Is this the next UN Secretary General?

While the U.S. election steals the media spotlight, Stefan Labbé updates on another important leadership campaign — that for Secretary General of the United Nations. 

By: /
June 21, 2016
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar

This December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will finish his second five-year term. So far, 11 candidates have come forward to replace him in what is often said to be the world’s most impossible job.

For an organization that proselytizes transparency and good governance, the selection process for the next Secretary General (SG) is opening up for the first time — at least slightly.

Since World War II, SGs have been chosen in backroom deals between the five permanent members of the Security Council: Russia, the U.S., China, the U.K. and France. Their choice — which often meant the least offensive candidate — was then rubber-stamped by the General Assembly.

None of that has changed. Selection of the next SG remains in the hands of the Security Council. But this year, candidates have been publicly nominated. This is largely thanks to the 1 in 7 Billion Campaign, a civil society movement pushing for more transparency in the selection process.

Now, each candidate must post a CV, an application letter and a 2,000-word vision statement detailing their motivations and why they are qualified for the job. On April 13, candidates participated in the first of several two-hour Q&A sessions where UN ambassadors, non-profits and business representatives asked over 800 questions. A second Q&A session took place on June 7 in New York.

In another push to effect change at the UN, the Campaign to Elect a Woman Secretary General and the SheUNited campaign have fought for a woman to take the job, echoing a call from dozens of member states. Add this to the informal system of regional rotation, and many have predicted an Eastern European woman will take over as the next SG. Others don’t buy the sanctity of regional rotation — predicting disagreements between Russia and the U.S. might leave room for another candidate to slip through the backroom political negotiations.

The campaign is likely to gain more attention over the next several months — the Security Council will begin deliberations at the end of July and is expected to come to a decision sometime in October.

And while new candidates can still be nominated by their governments throughout this period, and names like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mexico’s Alicia Bárcena have been tossed around, here’s a look at five leading candidates thus far.

1. Irina Bokova, Bulgaria

Irina Bokova
Irina Bokova speaks to the media after a visit to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad November 2, 2014. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Bokova has been working in and around the UN for nearly four decades, joining the UN Department at the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1977. She served as the Bulgarian minister of foreign affairs and as the ambassador to France and Monaco. Despite her pedigree in communist Russia, Bokova is a strong supporter of European integration. She has advocated for Bulgaria’s entrance into the EU and NATO — both as Coordinator of Bulgaria-European Union relations and as Secretary of the Council of Ministers for European integration — and was the first woman to become Director-General of UNESCO, where she has worked since 2009.

She has a degree from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, studied U.S. foreign policy at the University of Maryland, and completed the Executive Program in Leadership and Economic Development at Harvard.

At 63, Bokova emerged early as one of the favourites. She benefits from the rotation to Eastern Europe, strong Russian support and significant experience in high-level international positions. Despite efforts to fight against anti-Semitism — she appointed the first Envoy for Holocaust Education — Under Bokova's watch, UNESCO fell out of favour with the U.S. when it supported a Palestinian membership bid in 2011. The U.S. immediately cut off funding to the UN agency.

Raised speaking Bulgarian, she is fluent in English, French, Russian and proved she is a strong speaker of Spanish during the public Q&A in April. Overall, her performance did not receive glowing reviews. A senior council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the South China Morning Post, “In terms of expectations, I think Bokova was disappointing.”

2. Helen Clark, New Zealand

Helen Clark
Helen Clark listens to a question at a news conference in Beijing, May 4, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Now 66, Clark once served as New Zealand’s prime minister for nearly 10 years (1999-2008). During her first and second terms, she oversaw the negotiation of a free trade agreement with China and supported the country’s entry into the WTO. In 2009, she became the first female head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). As the UNDP administrator, she directed the distribution of billions of dollars worth of funds to the Syrian refugee crisis, efforts at reconciliation in South Sudan and the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Clark has also had her fair share of criticism. In 2014, the UNDP came under fire for allegedly mismanaging hundreds of millions of dollars in funds to improve law and order in Afghanistan; and in a recent Foreign Policy article, she was accused of ending the careers of subordinates in her bid to be the next SG — something Clark said was "totally fabricated."

Despite this controversy, Clark is seen as a tough politician who is not afraid to stand up to scrutiny and criticism. During the April Q&A session, one of her most animated answers was in response to whether or not she was an establishment candidate. "I have come from the outside of everything I have done, from a rural background to urban settings, as a woman breaking into a man's world, which was politics in my country, as a woman becoming the first elected prime minister, the first woman appointed administrator of the UNDP,” said Clark.

Many commentators and diplomats agreed that Clark had one of the most impressive performances — enough for the bookmaker William Hill to rank her as the favourite by late May. While Clark does not tick the Eastern Europe box, she has two regional claims in her favour: one, New Zealand is part of the Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG) at the UN, giving Clark a backdoor to a geographic claim for the job; and two, there has never been an SG from Oceania. 

3. Susana Malcorra, Argentina

Susana Malcorra
Susana Malcorra pauses during an interview with Reuters in Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

Trained as an electrical engineer, Malcorra has significant administrative experience in both the private sector and in public service. As CEO of Telecom Argentina, she oversaw its transition from state ownership to the private sector. Malcorra was Chief Operating Officer of the World Food Programme and was promoted to Chef de Cabinet in 2012 under UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Over three years, she oversaw the operational response to the Ebola Crisis, the mission to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria, and the 2012-13 peace negotiations for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and surrounding region.

