative impacts on countries in the Global South) despite the existence of an Economic and Social Council?
d. numerous conflicts occurring (roughly 285 since 1945), some with the involvement of countries who are party to the UN including:
• Chinese Civil War in Asia
• The Greek Civil War in Europe
• The Colombian civil war – La Violencia in South America
• The Vietnam War in Southeast Asia
• The Ethiopian Civil War in Africa
• The Guatemalan Civil War in North America

Therefore, given this dismal track record, what would be of interest to us to advocate for the relocation of the UN headquarters? It has to be stated however that the organisation as well as its subsidiary entities has done remarkable work, particularly in the arena of humanitarian aid. However, it has fallen short on many occasions regarding the mandate to prevent wars and/ or conflicts and promote peace throughout the world.

On 29 December 2023, South Africa took Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (which is the judiciary organ of the UN) to file proceedings on allegations that the latter is violating its obligation to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention). This is as the atrocities that are occurring constantly in the Gaza Strip against the Palestinian people continue unabated. The Court has granted provisional measures in favour of South Africa’s case, to mitigate the continued genocide. Some of the approved provisional measures that Israel has to abide by are as follows:
• ….” take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts within the scope of Article II of this Convention, in particular, o killing members of the group, o causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; o deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group…”
• ….” take all measures within its power to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide concerning members of the Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip…”
• ….” take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip…”

As much as these recent developments have been politically monumental, the historical context ought to not be forgotten. Since the creation of the UN, many genocides have occurred some of which were sponsored by Western countries that are members of the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. For example, from 1982 to 1987, Zimbabwe experienced genocide as the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) began a political and military campaign against civilians and political opposition members who belonged to the Ndebele ethnic group. This was referred to as the Gukurahundi. The International Association of Genocide Scholars estimates that roughly 20,000 people were killed during this period. Another example of genocide that was left largely ignored by the ICJ was in Rwanda from 7 April to 15 July 1994, where an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 people mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group were targeted and killed. These and other such heinous atrocities occurred unabated despite the existence of the UN and its organs. This pessimistic overview has to be taken into account even when keeping track of the South Africa-Israeli ICJ case. Furthermore, it needs to be kept in mind as we consider the possible permutations of moving the UN headquarters to the African continent.

There has often been great contention behind how the UN and its structures operate. For example, the most powerful body in the organisation the Security Council, allows 5 permanent member states. These are the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), France, Russia, and China. The other member states (10 in total) are non-permanent and are elected for a total duration of 2 years. It is interesting to note how, the countries occupying permanent member states are powerful Global North nations, some of whom have participated in heinous historical processes. These include slavery as well as contemporary geopolitical issues such as the constant support of vile regimes committing unspeakable crimes against humanity.

Furthermore, any one of the 5 permanent member states can veto any decision taken within the Security Council. Many decisions have been vetoed especially those that pose a challenge to the geopolitical interests of either of the permanent member states. Given these issues, it can be assumed that the UN is a body that is not equally representative of the interests of all nations in the world. It can also be assumed that it is an international organisation constructed to maintain the unequal global balance of forces that favour the elite and powerful nations. With this in mind, it is therefore necessary that before advocating for the move of the UN headquarters to the African continent, the progressive Left should advocate for the expansion of the permanent member states to include countries in the Global South, and from all continents including Africa, South America, Middle East, and South-Asia Pacific.

Therefore, in this discussion, and well before we explore the possibilities of relocating the headquarters of the UN to the African continent, we need to be mindful of this context. We need to make sure that our broad aspirations do not exclude this unfortunate, uncomfortable yet glaring reality.

Possible permutation of moving the UN headquarters
The second broad considerations that we need to take into account are as follows:
• what are we hoping to achieve as intellectuals, activists, progressive thinkers, trade unions, etc, by advocating for the relocation of the UN headquarters to the African continent?
• how might this relocation be of benefit to: the continent, workers, migrants, displaced populations, women, children, and local economies? relief efforts? efforts to improve the overall socio-economic condition of the African citizens both in Africa as well as in the diaspora?

