For the first time in United Nations history, officially announced candidates for the secretary-general race, underway this year, will be interviewed publicly in the General Assembly along the lines of a standard democratic election.
Mogens Lykketoft, the Assembly president and a Dane, is pushing the “unprecedented transparent process,” as he put it, in selecting the next leader of the UN. “There have been initiatives before for this kind of process, but it never worked out on other occasions,” he said recently to media at the UN. “Now, it’s going on, actually.”
In addition, a new initiative, begun by a UN expert who leads a nongovernment organization, is afoot to create a search panel to broaden the selection process, too.
The goal of Lykketoft is to give the Assembly’s 193 members enough sway to directly influence the selection process rather than vote passively for a candidate that the Security Council sends its way later this year. The term for the next UN leader begins Jan. 1, 2017, for five years. A woman has never held the job, so many voices around the world insist that it go in that direction.
The first batch of interviews — or hearings, as Lykketoft refers to them — will be held before the Assembly from April 12-14 at the UN in New York. Selected civil society groups will have a chance to question the candidates, including through a new UN web portal. Media can pose questions after the hearings at a designated press stakeout in the UN. The Security Council, which functions on a monthly rotating presidency (for March, it is Angola), has not said whether candidates will be interviewed openly in its Chamber.
So far, seven candidates, three women and four men, have declared their candidacies through letters sent to the respective presidents of the Security Council and General Assembly by their governments as part of the new process. Six candidates come from Eastern Europe, which is supposed to have first dibs in the UN’s closely guarded regional rotation arrangement.
The candidacy of a Portuguese, António Guterres, who was until this year the executive of the UN’s refugee agency, swings open the door for people outside Eastern Europe to pursue their interests in the secretary-general post. Another male candidate, the foreign minister of Slovakia, may have his name submitted by his country soon, Lykketoft told PassBlue.
One candidate, Natalia Gherman, who was recently the foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Moldova, spoke to a roomful of students and others at Columbia University on Feb. 29, invited by the Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General. The forum gave a taste of how the General Assembly hearings could elicit candidates’ views.
Gherman, whose father, Mircea Snegur, was the first president of Moldova, when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1990, talked as if she were being interviewed for the job, offering insight on her politics regarding Russia versus Europe, among other topics. Moldova falls geographically between the two regions, and Russia dominates Moldova’s economy even as Moldova forges trade ties with Europe.
Saying that she came from a political culture where “collective rights” was the slogan of the day, Gherman emphasized that as secretary-general she would put “individuals at the center of policies.”
As the UN takes its first major foray in prying open what has been a private affair conducted mainly between the United States and Russia, a new initiative, led by a longtime expert on the UN, could upset the status quo further.
The plan, in its exploratory stage and whose principal prefers to remain anonymous for now, would entail gathering a small group of eminent people with extensive knowledge of the UN to act as a search committee for assessing candidates who may not win the endorsement of their home countries but who are formidable enough to become secretary-general.
In past races for secretary-general, UN career officers like Shashi Tharoor, who managed the world body’s public information office, could not initially get India’s approval in his campaign to lead the UN, weakening his chances for success from the start.
The new process being led by Lykketoft, heavily promoted by groups connected to the UN, still features some rigid but unspoken rules, including the seemingly crucial requirement of national backing for candidates. Potential candidates may not be prepared to throw their hat in the ring for other reasons as well, like lack of money to promote themselves or they are heads of state who cannot run for another office at the same time.
“It’s real clear that to address other gaps in the nomination process, there must be an eminent search committee,” the UN expert said. “The key issue is that some of the highest-qualified people would have to be encouraged to run or to make themselves candidates.”
The expert said support for the initiative came from groups committed to reforming the secretary-general selection methods. These include the 1 for 7 Billion campaign of civil society groups; the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group, made up of UN member states; The Elders, consisting of former world leaders like Kofi Annan, the secretary-general; and the Non-Aligned Movement of developing nations.
Some of the groups, like 1 for 7 Billion, are not endorsing individuals but concentrating on procedural changes to usher in a modernized selection process at the UN.
The people “who need to be encouraged to run,” the UN expert said, include Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, who has not said publicly if she wants the job; Angela Kane, a German who ran disarmament affairs at the UN; Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union commissioner for budgets, from Bulgaria; Michelle Bachelet, the president of Chile; and several men, such as Christian Wenaweser, the ambassador to the UN from Liechtenstein; and Ian Martin, who runs Security Council Report and is English.
A vast majority of people, the expert noted, have accepted that the selection process is being transformed and that those outside the “two or three blocks of UN headquarters” understand the new approach.
“Everyone else is still in Cold War procedures,” the person said. “They can’t get their head around that this will change now.”
[This article was updated.]
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.