Last December, Malcorra left the UN to become Argentina's foreign minister, but has kept up her international profile, visiting the UN several times. Over the last few weeks, she has travelled to Washington, Moscow and Beijing, currying favour in the capitals that will ultimately decide if she is the next SG.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Malcorra took a conciliatory approach on the Falkland/Malvinas dispute with the UK, stressing that instead of “over-focusing” on the islands, the two countries should pay attention to bilateral trade and investment. Her visits to Russia and China have focused on garnering foreign investment in what she says is an extension of her government's policy to eliminate poverty, fight drug trafficking and politically unite her fractured country. Indeed, her vision statement focused heavily on shifting the UN to an “issues-based operandi” in order to secure investment for sustainable development.

Recently, South American media have reported that despite the rise of the Macri government, Argentina continues to be one of Venezuela’s leading allies, defending the country at the OAS in exchange for Venezuela backing Malcorra in her bid for SG.

Malcorra has strong connections and a solid track record within the UN. The last SG to come from Latin America was Peruvian diplomat Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, who served as the head of the organization from 1982 to 1991. As the geographical rotation of SGs is more of a tradition than a rule, many see Malcorra in a strong position to challenge the Eastern European candidates.

4. António Guterres, Portugal

Antonio Guterres
Antonio Guterres addresses a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Pro-European and a former prime minister of Portugal, Guterres served nearly a decade as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In a tenure that saw the number of conflict displaced people rise from 38 million in 2005 to over 60 million in 2015, Guterres managed to triple the volume of UNHCR activities while decreasing staff at its Geneva headquarters by 20 percent.

As prime minister, Guterres worked together with the international community to try and resolve the conflict in East Timor. He is a self-described social democrat, and served as vice-president in the Socialist International from 1992 to 1999.

Trained as an engineer at the Instito Superior Técnico, Guterres is fluent in Portuguese, English, French and Spanish.

In his vision statement, Guterres hits on a broad range of issues, from committing to a “culture of prevention” to boosting the UN’s reputation as an organization that can be trusted to protect everyone.

“The SG must stand firmly for the reputation of the UN and its dedicated staff,” wrote Guterres. “In particular, elevating the prestige of the blue helmet, the soldier standing for peace, and eradicating, once and for all, the exploitative and abusive conduct of those UN agents who do not represent what the organization stands for.”

Building on his work at the UNHCR, Guterres vowed to make the UN more field-oriented and less bureaucratic. He also promised to address regional diversity and gender gaps, especially in senior staff selection.

After a standout performance in the April Q&A session, Guterres told journalists, "My number one priority is prevention — the UN is spending 70 percent of its resources on peacekeeping where there is no peace to keep. Prevention is clearly my priority."

5. Vuk Jeremić, Serbia

Vuk Jeremić
Vuk Jeremic speaks during an interview at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, October 19, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

At 40, the Serbian diplomat is the youngest of the 11 candidates — something he has consistently used to his advantage.

“When you’re young, and when you come and they see you for the first time, a lot of them are just kind of surprised. They say, ‘Who’s this kid?’" said Jeremić in 2010.

'This kid' grew up in Belgrade until his family was blacklisted by the Milošević regime. As a teenager, Jeremić moved with his family to London, where he eventually studied theoretical physics at Cambridge, completed a PhD in quantitative finance at the University of London and a master’s degree in public administration and international development at Harvard. Arguably an overachiever, Jeremić also worked for Deutche Bank, Dresdner Kleinwort Benson and AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals.

His vision statement is more of an introduction to a detailed platform — dwarfing all others in length and detail.

In April, Jeremić elaborated on his vision statement with 53 “concrete commitments” that, according to him, will help the UN adjust to a world that is currently outpacing the 70-year-old organization. In an interview with the Global Observatory, Jeremić stressed that he would instruct the entire UN system to put climate change at the centre of its work. 

“This is not a concrete list,” he said, “This is an invitation for dialogue.” 

But Jeremić has a checkered past.

At 31, he was appointed as Serbian Foreign Minister by longtime mentor and Serbian president Boris Tadić. From 2007 to 2012, Jeremić pursued a two-pronged agenda — simultaneously advocating to incorporate Serbia into the EU and lobbying governments around the world to block the independence of Kosovo. During his term, Jeremić took on the informal title of “Minister of Kosovo” for his relentless pursuit to reclaim the ‘lost’ province.

This is where some have questioned his ability to build consensus.

“This place, Kosovo, is our Jerusalem; you just can’t treat it any other way than our Jerusalem,” said Jeremić in a 2010 New York Times article.

Two years later, he caused an uproar on Twitter when he likened the independence of Kosovo to the story of The Hobbit, where the benevolent dwarves have their land usurped by evil orcs (read Kosovar Albanians) and the gold-hoarding dragon Smaug (a veiled reference to the Trepca Mine Complex?)

Despite the controversy, Jeremić was elected president of the UN General Assembly in 2012 —the first president elected since 1991. Up until this point, Jeremić had built much of his political career as a progressive post-Milošević Serbian nationalist. Then in March 2013, he quickly switched gears and began energetically highlighting his Bosniak heritage in what some observers saw as an attempt to groom his image.

As president of the General Assembly, he presided over the signing of the Arms Trade Treaty and Adoption 2030, which outlined the UN’s Agenda for Sustainable Development.