There should at least be a clear indication (s) that this envisaged relocation of the UN headquarters will have an overall positive impact on the specific country as well as the continent as a whole. As indicated in the second point, there needs to be a demand that such a move would come with a clear and actionable policy agenda to restructure the African socio-economic condition away from its colonial past. Furthermore, the move should bring about change regarding the continued unequal neo-colonial relations that are persistent between metropole countries in the Global North and satellite nations on the African continent. These two key changes in the form of short-, medium-, and long-term social and economic policy mandates should be a central part of the UN should the headquarters be moved to the African continent.

Brief literature review
A brief analysis of the literature on the issue shows some interesting results. There are both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to an entity (corporate entities for the most part) moving headquarters from one country to another. One research study in particular, which was looking at the possible change in operational performance, found that there was no significant change concerning this specific variable. Furthermore, Gregory, Lombard, and Seifert (2005) revealed that HQ relocation resulted in increased operational costs for the organisation. These costs include coordination, knowledge transfer, new interdependencies, training and coaching, protection of intellectual capital, and monitoring and controlling of performance amongst others.

It is also suggested that due to these aforementioned cost factors, there may be ensuing operational weaknesses that would have to be overcome gradually. Of course, the onus would be on the entities who have initiated this process, to ensure that these and other related challenges can be overcome. Moving headquarters, otherwise referred to as internationalisation, has been done by many corporates particularly as many countries began to liberalise their economies. The search for profits, facilitated by better business environments spurred many companies to look offshore. Many of these companies have done considerably well as a result of this process, however others have failed. Given these empirical studies, the logistical implications of moving the UN headquarters to the African continent would need to be taken into consideration. For example, would the current UN staff members in New York be willing to relocate to a region that is substantially different from what they are accustomed to, or would the specific African country need to provide this required personnel? Furthermore, will such a move interrupt the constant functioning of the UN and what will the mitigation strategies be to prevent any negative impacts? These are some of the questions that would need to be taken into consideration.

So far we have touched on the broad issue of the need to review the UN and its track record, critical questions that need to be asked, as well as studies on headquarters relocation that need to be taken into serious consideration. The following section will be an attempt to synthesise some of the concerns and issues raised into attempting to answer the question of the possible benefits (if any) of moving the UN headquarters to a country on the African continent.

Symbolic versus
material changes
The symbolic moving the UN headquarters to the African continent would not be lost on most liberal audiences. For centuries, the continent has been a victim of heinous, savage, exploitative, and inhumane practices that have structurally underdeveloped many nations. This underdevelopment has led to the simultaneous acceleration of social progress of countries in the Global North. Therefore, symbolically moving an institution such as the United Nations to this historically downtrodden continent would offer some indication of “change”. The deliberate use of quotation marks around the word change “highlights that in many notable historical and political processes that have occurred throughout the globe, what has often been considered as change, was a continuation of the same processes under different faces or leadership, as has been alluded to by the likes of Frans Fanon.

It is thus very important for progressives to make a clear distinction between symbolic and material changes, especially as it concerns the structure of society. For example, the 1950s and 1960s saw mass anti-colonisation movements sweep across the African continent. Many countries were actively choosing to disassociate themselves from the control and administration of their colonisers in the Global North. These liberation movements brought about some semblance of change in the socio-political character of the countries in question. However, the economic structure of these states remained (for the most part) intact.

The former colonisers maintained unequal economic relations through the ruling elites of the countries, whilst the majority of the citizens continued living in squalor. Furthermore, the advent and spread of globalisation largely spearheaded by Multinational Companies (MNCs) have entrenched the African continent in neo-colonialism that continues underdeveloping many countries. Such destructive geopolitical relations also emerge in the form of loans from International Financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These organisations have for many decades given loans to African countries meant for “development”. However, attached to these loans were almost conditionalities to which the said countries had to strictly adhere. It is sadly ironic how these loans became the basis for which many African states were not only underdeveloped but were forced into permanent unequal relations with countries in the Global North.

The point being driven home is that given this context of immense geopolitical inequality both in the present as well as historically, moving the UN headquarters to the African continent would symbolically suggest the beginning of changes to these relations. However, should the progressive Left seek to advocate for such a reality, the campaign as well as the expected outcomes should not merely rest on symbolic victories. This is because generally symbolic social change without its material equivalent is hollow and therefore meaningless. It would simply not be enough for us to advocate for a move of the UN headquarters without also demanding material change within the structure and operations of the organisation. Put differently, such advocacy should be simultaneously tied with a campaign that demands material changes within the UN. Failure to do this would therefore make the change in headquarters location a redundant exercise.

