Last week, for the first time in 70 years of UN history, candidates for the post of Secretary General presented their visions and programs during hearings in the UN General Assembly. From 12 to 14 April, mornings and afternoons, Permanent Representatives of 193 Member States have listened and questioned nine candidates, who received a total of 800 questions from ambassadors and civil society. We had the opportunity to (informally) assess the competence of those running for the top and the most difficult diplomatic job in the world.
Organizing these hearings is part of the commitment made last year by the President of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, to perform his Presidency in the most open and transparent manner possible, including for the process of selecting and appointing the next Secretary General. Public opinion’s interest for this process is huge – the UN website for candidates’ hearings was already accessed by 227,000 people from 209 countries and territories.
The bar is placed high by the actual challenging international context, as well as by the legacy of the current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (photo), whose tenure comes to a close on 31st December 2016. Patient but persistent, determined to accomplish what he set out to do, Mr. Ban described his credo as Secretary General in an interview to Newsweek in 2007: “I believe in the power of relationships. I believe in engagement, dialogue before confrontation. Sometimes this diplomacy will be public; other times it will take place behind the scenes, since that is where the potential for success is often greatest. If there is a unifying theme to my work, a vision if you will, it is this human dimension. We may read, each morning, about human tragedies in our newspapers. But how often do we truly hear such people’s voices, or try with full force and determination to help? This I pledge to do.”
He is very well seconded by Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson and this tandem has put an undeniable mark on the organization’s work. A brilliant diplomat and politician, former Foreign Minister and President of the UN General Assembly, Jan Eliasson is the author of the famous axiom: “There is no peace without development, there is no development without peace and there is neither lasting peace nor sustainable development without respect of human rights and the rule of law.”
Article 97 of the UN Charter provides that “The Secretary General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”, which adopts in a private meeting, with an affirmative vote of nine members, including the votes of permanent members, a resolution setting out its recommendation for the job. The five permanent members can use their veto right. The UN Charter does not prevent the Security Council from recommending more than one candidate, but a General Assembly resolution from 1946 says it is desirable to recommend one person only. Also, the practice of the Council has been to specify the term of office for the recommended candidate (customary, it is five years), and the Assembly acts similarly when adopting its resolution appointing the Secretary General.
From the nine candidates we have listened last week, seven are from the Eastern European Group and two from the Western European and Others Group. It is quite probable that other candidates will enter the race in the following weeks, which would only contribute to the quality of competition, enlarging the reservoir for the selection of the best.
Important positions within the UN, including that of the Secretary General, are allocated through an informal process of regional rotation, although this happens by custom and precedent, rather than by some written rule of the UN Charter. However, article 59 of the General Assembly Resolution 51/241 of 31 July 2007 states that: “In the course of the identification and appointment of the best candidate for the post of Secretary-General, due regard shall continue to be given to regional rotation and shall also be given to gender equality.”
Eastern Europe is the only region that did not produce any of the (until now) eight Secretary Generals and many think the next top diplomat will come from that region. There has also never been a woman Secretary General and the idea of the first female UN chief enjoys substantial support.
The resolution on “Revitalization of the work of the General Assembly”, adopted on 11 September 2015, establishes a series of recommendations and attributes that the most suitable candidate for Secretary General should possess. Criteria identified for the selection process are related to professional skills, political acceptance, and acceptability to public opinion.
“Professional skills” suggests a person with extensive international relations experience, proven leadership, managerial ability and linguistic ability. “Political acceptance” includes acceptability to the five Permanent Members of the Security Council. “Acceptability to global public opinion” refers to understanding and sensitivity to multicultural issues. Asked whether he had any advice for the candidates ahead hearings, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reportedly said that he always recalls the advice a middle school teacher in South Korea gave him: Keep your feet firmly on the ground and your head in the clouds”.
Candidates we have heard last week articulated their vision for the organization and the global challenges to be tackled under their leadership. We may have seen different personalities, experiences and approaches, but all shown proved commitment and determination to make the UN fit for purpose in the 21st century. From the spread of terrorism, proliferation of civil wars and huge waves of refugees, to the implementation of Agenda 2030 for sustainable development, climate change, poverty and inequality, the institutional reform of the UN, less bureaucracy, conflict prevention and mediation, early warning mechanisms and better inter-agencies coordination – all these topics are on the agenda of those aspiring to become the next Secretary General. The issue of whether he or she should rather be “a Secretary” or “a General”, received various answers. I found interesting the formula “a General of the UN Secretariat and a Secretary to the UN Member States”.
Mr. Mogens Lykketoft remarked in a recent interview that public discussions with the candidates are “potentially game-changing, because if a leading candidate emerges and a critical number of countries rally around him or her, it will be very difficult for the Security Council to come up with quite a different person.”
The candidates’ vision is important, but at the end of the day the Secretary General race is not only about vision, administrative ability, language skills, or personal charm. It is a political job. The election of the ninth Secretary-General in 2016 is crucial to the future of the organization, and therefore it will be one of the most important decisions the Security Council and the General Assembly will make in the next couple of years.
The World needs a UN Secretary General able to lead the organization through an extraordinary array of global challenges, in a time when there is no substitute for the United Nations legitimacy. The race has just had its first round.
*Ambassador Ion Jinga is the Permanent Representative of Romania to the United Nations, New York