Candidates for the world’s top diplomatic post, United Nations secretary general, are to compete openly for the job for the first time as the current holder, Ban Ki-moon, prepares to step down at the end of this year.
The contenders are to explain their ideals and intentions in front of representatives from the 193 member nations next month at the UN general assembly and many will also hold unprecedented public debates in New York and London, co-hosted by the Guardian, facing questions from individuals and civil society organisations from around the world.
The London hustings will take place on 3 June in Central Hall Westminster, where the first UN secretary general, Trygve Lie, was chosen, and will also be co-hosted by, the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK) and the Future of the UN Development System (Funds), a policy institute mostly funded by European governments.
The 13 April event in New York will be staged in Civic Hall, a community centre and forum in the Flatiron district, in collaboration with the New America thinktank.
For the UN’s first 70 years, the secretary general was chosen behind closed doors by the major powers on the security council, and only then presented to the general assembly for approval. The choice was usually a function of geopolitical compromise, someone deemed at the time to be least likely to rock the boat.
So far seven candidates have declared their bids after a grassroots campaign to force the contest into the open. From 12-14 April, they and any additional contenders who enter will face the general assembly in what are being billed as “informal dialogues”, although like many general assembly events, prepared statements from both questioned and questioners are expected to dominate.
The hustings will be open to the press and public, to watch the candidates being quizzed on how best to reform the UN to make it more capable of responding to the global challenges of the 21st century, including climate change and mass killings that have sent more refugees moving across and between continents than at any other time since the second world war. The questions will be shaped in part through polling beforehand.
The contrast with previous secretary general contests, where candidates and their sponsoring governments campaigned almost entirely behind closed doors, could not be starker. “Both the security council and the general assembly have given their approval, and now you have candidates being listed by the president of the general assembly with their CVs. This has never happened before. This is huge for us,” said Natalie Samarasinghe, the executive director of UNA-UK, who co-founded the campaign for an open contest, called 1 for 7 billion, with the backing of some 750 NGOs with 170 million supporters around the world.
The campaign also won the support of the UK government, which helped push through resolutions in both the security council and the general assembly calling for an open selection process late last year. Hailing the general assembly vote supporting the initiative, the UK permanent representative, Matthew Rycroft, said: “The days of smoke-filled rooms, of rumours and speculation on the runners and riders for the job, are over. Through consensus today we have brought overdue transparency to an archaic and opaque practice.”
So far, most of the candidates who have put their names forward publicly are from eastern Europe, in line with an expectation pre-dating the open contest that the next secretary general would come from that region, which is yet to have a turn in the post.
They include an array of former foreign ministers: Vesna Pusić (Croatia), Srgjan Kerim (Macedonia), Igor Lukšić (Montenegro), Irina Bokova (Bulgaria), who is alsodirector general of Unesco, Natalia Gherman (Moldova), and Danilo Türk, a former Slovenian president and assistant UN secretary general. They have been joined by António Guterres, the former head of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, who became a prominent figure around the world during the refugee crisis.
Other names are likely to enter the arena in the coming months. There is by no means a consensus that it is the turn of eastern Europe – the continent as a whole has accounted for three of the eight UN secretary generals so far, and many argue that farming out the post by global region is an outdated approach. All the secretary generals to date have been men, and so there is a strong push to select a woman this time around.
Among those thought to be waiting in the wings to enter the race are the Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark(now the administrator of the UN Development Programme), and the Colombian foreign minister, María Ángela Holguín.
In recent weeks there has been a growing buzz around the idea that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, might take up the mantle in the wake of her leading role in Europe’s response to the refugee crisis. Even last-minute entrants will have to go before the general assembly to answer questions.
“The informal hearings will help weed out obvious no-hopers and dullards. Would Ban Ki-moon have shone on such an occasion? Not so much,” said Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “I suspect that quite a few of the current Balkan candidates, who are worthy but not going to get the job, will enjoy their moment at the UN hustings then drop out.”
But after all the open debates, questions and exposure, it is the security council that will get to choose the candidate that goes before the general assembly for a vote. So like most other decisions of substance at the UN it is subject to a veto from any of the permanent five members: the US, UK, France, Russia and China. The new secretary general will have to gain acceptance from all of them, raising the question of what the new experiment in openness can really achieve.
Sam Daws, a UN expert at Oxford University and a former aide to Kofi Annan when he was secretary general, said: “Key council permanent members will again play a definitive role in appointing a candidate with whom they feel they can work well. But there is now a greater expectation that competence – in political negotiation, in managing a large organisation, and not least in the ability to effectively communicate through the global media – must be a criterion guiding their choice.”
“There are no guarantees,” said Samarasinghe. “But what we are doing is raising the costs for the permanent five of parachuting a candidate in at the last moment. So it could still be a stitch-up but it wouldn’t happen without an outcry. Doing so would sour relations at the UN and the permanent five know that they need to be able to work with the other 188 UN member states to get things done.”
Source: The Guardian