Role of the African Union
Furthermore the implications of moving the UN headquarters to Africa draw into question the validity and legitimacy of the African Union (AU). This organisation, which is a predecessor of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) has the broad mandate to integrate African states economically and politically, as well as deal with colonial legacies on the continent. Page: 7 JANUARY-APRIL 2024 | Edition: Nr. 12 Geopolitically, the move of the UN headquarters may be seen as a Global North attempt to undermine an African political structure that has similar mandates to it. Furthermore, should the UN headquarters be placed on the African continent without fundamental changes to the internal character of the organisation, it could be seen as another neo-colonial agenda that seeks to further colonise the continent through closer proximity.

Heterogeneity on the African
Another complication on this issue is that the African continent, as mentioned earlier, is not homogenous. Outsiders (and insiders alike) often overlook its heterogeneity. The lack of homogeny is brought into sharp focus when considering the various neo-colonial ties that persist. For example, many countries in the West African region have continued strong economic and political relations with their former coloniser, France. These are in the form of loans, financial aid, and various grants. This is partly what has led to the crisis in the region, as seen by recent coup de tarts seeking to dismantle the continuing influence of the French. Furthermore, given how some of these countries continue to insist on maintaining these unequal relations, the question that begs is, will the coming of the UN headquarters change such neo-colonial relations for the majority of the Africans in the region? Given the aforementioned heterogeneity that pervades the continent, the moving of the UN headquarters to Africa would need to be accompanied by pragmatic policies that are specifically targeted at dismantling these unequal neo-colonial relations for the benefit of millions of Africans. Where it will be located?

Other global institutions that need to be considered
Once again considering the track record of the UN overall, and its lack of substantial impact on global affairs, one could suggest that other institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and/ or the World Trade Organisation (WTO) should be considered as candidates for moving of headquarters into the African continent. These institutions have had significant (although largely negative) impacts on the African continent. Their move to the continent could be an opportunity to change the trajectory of the discourse on global financial practices in a direction that significantly reduces existing and worsening structural inequalities. However, the essential point is that should the UN or any other global institution move its headquarters to the African continent, this should be accompanied by significant structural packages in the form of progressive policies, as well as improved internal practices. Relocation that is not accompanied by fundamental organisational and policy change would be undesirable and superfluous.

Conclusion and a way forward:
This brief discussion document has attempted to give a nuanced perspective on the idea that the UN headquarters should be moved to the African continent. The main argument developed is that before considering that this organisation should move its headquarters, the internal issues that have been raised for many years of its existence need to be first dealt with. Failure to deal with this issue would render the move (and perhaps the campaign) only for symbolic purposes and nothing more. Symbolic political gestures are not incorrect however, they need to be grounded by material changes. The UN has in many instances failed spectacularly in its mandate of peacekeeping throughout the world since its inception. Furthermore, the structure of the Security Council creates extreme inequality within the organisation, which gives undue power to 5 permanent member states at the expense of General Assembly members. Many resolutions of the SC have been overthrown based on one permanent member states using their power of veto. This has in many instances rendered the UN ineffective and ultimately, powerless. Therefore, here are the following proposals:

• Should there be a campaign for the UN to move its headquarters, it should first begin with advocating for the inclusion of Global South countries in the permanent positions of the UN Security Council
• That the power of veto should use principles of majoritarianism
• The UN should take an unequivocal, and material decision on the genocidal actions of Israel on Palestine as well as on the inhumane actions of any member state involved in crimes against humanity (whether directly or indirectly)
•• These decisions should include complete, substantial, and encompassing use of economic and political sanctions
• There needs to be concerted effort to prioritise progressive socio-economic policies within the UN whose primary objective is to fundamentally alter the colonial structure of the African economy
•• These policies must be tailored to cater to the economic and social histories as well as current realities of each country on the continent
•• The policies must be centred on fundamentally disentangling unequal geopolitical relations between Africa and the West
• Once substantial progress has been made concerning the above, it is then when progressive social stakeholders can begin having discussions on a campaign to move the headquarters of the United Nations to Africa