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A UN First After 70 Years: Open Campaigning for Secretary-General


Vesna Pusic, the candidate from Croatia running for UN secretary-general, next to Mogens Lykketoft, the president of the General Assembly.
At the United Nations’ first-ever hearings, held April 12-14, 2016, for candidates running for secretary-general: Vesna Pusic of Croatia. Next to her is Mogens Lykketoft, president of the General Assembly, who organized the three-day forum. RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

It was a week unprecedented in the history of the United Nations. From April 12 to 14, nine candidates for the office of secretary-general were put on a public stage in front of the world to make their cases as to why they should be elected to follow Ban-Ki-moon when his term ends this year.

There were four women and five men. Because Eastern Europe is demanding that it get a turn to nominate a secretary-general, the majority of the candidates who spoke and were grilled in individual two-hour sessions by UN member governments, organizations and civil society representatives came from that region. Another round of campaign speeches, from candidates yet to be formally declared, is expected in June. A new secretary-general is due to assume office on Jan. 1, 2017.

The opening round of public campaigning is part of a nearly yearlong, significantly reformed process for choosing the UN’s top administrator. Long a demand of numerous governments and civil society groups, the plan was set in motion last September when the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a more transparent election this year. The world took it seriously: more than 1,000 questions were submitted even before the event began, to be asked of the would-be secretaries-general by a majority of the UN’s 193 member nations, speaking for their governments or regional groups.

A determined Dane, Mogens Lykketoft, the General Assembly president for the crucial 2015-2016 session, has been relentless in bringing the new approach into being. Secretaries-general of the UN have been traditionally chosen through haggling among Security Council members meeting in secret and on their own erratic timetables.

Lykketoft said in his closing remarks to the press that he was surprised that so many member states had showed up for the hearings and that so many questions were asked. Another first: the sessions in the large Trusteeship Council chamber started mostly on time. Lykketoft had in front of him the tiny green, yellow and red “traffic lights,” which were actually followed this time, with a few notable exceptions, unlike the case in other UN events.

Participants in the vast hall remarked on the genuine, enthusiastic appreciation heaped on Lykketoft by candidates and diplomats, as well as the sense of excitement — by diplomatic standards — among the delegations. Many questions may have been predictable and pro forma, but there were pointed exchanges and a few novel suggestions made, among them that the UN should base its deputy secretary-general in Africa (specifically, in Nairobi, Kenya), where so much of the organization’s work takes place and where it has close relations with the African Union.

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The new selection process works this way: governments nominate candidates, who provide not only biographical information highlighting their qualifications but also forward-looking “vision statements” to be widely distributed. Candidates then appear at what amount to hearings, the stage that began last week. By July, the Security Council is expected to start choosing its final nominee, whose name will be sent to the General Assembly for final approval.

The candidates’ sessions followed an orderly and serious process, with almost none of the usual commotion and movement around the hall and only a few flare-ups — one between a Bulgarian candidate and a Ukrainian questioner over Moscow’s occupation of Crimea and activities supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine, and another between a Croatian candidate and a Saudi who tasked her for calling the UN flawed in numerous ways in the field. The words “transparency,” “accountability” and “prevention” were heard often in the setting.

Many questioners warned that corruption and sexual abuse by some peacekeepers working within UN missions or authorized by the UN tarnished the entire organization.

What was missing after all the campaigning is that nobody gets to vote — though a reporter suggested to Lykketoft that the General Assembly should hold its own straw poll, like the Security Council does before its final vote. (Lykketoft shrugged off the idea.)

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the Security Council’s most powerful permanent members will find someone on the list of candidates on whom they can easily agree. But given the momentum created by the first public presentations by candidates and the reaction to them, the council would become even more unpopular than it is now in large parts of the world, and it would be seen as disrespectful of Lykketoft’s groundbreaking efforts.

The seven Eastern Europeans in the race so far are Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, director-general of Unesco; Natalia Gherman, London-educated and until recently deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Moldova; Vuk Jeremic, a Serbian politician and former General-Assembly president; Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia, a former foreign minister and now a media businessman; Igor Luksic, foreign minister of Montenegro; Vesna Pusic, a former foreign minister of Croatia; and Danilo Turk, a former president of Slovenia and UN assistant secretary-general for political affairs.

The two remaining candidates, neither from Eastern Europe, who were questioned last week by UN member governments, are Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand and currently administrator of the UN Development Program, and António Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and most recently UN high commissioner for refugees. There were no other candidates from outside the Eastern European region.

Questions asked of the candidates from April 12 to 14 revealed the global issues that diverse governments consider priorities for the UN in coming years. Some clear themes emerged in the two-hour sessions for each candidate in the brief questions and comments from representatives of UN member nations and those diplomats who spoke for regional groups in Africa, the Arab countries, Asia, the Caribbean, Nordic nations and the European Union as well as organizations such as the Nonaligned Movement, the G-77, the “Group of Friends” comprising 56 countries supporting the call for a female secretary-general and another group focused on improving the working methods of the Security Council.

