UN

Choosing the next UN Secretary-General

As the early jockeying to replace Ban Ki-moon begins, Ramesh Thakur considers how the method of choosing the SG could be reformed.
By: /
February 5, 2015
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Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

Ban Ki-moon’s second term as UN Secretary-General (SG) ends on Dec. 31, 2016. To many, his choice in 2006 validated the soft bigotry of low expectations with respect to the world organization. In fact, though, considering the structural constraints within which he must function, Ban’s record is not all that bad. He has led from the front on issues like climate change, the responsibility to protect and a development agenda to follow the Millennium Development Goals that expire this year.

The office of the SG combines the role of politician, diplomat and public sector CEO. The SG must have integrity, independence and the ability and willingness to set the collective interest of the UN above the partisan interests of member states; provide managerial ability and negotiating skill while establishing rapport with a global audience; know when to take the initiative in order to force an issue and when reticence is welcome, when courage is required and when discretion is advisable and when commitment to the UN vision must be balanced by a sense of proportion and humour; and a strong sense of the demands and expectations of the organisation against the limits of the possible.

The status, authority and powers of the SG are derived chiefly from the UN Charter, but also depend on the skills and personality of the incumbent and the state of major-power relations. As the voice of world conscience and the personification of the international interest, with the capacity to influence events but not control them, the SG must have the support of all governments but owe allegiance to none, retaining U.S. confidence while being demonstrably independent of Washington. To describe what is needed is to explain why Norway’s Trygve Lie, the first SG, famously said his was “the most impossible job in the world.”

The single most important challenge for the SG is to provide leadership: the elusive ability to make others connect emotionally and intellectually to a larger cause that transcends their immediate self-interest. UN leadership consists of articulating a bold and noble vision for the international community, establishing standards of achievement and conduct for states and individuals, explaining why they matter and inspiring or coaxing everyone to adopt the agreed goals and benchmarks as their own.

The vote on Ban’s successor will likely take place late next year, although informal initial rounds of balloting could commence in mid-2016. Preliminary jockeying and early announcements of some candidates is already underway. This year will thus be taken up with the discreet reading of tea leaves and the gauging of the global temperature by announced, expected and behind-the-scenes candidates. A more critical agenda item should be to reform the method of choosing the SG and the terms and conditions of office, as this is almost impossible to do in the actual year of election.

The “voting” process puts a premium on the most amiable and least offensive, not the most forceful and effective. Process shapes performance: choosing a weak leader allows the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to scapegoat the SG (Kofi Annan used to joke that “SG” meant “scapegoat”) for the organization’s ineffectual performance.

The UN Charter merely says “the Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Thus the appointing authority is the General Assembly (GA), not the UNSC. But in a resolution adopted on Jan. 24, 1946, the GA called for just one nominee from the UNSC to be forwarded for consideration. The UNSC choice requires the affirmative votes of nine of the 15 members, including the concurring votes of the P5. That is, the decision is subject to a P5 veto. A simple majority of those present and voting, by secret ballot and without debate on the nomination, is held in the GA.

The GA has never rejected the UNSC-recommended candidate. In requiring only one candidate instead of a slate, the GA gave up an appointing power whose importance grew considerably in the following decades. The GA can and should reclaim a co-equal role by rescinding the 1946 resolution and ask for a minimum of three and a maximum of five candidates. Otherwise the SG will remain deferential to the UNSC, and in particular to the P5, over the collective interests and preferences of the broader membership.

Another long-standing reform initiative has called for a single seven-year term to provide stability and take away the possibility of the SG’s decisions/actions being influenced by calculations of a second term. Thus the GA could effect these two key changes (a slate of several candidates and a single but longer term of office) without any Charter amendment.

In 2006 the GA added “gender equality” to regional rotation as a consideration in choosing the SG. Based on a combination of these two criteria, the strongest candidates in 2016 should be central and eastern European women, as no woman and no eastern European has been chosen to date.

Two former prime ministers from down under, Helen Clark and Kevin Rudd, are also widely believed to be interested in the job as the two countries belong to the West European and Others Group (WEOG) whose “turn” it is to provide the next SG. However, it is doubtful that Europeans will endorse an Australasian for their once-in-40 years turn at the world’s top diplomatic post.

Solidarity, empathy, integrity, decency, moral compass, intellect: words to define a good and effective SG who speaks as the conscience of common humanity amidst the hurly burly of great power diplomacy. Dag Hammarskjöld (1953–61) and Annan (1997–2006) were the UN’s two best SGs. Had the P5 known in advance how the two were going to act once in office, it is doubtful either would have been chosen. As we prepare to select the next SG in 2016, this leads to a sobering conclusion: the very skills and character traits needed for the world’s top diplomatic office will ensure the best candidates are vetoed. Until we see the likes again of Hammarskjöld and Annan, the UN is unlikely to recapture the heights of influence it attained during their years of stewardship.

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A version of this piece was originally published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.