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Thailand said it had no enemies, while Kazakhstan pointed out it had voluntarily given up the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world more than two decades ago. Sweden emphasized it was militarily nonaligned. Italy, the only Mediterranean candidate, said it could ensure geographic balance because it sits at the crossroads of the east and the west, while the Netherlands noted it had a unique perspective on global affairs because of its footing in both Europe and the Caribbean through what it calls its kingdom.
Those were some of the highlights raised this week by the countries running for the five open seats on the United Nations Security Council during the first-ever election debates in the UN’s 70-year history. The hearings were held as part of a greater effort to bring more transparency to the UN, much like the recent hearings that occurred for the current secretary-general race for the 2017-2022 term, replacing Ban Ki-moon.
Those forums, enabled through a broad range of international civil society networks as well as concerted work by the UN General Assembly president, Mogens Lykketoft, a Dane, brought riveted worldwide attention to the UN.
Until the last minute, Sweden and Thailand were the only countries vying for the contested seats on the Security Council to confirm they would participate in the public hearings, held May 23 and 24 in the UN’s Trusteeship Council chamber.
Bonian Golmohammadi, the secretary-general of the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA), which originated the idea for the debates and organized them, said in an interview that their unprecedented nature most likely made some candidates nervous, as they did not know what to expect.
Just hours before the first debate, Kazakhstan agreed to participate. Italy and the Netherlands agreed to take part the day before their tentative date.
Golmohammadi said accountability and participation of civil society at the UN were a core part of WFUNA’s vision, so the debates evolved from there.
“We were surprised when we started thinking about this, that this has never happened before,” said Golmohammadi, whose organization started planning for the debates last September. “It seems like a pretty obvious thing to have some kind of an open hearing. It’s an issue about them having a platform — it’s about basic information sharing and transparency — but also, depending on what they promise, to hold them accountable during their term.”
The General Assembly will hold the election for the open Security Council seats on June 28, having moved the annual vote from October to allow the winners to make a smoother transition to the UN’s most important decision-making body, when they start in January. Every year, five of the council’s 10 elected members are voted in for two years. The five permanent members of the council are Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
The council’s 10 elected members reflect the UN’s regional groups. The countries competing for the two open seats for the Western European and Other Group (or WEOG) consist of Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. The Asia-Pacific region, which has one open slot, is being challenged by Kazakhstan and Thailand. Ethiopia is running uncontested for Africa; and Bolivia is doing the same for the Latin America-Caribbean sector.
In the hearings on May 24, the UN ambassadors from Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden showed more similarities than differences in representing their countries, a relationship they each collegially admitted. The ambassadors — all men — reiterated their commitment to transparency, accountability, peace and security through examples of their roles in UN peacekeeping and financial contributions to the UN as well as having held council seats in the past.
Sweden repeatedly reminded the audience, however, that it hasn’t been on the council since 1997-1998 and has served only three times. Olof Skoog, the ambassador, also said that Sweden was the first to declare, in 2005, its candidacy for the 2017-2018 council seat. Although he stressed that Sweden was militarily nonaligned, he did not mention that its legislature was voting soon on whether to allow NATO troops to do military exercises on its soil.
In response to a question about his country’s commitment to women’s issues, he discussed Sweden’s consistent efforts to include and empower women but joked about one mistake — naming him ambassador — because he was not a woman.
Italy has served on the council six times; the Netherlands, five. Unlike Italy and the Netherlands, a Swede has been a UN secretary-general (Dag Hammarskjold), and the current UN deputy secretary-general, Jan Eliasson, is Swedish, two feats that the country had no trouble emphasizing, too.
Sebastiano Cardi of Italy said his country was the only Mediterranean candidate from the WEOG cluster, and so it would ensure diversity and geographic balance. Italy, he clarified, is used to creating dialogue and working with others, including in the Middle East and Africa — the latter being especially significant given the huge flow of migrants coming from the continent to cross the Mediterranean and arrive in Italian ports.
Karel van Oosterom of the Netherlands, a kingdom made up of its European base and three Caribbean islands, said that having its feet in two parts of the world meant “building bridges” was part of its nature. Its geographic diversity, he added, also gives the Netherlands an understanding of the climate-change challenges facing island and other nations.
The contest for the Western European and Other Group seats remains a closely watched affair, given the equally strong presentations of the three countries, as some people in the audience reflected, although others suggested the voting was already locked up.
The organizers from WFUNA estimated that about 125 countries attended the second debate, on May 24, a larger showing than the day before, when the Asia-Pacific candidates gave their presentations. Britain’s ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, was the only permanent member of the Security Council to attend the hearings, WFUNA said, appearing on May 24 and even asking the candidates a question.
Kairat Abdrakhmanov, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the UN, highlighted his campaign’s four pillars: nuclear, food, water and energy security. Kazakhstan, which could become the first Central Asian nation to serve on the council if elected, would also use its experience in disarmament and nonproliferation to promote peace and security on the council, he added.
Thailand offered itself as an experienced international player with a 70-year membership at the UN, since its inception. Virachai Plasai, the ambassador, stressed that his country declared its candidacy in 2007, and was prepared to serve on the council for the first time in more than 30 years.
“It is high time that we assume that responsibility again,” Plasai said, easily switching from English to French on occasion and a far more animated speaker than the Kazakh ambassador. “We have experience, we are a known and tested candidate.”
WFUNA plans to schedule a hearing for Ethiopia and Bolivia to share their campaigns, despite these countries’ shoo-in status. The format of the hearings consisted of candidates’ prepared remarks and questions from moderators and member states and civil society in the audience — all of them veering from serious political probing.
“We are delighted we could convene our member states in conjunction with civil society and the UN community to set a precedent to help strengthen and improve the work of the United Nations,” said Jordan Street, WFUNA’s peace and disarmament officer. “We thank all the ambassadors who participated and give them great credit for deciding to join — they participated in good faith, and none of them had to do it.”