More effective peacekeeping and a more equitable distribution — by region and by gender — of top UN jobs were the topics raised by most questioners. On peacekeeping, Vesna Pusic of Croatia spoke from deep personal experience of living in the Balkan region, which experienced violent conflict after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

“The experience has made the country humble in looking at other countries in similar situations,” she said. “We understand that nobody thinks it is going to happen to him or to her until it happens.”

Peacekeeping in the region was controversial because of unclear mandates, she said, adding that despite the imperfections of the UN, “we should keep what we’ve got and build on it.” She also said that good diplomacy is “more important than troops.”

Development issues, always at the fore in poorer nations, played into the record of Helen Clark, the New Zealander, who as administrator of the sprawling UN Development Program devoted much of her vision statement and opening remarks to that subject. Numerous requests were made to candidates to explain how the new Sustainable Development Goals could be achieved by their 2030 target date and how they would be financed.

The problem of a global youth population explosion in poor countries and consequent youth unemployment were linked to atmospheres conducive of extremist violence. One candidate called for establishing an office of youth in the UN Secretariat.

Candidates were asked point-blank what they thought made them qualified and what they achieved in previous jobs. António Guterres, Danilo Turk and Irina Bokova presented strong accounts of their work within both national governments and the UN. Others had served earlier as presidents of the General Assembly, not strictly a UN job but an appointment made by member countries. Despite the presence of Guterres, until recently the high commissioner for refugees, and against the background of the continuing Middle East refugee crisis, that issue did not figure prominently in the questions from the floor, except repeatedly by a representative of the European Union.

There was a concerted push by developing nations against what they called monopolies by powerful countries on holding the most important under secretary-general positions in the UN Secretariat, such as the peacekeeping and political departments. American, British and French officials have often rotated these positions, with Russia and, more recently, China demanding the highest-ranking jobs.

Those five nations, the permanent members of the Security Council, are also seen as blocking changes in the size and function of the council to give more power to developing countries and to others like Brazil, Germany, Japan and South Africa — a topic that also received much attention in questions to candidates.

Concurrent to those themes were calls for more authority for the secretary-general and her or his ability to resist pressures by permanent members of the Security Council and to overcome the obstacles those members often erect to block action. Several candidates tried to explain that this situation could not be easily reversed but could be resisted. When asked directly, they agreed on the whole to consider the appointment of independent outside monitors of UN activities to improve organization responses.

Several candidates mentioned or alluded to the need for the UN to improve communications with global publics. One candidate, Danilo Turk of Slovenia, told reporters after his appearance in the main hall that one of his first tasks would be to appoint a head of UN public information experienced in digital communications. Journalists often find the UN information and public affairs systems unwieldy and not professionally staffed.

The management of the UN was another recurrent theme. Two candidates, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria and Helen Clark of New Zealand, spoke at length about management and budget reforms they had undertaken in their respective agencies, Unesco and the UN Development Program. It was notable that, given the widely held belief that the time is right to have a women in charge of the UN after eight male secretaries-general, not one of the female candidates was challenged directly on her gender. It appears that those days are finally over at the UN, at least in public.

A measure of a potentially new era dawning in the UN may be the wide attention the selection of the next secretary-general is getting outside organization circles. Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University political scientist and currently holder of the Henry A. Kissinger Chair at the Library of Congress’ Kluge Center, is completing a book, “Transformational Statesmanship: Difficult, Possible, Necessary,” which includes a section on international institutions, the qualities of a UN secretary-general and the importance of that person’s willingness to act decisively.

“The international careers market is a competitive one,” he wrote in a draft of that chapter. “For the UN to compete it has to shed its staid, bureaucratic, overly political image. A more dynamic Secretary-General, inspiring young people and convincing them that they can make a difference, would be a big part of this.”

Dag Hammarskjold is his model. Hammarskjold, a Swede and educated as a lawyer, served as secretary-general from 1953 to 1961, when he was killed in a controversial plane crash on a self-appointed peacekeeping mission in the Congo. Hammarskjold didn’t just bring threats to peace and security to the Security Council; he was willing to set out on his own initiative to act directly under the Charter when he saw fit to do so.

“As Ban’s term comes to an end,” Jentleson wrote, “gender and geography are largely defining the debate on a successor. While these are important, the job description is crucial. It has to be Hammarskjoldian.” That includes allowing a certain independence from big powers in major areas of UN work.

“If politics as usual prevails and preservation of prerogatives remains the priority, none of this will happen,” Jentleson concluded. “The UN will continue to be all too ineffectual.”

Lori Silberman Brauner and Laura Kirkpatrick contributed reporting to this article.

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.

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