The post of United Nations secretary-general may or may not be “the world’s most impossible job,” as its first occupant, Trygve Lie, a Norwegian, once described it. In any case, UN members must choose a successor to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon well before the close of 2016.
Some potential candidates are already campaigning for the post. Every UN member nation has a vested interest in how active or subdued a role the new officeholder will play. Any of the five permanent members of the Security Council, called the P5 (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States), can veto a council choice, and the General Assembly majority must approve anyone the council chooses.
The UN Charter offers a limited description of the job. He/she will be the chief administrator. Under Article 99, the secretary-general may also bring any issue viewed as a threat to peace and security to the attention of the Security Council. That’s about it. The secretary-general also has limited bargaining power, no standing military force or intelligence service, and he cannot set or enforce UN policy.
Yet the eight men who have held the job so far have worked hard to mold it into an impressive post of moral leadership and often-effective mediation. Though not always solely responsible, these secretaries-general deserve credit for a number of cease-fires and for the peaceful settlement of many disputes. Often their contribution is quiet and little noticed.
Take U Thant‘s role in the Cuban missile crises of October 1962. I remember being glued to my television set as the threats from both the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, and the US president, John F. Kennedy. steadily escalated. Many of us learned only later that U Thant, who was Burmese, had been an invaluable go-between. He managed to tamp down the rhetoric and tension, offering both sides much-needed breathing space through which they resolved the conflict.
Dag Hammarskjold, a Swede and the UN’s second secretary-general, helped win the freedom of more than a dozen US Air Force and civilian personnel seized by China during the Korean War. The UN General Assembly sharply criticized (and greatly angered) China for convicting the men on espionage charges. Separating himself from the General Assembly position, Hammarskjold insisted that he had an independent responsibility as the UN’s leader. He took part in a long series of working sessions that ended in the captives’ release.
With the help of a brave emissary who again stressed the UN leader’s independent responsibilities — and after lengthy negotiations involving Iran, Syria, the US, Britain and Israel — Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru similarly managed in 1991 to rescue several Westerners kidnapped in Lebanon.
Consider also Secretary-General Kofi Annan‘s steady mediation efforts with B.J. Habibe, president of Indonesia, a nation that had occupied the former Portuguese colony of East Timor during years of escalating brutality and violence. Ultimately, Habibe agreed to allow a referendum. The voters chose independence, and Annan, a Ghanaian, was present at the ceremonies in May 2002.
Yet secretaries-general have always had to be careful not to overly offend any of the Security Council’s P5 members, lest the repercussions come back to haunt them. When the Security Council condemned North Korea for its 1950 invasion of South Korea (conveniently, the Soviet Union was boycotting the council at the time), Trygve Lie emphatically backed the council’s position. He insisted that the invasion must be stopped. Moscow then vetoed his bid for a second term and refused to invite him to any of its social gatherings.
Hammarskjold similarly angered the Soviet Union, partly by his efforts to resolve the Congo crisis. Arguing that he was taking on too many political issues and grabbing too much authority, Moscow refused to pay its UN assessments for a time and, albeit unsuccessfully, urged a troika rather than a solo brand of leadership at the UN helm.
Despite frequent criticism over the years, secretaries-general have helped to foster a more humane and peaceful world. In what earlier might have been considered a violation of the UN’s Charter-backed insistence on the sovereign rights of any member, Secretary-General Annan, for instance, argued strongly that the UN has a special responsibility to protect civilians when their governments fail to do so. An office designated for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was set up in the UN Secretariat.
Annan also worked hard to make the UN more transparent. He made public the reports that were critical of UN shortcomings in both the Rwanda and Srebrenica crises and, with an eye on the future, crafted the Millennium Development Goals, which expire this year.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea has carried on many of Annan’s initiatives. He has worked especially hard to spotlight the need to slow climate change. He also took advantage of an opening — provided by a devastating 2008 cyclone — to prod leaders of Myanmar’s military junta over time to hold democratic elections.
When Ivory Coast’s president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to accept the results of a 2010 democratic election that he lost, Ban staunchly defended the results, declaring that Gbagbo must go. UN and French troops were dispatched to protect civilians in the continuing violence. Eventually, the ex-president surrendered in his residential bunker and was arrested. He is now charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity.
When UN members choose Ban’s successor, however, it is politics and geography — regional turn-taking in which Eastern Europe is next on the list — that will probably play the key role. Gender could be important. No woman has yet been elected to the post. But any known skills in language, administration and even diplomacy are most likely to be of secondary importance. The US traditionally has not favored a strong secretary-general, and its vote, as well as those of the other P5 members, will be crucial.
Many parties in and outside the UN have long been pushing for a more open campaign for the job — including perhaps candidate hearings before the Security Council or the General Assembly with questions encouraged — but so far, such proposals have led to no more than suggestions. A new concerted campaign, called 1 for 7 Billion, has been organized by such nonprofit groups as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the United Nations Association of the UK and endorsed by dozens of others to force a far-reaching process of picking the next secretary-general, including asking candidates for their “visions” of the shape of the UN system.
The next year and a half will reveal the success of the ambitious 1 for 7 Billion campaign and possibly other such efforts, when a candidate is finally elected.
Lucia Mouat is the author of “The UN’s Top Job,” a book about UN secretaries-general. She holds a B.A. in international relations from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Academic Council on the United Nations System. A longtime correspondent and editorial writer for The Christian Science Monitor, she covered the UN as her last assignment. She lives in Chicago.