The next UN secretary general
BY the end of 2016, when Ban Ki-moon's second term ends, the UN General Assembly will appoint the next secretary general "upon the recommendation of the Security Council". The UN Charter describes the secretary general as the "chief administrative officer" of the world organisation who also performs "such other functions" as are assigned to him by the UNGA, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. Importantly, the secretary general has the authority "to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security".
Over the years, the UN secretary general has come to personify the world organisation. His role, pronouncements and actions reflect directly on the image and credibility of the UN. He is expected to promote the lofty principles and purposes of the UN Charter. Often, he has been described as the "secular pope". The best secretaries general have been those able to act independently of the influence of the major powers.
The UN's non-permanent members have consistently complained of their virtual marginalisation in the secretary general's appointment. The Security Council, in informal consultations, agrees on one candidate and 'recommends' his appointment to the General Assembly which has virtually no option but to approve the recommendation. In fact, the Security Council's critical consultations take place in closed quarters among the five permanent members, each of whom has the right to veto a candidate.
In 2006, the Asian countries unanimously claimed the secretary general's post. This was agreed in principle by all except the US. The story is that at a bilateral lunch, the US ambassador, John Bolton, asked his Chinese counterpart: which Asian candidate was acceptable to China. The latter replied that China could accept any of the five Asians. Bolton responded the US would veto all except Ban Kimoon. That was how the current secretary general was selected. He has been loyal to his benefactors.
This is reflected in the UN's Western-oriented priorities over the last decade: terrorism, non-proliferation, human rights, climate change. Issues that are difficult for the West, the Arab- Israeli dispute, foreign interventions in the Muslim world, development assistance, have been pushed to the sidelines. All major UN departments and agencies are headed by representatives of Western powers. Today, it is the real pope, rather than the secular pope, who speaks truth to power and advocates the rights of the downtrodden.
In response to calls for greater transparency in the secretary general's election, it has been agreed that this year, candidates for the post will be interviewed in the UNGA. It is unlikely this will change the outcome. In the final analysis, the Security Council will again submit one name (not two or more as desired by reform advocates) which the UNGA will be hard put to reject. Among the UN's five regional groupings, the East Europeans have never provided a secretary general and have claimed the post this time. Several East European candidates have entered the field, including an ex-president of Slovenia and two Bulgarian women - an EU commissioner and the present director general, Unesco.
But East Europe no longer exists as a political group since all its members, except Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, have joined or are in the process of joining Nato or EU or both. As a permanent member, Russia cannot be a candidate. Belarus and Ukraine would be unacceptable. Thus politically an East European candidate will in fact be a candidate from a Westdominated Europe.
Since East is now West, a number of West European candidates have also entered the race. Among them, Portugal's former prime minister Gutierrez and Helen Clark, former New Zealand prime minister. The New York Times has endorsed Chancellor Merkel for the post. But, since Germany (like Japan, India and Brazil) aspires to a permanent Security Council seat, would this disqualify her for the secretary general's post?
Several Latin Americans also feel they are eligible since their group last held the post 20 years ago. The new foreign minister of Argentina; the foreign minister of Chile (and ex-chairman of the Benazir Bhutto assassination inquiry commission), even the serving Chilean president may be candidates. There is a strong move within the UN in favour of a female secretary general since all have been males hitherto. Thus the emergence of several women candidates. However, this politically correct consideration will not weigh decisively with the permanent members when deciding which candidate best serves their interests.
The historical record shows that candidates who enter the field early seldom succeed. Most successful candidates have emerged from the shadows towards the end of the process. The interview process agreed this year may change this dynamic, especially if a cut-off date for the presentation of candidatures is agreed.
On at least two occasions, the choice has fallen on 'insider' candidates. Under-secretary U Thant became acting secretary general after Dag Hammarskjold's death and was later confirmed in the post. Kofi Annan, under-secretary general for peacekeeping, was sponsored by the US secretary of state when she decided to be rid of an overly independent Boutros-Ghali. This time also, the highly respected deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, could emerge as a compromise selection. To play an effective role, a secretary general must not be beholden to one or more of the permanent members.