By Viktor Lerche-Jørgensen Lassen
Later this year, the UN will select its ninth Secretary-General in a historically transparent process, in which former heads of state, foreign ministers and top diplomats strive for what has often been called the hardest job in the world. Some say it’s time for a woman in the chair, but the Security Council seems to think otherwise.
You cannot turn on an electronic device these days without being bombarded with news about the American presidential election. But that is not the only world leader position up for grabs this fall. On December 31st current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s term will end. Before that, his replacement must be found.
At the time of writing, 11 people are officially running, half of them women. After eight male Secretaries-General, many have argued that now is the time for a woman in the position, and a letter by Mogens Lykketoft and President of the Security Council Samantha Power, called on all member states “to consider presenting women, as well as men, as candidates for the position of Secretary-General.” Some also argue that the Secretary-General should be from Eastern Europe, the only regional group from where there has never been a Secretary-General.
Unpredictable Security Council
However, the leaked results of the latest straw poll, where each of the 15 members of the Security Council can encourage, discourage or express ‘no opinion’ on each of the candidates, indicated support for a Western European man, former prime minister of Portugal, António Guterres. With 11 encouragements, 2 discouragements and 2 neutral votes, Guterres emerged as frontrunner in front of Vuk Jeremic, former foreign minister of Serbia, and Susana Malcorra, current foreign minister of Argentina.
— WFUNA (@WFUNA) August 5, 2016
Nothing is decided yet, though, as the straw polls are not binding and could keep going until new years, and there is no set date for when the Secretary-General must be picked. Furthermore, allegedly all candidates received at least one discouragement vote, which is enough to end any candidate’s chances, if the vote comes from one of the permanent five members of the Security Council (United States, China, Russia, United Kingdom and France).
The Selection Process
According to the UN Charter, “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” In practice, this has meant that every previous Secretary General has been picked behind closed doors by the Security Council, where the five permanent members all wield veto power.
The candidate is then presented to the General Assembly for formal appointment. Only in 1951 did the General Assembly not go by the Security Council’s decision, when the assembly ignored the Soviet Union’s veto against the reappointment of Trygve Lie as Secretary General, and instead voted in favor of letting him serve for a second term.
This process has been criticized for several reasons. The closed nature of Security Council’s appointment process has made it impossible to anyone outside the Security Council to question the candidates’ qualifications, motives or visions for the job. The often conflicting interests of the P5 combined with their veto power has often made the process less about the qualifications of the candidates, and more about who could be agreed on, or in other words, the lowest common denominator.
This time around, some improvements have been made to make the process more transparent and provide legitimacy to the position. The President of the General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft has called on all UN member states to present their candidates to the Assembly and the Council. The candidates have each presented their vision statements to the General Assembly, where member states and representatives of civil society have also been able to question and debate with the candidates. Though the Security Council still has the final say, it is unlikely that they will pick a Secretary-General outside of the official candidates.
Watch the candidates make their case at the General Assembly
Secretary or General
Whomever the next Secretary-General is, he or she will head a UN that faces ever more complicated issues in an ever more complicated world. Climate change, migration and conflicts are some of the issues that must be handled, along with the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. In a world where states are often at odds with each other, as well as with regional and international institutions, the next Secretary-General must work hard to maintain the UN’s relevancy.
There is much power invested in the title of Secretary-General, both administratively and symbolic. Besides being the face of the UN to the world, the Secretary General is the head of the entire UN secretariat. The secretariat employs more than 40,000 people engaged in everything from forest protection to nuclear disarmament. The Secretary-General is also responsible of appointing the heads of major UN institutions like UNDP and UNICEF.
The UN charter also gives the Secretary-General a mandate to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” This gives him or her the power to bring global attention to looming conflicts. Since the UN’s foundation, Secretaries-General have used the position to promote certain issues. Ban Ki-Moon, for example has spent his two terms, emphasizing the connection between climate change and conflicts. For his successor, there are plenty of issues to get to work on.
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