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UN head — no charisma required

Sep 28,2016 - Last updated at Sep 28,2016

It is not an election, it is a selection. And although all the countries in the United Nations General Assembly have equal rights, some are more equal than others.

Ban Ki-moon retires at the end of this year, and it is time for the United Nations to choose a new secretary general. 

By the end of this year’s session of the General Assembly, in early October, we will know who it is. Which raises two questions: how do they make the choice, and why should anybody care?

The secretary general of the United Nations is, in some sense, the highest official on the planet, but the selection process is hardly democratic. In fact, it has traditionally been a process as shrouded in secrecy as a papal conclave.

It is the Security Council’s 15 members who pick the candidate, although all 192 members of the General Assembly then get to vote on their choice.

And even in the Security Council, it is only the views of the five permanent members (the P5) that really count, because each of the five great powers has a veto and the others do not.

This is why people with strong opinions and a record of taking decisive action do not get the job. That sort of person would be bound to annoy one of the P5 great powers — Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States — or even all of them one after the other, so the entire system is designed to prevent a maverick with big ideas from slipping through.

The secretary general must never come from one of the great powers (that might give him access to enough resources to make a nuisance of himself), and the successful candidate should not be charismatic.

The final choice is usually a “safe pair of hands”, some blameless diplomat from a middle or smaller power like the incumbent, a career diplomat from South Korea who ranks 32nd on the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People.

Candidates, therefore, tend to be relative unknowns.

A look at the current list of candidates, for example, shows the only two names one might recognise, even if one is a political junkie, are former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, now administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and later UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

But who are Irina Bokova, Natalia Gherman or Igor Luksic?

They are, in that order, a former acting foreign minister of Bulgaria, the current foreign minister of Moldova, and a former foreign minister of Montenegro. 

Well, all right, Bokova is also the current director general of UNESCO, but many still do not know her name.

Why so many Eastern Europeans (eight of the twelve candidates) come from that region? 

Because it is Eastern Europe’s “turn” this time. That region always missed out until the end of the Cold War, because the countries of Eastern Europe were effectively under Soviet control and, therefore, contravened the unwritten “no sec-gen from a great power” rule.

One might also ask why Eastern Europe is a whole separate region at all, given that its total population from Poland to Bulgaria is less than the population of Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia or Pakistan.

Same reason: it used to be seen as a separate region because it was occupied by Soviet troops and most of its governments were ultimately controlled by Moscow. History looms very large at the UN.

There is some progress. Half of this year’s candidates are women, and there is a strong feeling around the UN that it is high time for a woman to become secretary general.

There is also an attempt this time to make the process more “transparent”, but it is otherwise unchanged.

The Security Council still comes up with a single candidate who does not offend any of the great powers, and the General Assembly then rubber-stamps its choice.

It is basically a civil service job, suitable for persons of cautious disposition. 

How could it be otherwise? One only gets what one pays for, and no great power is yet ready to pay the price in terms of its own sovereignty of having a powerful independent leader at the United Nations.

What would be the point of choosing such a leader anyway, as long as the UN has no military forces or financial resources of its own?

It would only lead to frustration: the secretary general cannot act independently of the will of the great powers because they designed it that way.

The job is still worth doing, and there is never a shortage of applicants.

The secretary general can speak out as the conscience of the world when there are massive violations of human rights, and once in a while can actually organise a peacekeeping mission to stop the horrors (if all the great powers agree).

And he/she becomes, by virtue of the position, the most striking symbol of that more cooperative, less violent world that most politicians, diplomats and ordinary citizens actually aspire to.

But we are still a very long way from the promised land.



The writer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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