In 70 years of United Nations history, Eastern Europe has been the only regional group in the organization that has never filled the position of secretary-general. Western Europe has had three secretaries-general; Asia and Africa, two each; and Latin America and the Caribbean, one. The 23 nations of the Eastern European region, determined to win this time, have begun to strategize, though they have not yet united around an agreed candidate. To avoid infighting, the group may offer several names over the coming year. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s term ends in December 2016.
“The Group of Eastern European States is convinced that the time has finally come for a national coming from our region to be entrusted with the highest position of the UN Secretariat,” Ambassador Kaha Imnadze of Georgia, chairman of the group last November, wrote in a letter then to all UN missions. “The principle of rotation among the five regional groups is applied to in fulfilling all key positions within the UN system, including the posts of President of the General Assembly, the President of Ecosoc and all non-permanent seats on the Security Council. . . . [T]his principle should also be respected in the election process for the post of Secretary-General of the UN.”
The obstacles are not small. Would-be candidates from other regions are circling the scene, thinking that perhaps the Eastern Europeans will not find (or agree on) a candidate who can command global support. To complicate the campaign, the profile of eastern Europe has blurred over the years, with nearly a dozen nations having joined or still hoping to join the European Union — viewed by many as a Western European organization — while some of them are also aligned with NATO, putting them on the wrong side of Russia.
Russia, a member of the Eastern Europe group and a powerful permanent member of the Security Council, is positioned to be the most important player when a new secretary-general is chosen by the Security Council next year. President Vladimir Putin, now wary of his neighbors and willing to intervene militarily in their affairs, is in a position to accept or reject regional candidates both within the Eastern European group and among UN member governments generally. That kingmaker role has mostly belonged to the United States in recent decades.
Russian opposition could block any candidate from its own region whom it does not trust but who may be appealing to other powerful countries, including the US. Washington will have a trickier-than-usual job on its hands when the Council gets down to making a decision over the next year. Serious talks among member nations is expected to begin behind closed doors during the next General Assembly session, which begins in September.
In the informal and unscripted race for the secretary-general’s position — there is no detailed job description or system for vetting candidates written into the UN Charter — candidates are lining up. For Eastern Europe, the best known of these are Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, director-general of Unesco, and Danilo Turk, a former president of Slovenia and assistant secretary-general in the UN Department of Political Affairs, who is back at his old job of professor of international law at Ljubljana University in the Slovenian capital. (He recently was a visiting professor at Columbia University.)
Also mentioned is Jan Kubis, a former foreign minister of Slovakia who has led the UN mission in Afghanistan and was recently named head of the UN mission in Iraq. Earlier, he had been secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In early 2014, the government of Slovenia gave its formal public backing to Turk, an important first step in garnering broad support. It authorized its foreign ministry to lend “substantive assistance” to Turk in informal consultations leading up to formal Security Council deliberations.
Turk is widely considered to be the best-qualified candidate not only in the region but also among other influential nations. By some accounts, that includes the US, as the Obama administration will be winding down when a new secretary-general will be named. Bokova, however, is high on the list of those who want to see female candidates in the running and a woman chosen as secretary-general in the final Security Council decision, after which the name of the chosen candidate goes to the General Assembly for a formal election. Bokova already has an endorsement from her own government.
Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi diplomat who has been the UN’s high representative for least-developed nations, argues in his writing and interviews that to widen the field of female candidates, the race should not be limited to Eastern Europeans. He advocates finding a qualified woman from a developing country and for more active nongovernmental campaigning to ensure an open and transparent race. That cause has been taken up by the recently formed Campaign to Elect a Woman Secretary General. [Full disclosure: I am connected to that group.]
So far, the most talked-about women in the unofficial running are Europeans. In addition to Bokova, the Bulgarian candidate, there is Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, who is the administrator of the UN Development Program. New Zealand is in the Western European and Others Group for UN caucus purposes — and Western Europe has had three secretaries-general. Chowdhury also questions whether UN insiders, like Clark, have an unfair advantage because they can use the resources of their offices, including extensive travel, to boost their campaigns.
From outside the European regions, east or west, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile would be the favorite of some influential women’s organizations, but so far she has not appeared to be interested in joining the race, given her current challenges in Chile and perhaps her experience as the first executive director of UN Women. At the agency, there was only lukewarm financial and political support for its mission while she ran it.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.