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The UN General Assembly Grows More Assertive Under a Dane


Mogens Lykketoft, a Dane and the president of the UN General Assembly, attending a humanitarian conference in Dubai, January 2016. MARK GARTEN
Mogens Lykketoft, a Dane and the president of the UN General Assembly, about to speak at a humanitarian conference in Dubai, January 2016. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

Corridor diplomacy — private nonmeetings, informal discussions — has been the norm at the United Nations since its founding 70 years ago. It is the preferred method of its most powerful organ, the Security Council, particularly now, as the election of the UN’s next secretary-general for the 2017-2022 term is underway.

In this election year, however, the UN diplomatic system is being shaken and stirred by politicians. The UN General Assembly may be the closest body in the organization to function as a parliament, with member states equally represented, but while several politicians have been presidents of the General Assembly, the current one is an activist parliamentarian.

That is, he is a parliamentarian with goals that reside more in activist camps, working on such issues as transparency and gender empowerment. Such people tend to work around diplomatic rules, pushing them aside when necessary; they see their job as doing more than just taking the speech prepared by the ministry and delivering it to the parliament.

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Mogens Lykketoft, a 70-year-old former speaker of the Danish parliament and a trained economist, is using his role as president of the General Assembly this year to promote the secretary-general election process as his main platform. As a parliament speaker, Lykketoft understands how to use the Assembly’s power of convening.

“Coming from a minority coalition government, I had to learn the necessity of bringing differences to the compromise table to find common ground,” he said recently in an interview.

As each term of the president of the General Assembly is one year, from September to September, he or she (only a handful of women have led it) builds on work done by predecessors.

“This crucial work on revitalization of the work of the General Assembly was done by my predecessor,” Lykketoft said, referring to Sam Kutesa of Uganda and a new demand to improve the openness of the secretary-general election process and other actions.

“Change was happening anyway, but this was negotiated by Croatia and Namibia, as a clear starting point,” Lykketoft added of the revitalization platform, led by those two countries. The platform will get its first test of strength in the election process of the secretary-general, which should culminate in a vote by November.

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Lykketoft is excited by the prospect that “this has the potential to be a game-changer; the de facto process has been a selection within and around the P-5 really, the P-3,” he said, referring to the permanent-five veto-wielding members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) and the core members, China, Russia and the US.

A new process — brought on by a General Assembly “revitalization” resolution passed last fall — now entails formal steps for candidates for UN secretary-general. A framework resolution, passed by the Security Council in a follow-up measure, requires that candidates be endorsed in a letter from their governments (though not essential) that is sent jointly to the president of the General Assembly (Lykketoft) and to the Security Council president. The latter role is a monthly rotating seat held among the body’s 15 members.

Work on the framework of the so-called joint letter was carried out initially by Matthew Rycroft, Britain’s ambassador, and Lykketoft in November. It was formally approved in the Security Council in December, when Samantha Power, the US ambassador, was president.

Both resolutions have thrown open the door for more active involvement by the General Assembly, or UNGA, in electing the next secretary-general.

“It will give more transparency, we are putting candidates with CVs on our website,” Lykketoft said. “We are also asking them to give presentations to the general membership of the UN; in addition to member states, these will be public hearings that civil society can also view.”

Adding more power to the General Assembly’s role is a rising number of diplomats at the UN who, like Lykketoft, could be considered activist politicians. The ambassador of Colombia, Emma María Mejía, is a former foreign minister who is leading a campaign to elect a woman as secretary-general after 70 years of eight men and no women in the role.

Nearly 50 countries have joined this effort; two candidates nominated by member states are already women, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria (who runs Unesco) and Vesna Pusic, until recently foreign minister of Croatia. The UN’s penchant for geographic rotation in all major appointments and elections has positioned Eastern Europe as the current region to put forth nominations, but that unwritten rule cannot restrict other candidates from declaring their interest.

“We will also ask the candidates, particularly the women candidates, to come and speak to us in addition to the UNGA hearings,” Mejía said, noting that she was planning events during the annual Commission on Status of Women meeting in March.

