BERLIN — This United Nations top official is unknown to the broad public, yet he or she provides an important function: the president of the General Assembly. Most presidents have carried out the job inconspicuously and routinely, but a few presidents, the present one included, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar, have revealed stamina and political profile in this office.
What is the basis of this office? The UN Charter mentions the president in one sentence only in Article 21, reducing the person to a mere office-holder: “The General Assembly shall adopt its own rules of procedure. It shall elect its President for each session.”
The Rules of Procedure later adopted by the General Assembly confine the president’s powers to procedural ones, without assigning him or her any representative or even political function. And to discourage any potential ambition to strive for a political role, Rule 36 admonishes: “The President, in the exercise of his functions, remains under the authority of the General Assembly.”
Further demonstrating their disinterest in the value of the position, UN member countries did not provide the post with a salary, so the president is paid by his home country. (Only three presidents have been women so far.) He must also have the necessary qualifications when taking the job, since the term is just one year. (Re-elections were excluded in 1963 by prescribing “equitable geographical rotation” in an amendment to the rules of procedure.)
Originally elected at the beginning of the assembly session, the president is now voted on three months before the term begins, in June (this year, June 8), to give the winner a short period to learn the basics of his job. The president then takes his seat at the opening of the assembly session in September to be followed by a successor a year later. This short term leaves the president no chance to develop any substantial skills and knowledge when doing the job.
What poor working conditions for the president of the “parliament” of the UN, its main deliberative body and most important norm-setting and institution-building instrument! When founding the UN, the member countries were obviously afraid to lose too many powers to the presidency in the only forum where everyone is represented equally. As the minutes of the General Assembly sessions on the Rules of Procedure in the late 1940s prove, the delegates emphasized that the president should not be assigned rights that belong exclusively to members.
The lack of power, together with the inadequate working conditions, has led to the presidency being taken up mostly by rather uninspiring and inexperienced routine diplomats, as Christian Wenaweser, the UN ambassador of Liechtenstein, criticized in a General Assembly reform debate in November 2007.
“Given the importance of the position … it is quite remarkable that we do not pay more attention to the process of nominating and selecting our Presidents.” He went on: “In some instances, a newly elected President … was quite surprised to find out what the position actually entailed.” Wenaweser told the assembly: “The presidency is not a protocol function; it is a position of leadership and of political responsibility.”
So far, only a few presidents have met the standard that Wenaweser is suggesting. I mention three of those who succeeded.
The first president who showed toughness and courage in a difficult situation was Jean Ping of Gabon, who had to forge a compromise text, the concluding document of the UN World Summit 2005. That spring, the odds were quite high for him to find a viable compromise — acceptable to all member states — on all the reform issues, including the most important ones, regarding the Security Council and the Human Rights Council. But then John Bolton, the neo-conservative US ambassador to the UN, a recess appointee by President George W. Bush in August 2005 to evade heavy Senate opposition, appeared on the scene and demanded in this late phase of the negotiations the renegotiation of dozens of issues, which spurred other delegations to also raise their own demands again.
Supported by Jan Eliasson, a Swede and the General Assembly president-elect, Ping – in close collaboration with the secretary-general at the time, Kofi Annan – worked hard in small groups of country delegates to find a compromise in the face of Bolton’s intransigence, as James Traub describes in his book, “The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power.”
As the date approached when heads of state were to adopt the final text , Ping had the courage to ignore all the unsolved points in the draft and to draw up a text based on his and Annan’s convictions alone, successfully selling it to member states with the attitude accept it or let the summit be a failure.
Eliasson, the next president, revealed even more diplomacy and firmness in an equally difficult situation, perhaps because he was a UN insider, with valuable negotiating experience as a personal representative of the secretary-general on the Iran-Iraq conflict and as the first envoy for humanitarian affairs, not to mention his rich diplomatic background as Swedish ambassador in Washington from 2000 to 2005. This background gave him what he needed to put the vague compromise text of the outcome document into political practice.
To do so, Eliasson overcame the diverging, partly conflicting interests of the UN members. Using the nongovernmental organizations and the mass media in his negotiation techniques in masterly fashion, Eliasson achieved the nearly impossible: consensus in the General Assembly to create by resolutions two new UN bodies in 2006, the Human Rights Council, replacing the much-scorned Human Rights Commission, and the Peacebuilding Commission, additionally based on an identical resolution from the Security Council.
Whereas Ping and Eliasson proved their skills as persevering diplomats, the current president, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, proved in a severe political crisis the importance of political courage in his job. Despite the hesitant attitude of many member states toward his plan to request that Navanethem Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, brief the General Assembly on the intolerable situation in Syria and against the heavy opposition of Russia and China, Nasser decided to invite Pillay on his own, a bold move which “caused him trouble,” as he confessed later in a discussion at New York University Law School. But he wanted to bring “the issue to the GA,” he said.
His decision to invite Pillay contributed considerably to the powerful rebuke to Syria’s government by a most critical resolution adopted by a 137-12 vote with 17 abstentions on Feb. 16, 2012.
These examples prove that the “parliament” of the UN needs, more than anything else, leadership and vision at its helm. With these crucial elements more active in the presidency, the General Assembly would speak with a clear voice and find more enduring solutions to global problems. The assembly should enable its presidents to develop these qualities more often by respecting the presidency better, above all by improving the presidential-nominating mechanisms, a greatly needed reform.
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Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (www.forschungskreis-vereinte-nationen.de).