Colombia’s soon-to-be-completed peace process to end its 51-year-old civil war has brought the country into closer focus internationally, elevating its standing after being considered an ungoverned state for decades. If the election process expands to other regions — Latin America has had only one secretary-general, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru — Colombia is expected to nominate a female candidate.

Hearings by the General Assembly are scheduled to begin in early April; Lykketoft’s office will be releasing the process details soon, he said.

“The invitations will of course go to those who have formally been nominated,” he added. It is unclear how this process will affect those who are declared but not formally nominated or those who are undeclared but campaigning. “Another round of hearings will take place with those whose nominations are coming later.”

In February, international parliamentarians held hearings at the UN on the world drug problem. Several countries, including France, Ukraine and Uruguay, discussed the secretary-general race separately in interviews. Chantal Guittet, from the governing Socialist party and secretary of its Foreign Affairs Committee, said she was “not aware that any woman candidate had been formally nominated yet.”

After being assured that two women had been nominated, Guittet said that while the issue was not part of the normal procedure of the Women’s Rights Commission in the French Parliament, she said she would check if it could be brought up there.

The role of the 10 elected members of the Security Council is also important in the secretary-general race, as a majority vote is needed to nominate a candidate — or candidates — to be voted on ultimately in the General Assembly.

Uruguay’s parliamentary delegation, also attending the drug forum at the UN, said that his country’s parliament had not held discussion on candidates, but that they would do so with their ambassador to the UN, Elbio Rosselli, since Uruguay is an elected member of the Security Council.

Senator Luis Alberto Héber, a member of Uruguay’s National Party, the opposition, said, “We are a progressive country; if there is an equally qualified woman candidate surely we will vote for her.”

Ukraine’s situation is complicated. Although it is an elected member of the Security Council and part of Eastern Europe, it is unlikely that a candidate from Ukraine could win Russia’s approval, given the tensions between the two countries. Yet Nataliya Katser-Buchkovska, a deputy parliamentarian from Ukraine, said that she would discuss the matter with the Foreign Relations Committee chair, adding “we would want to see a friend of Ukraine in the role; someone like the president of Lithuania.”

The territorial friction between Ukraine and Russia, however, also hurts Lithuania’s chances of winning the secretary-general post, as Lithuania has rebuked Russia for annexing the Crimean region in Ukraine and it is part of NATO.

As the nominations continue and the General Assembly begins to hold hearings, it is still the permanent members of the Security Council who will sit together — probably in July — to decide who they want or who they can each stand. Of those members, the US has a key role, of course, as the election will happen in President Obama’s last months of his final term. Members of the US Congress have written to Obama urging him to choose a woman.

On Feb. 11, an off-the-record briefing was held by Rep. Jackie Speiers (D-California) and Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) with, an organization campaigning for a female secretary-general (of which this writer is a member). The new transparency resulting from the more robust General Assembly allowed the presenters to discuss information about the publicly declared candidates.

How the permanent members of the Council have viewed the more assertive General Assembly role may be the most change in the balance of power at the UN in a long time.

“My expectations when negotiating the joint letter [with US ambassador Samantha Power] was that it would be more difficult,” Lykketoft said. “The British got others on track; at the end the UK and Russian ambassadors came together to my office to finalize the letter.”

For the Council permanent members, the General Assembly’s role provides an informal screening mechanism for candidates. For candidates, the joint letter and hearings allow them to make their case in plain view. If they are well received, the “most eminent, with the strongest support will make it more difficult this time for P-5 to come up with a different proposed name,” Lykketoft said.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Shazia Z. Rafi was Secretary-General of Parliamentarians for Global Action from 1996-2013 and the first woman on the ballot and runner-up finalist for the Inter-Parliamentary Union Secretary-General election. She is the president of a nonprofit group helping national legislatures to improve air quality in Asia:

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she graduated from Bryn Mawr College and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Rafi is a Women’s Media Center SheSource expert on international security, international law, women’s rights and the environment. She lives in New York City and her website is (

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