The field of nine candidates campaigning formally to become the next United Nations secretary-general grew by two on June 7, when Miroslav Lajcak, Slovakia’s foreign minister, and Susana Malcorra, who holds the same position in Argentina, spoke in public sessions lasting more than two hours each, taking questions from UN member delegates and civil society activists.
These open campaign sessions, the first in the UN’s 70-year history, were organized by the current president of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, a Dane who was determined to bring the race out of the shadows and backrooms of the Security Council into public view. There is most likely to be at least one more open session, according to diplomats, before the council begins to make a final decision on a nominee, probably late in July or August.
Lykketoft, speaking after the June 7 hearings, said he would eventually write a “summary” letter to send to the UN Security Council, noting “very many of the ambitions expressed by candidates and by membership for the next secretary-general.”
There is no guarantee that any of the candidates taking part in these public grilling sessions, webcast on UNTV, will emerge the winner. But they will at least have demonstrated the range of available contestants. All have been nominated by their governments.
The June hearings had a unique aspect, with an Eastern European defending that region’s determination to win a job it has never held, and a Latin American explaining why she was there.
“I have lived in in interesting times,” Lajcak said, setting out at the beginning of his formal comments why he and his region were qualified by recent history to guide an organization amid a world of crises. He spoke of the “extraordinary changes over the last 25 years” that his turbulent region had passed through. “In some cases, the changes were smooth and peaceful; in others very dramatic, even tragic.”
In his career as a lifelong diplomat, Lajcak had been deeply involved in the breakup of Yugoslavia and the conflicts that followed, during which period he served as a mediator in the Balkans. His career also included the division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1992.
Malcorra, who had 25 years of work in the private telecommunications sector in Argentina as well as high-level UN experience as deputy head of the World Food Program and chief of staff in Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office, spoke about the importance of involving the private sector in development. She also commented at length, in answer to questions from the floor, about the qualities she would bring to the top office in the Secretariat, among them the courage of her convictions and the willingness to listen to all voices.
She also launched into a critique of the “shortfall” of the UN’s record in communicating with the world, and said the UN was “not doing well enough to use all the tools at hand.” The organization needed to provide much more information to all nations, “connecting to the world in all languages, in all cultures.”
Many of the questions posed to the candidates repeated those asked in the first round of hearings in mid-April. This is understandable given that delegates from around the world want to judge aspirants against one another. In the case of Malcorra and women who appeared in earlier sessions, there has also been great interest in hearing from women in a year when there have been many calls for a woman to be chosen to lead the UN, where previous secretaries-general have all been men. Malcorra made a strong case for the importance of involving women and youth in all aspects of UN work. Lajcak made quaint comments about finding places for women related to their “special” skills and interests.
There were four women and five men among the previous nine candidates to appear in public sessions in April. Seven of those nominees were Eastern Europeans: Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, Natalia Gherman of Moldova, Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia, Igor Luksic of Montenegro, Vesna Pusic of Croatia and Danilo Turk of Slovenia.
Malcorra is not the first candidate from outside the region. Helen Clark of New Zealand and António Guterres of Portugal have also jumped into the race. Future candidates may include Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica and Kevin Rudd of Australia.
This gave Malcorra an opening to explain her presence.
“Let me tell you why I am sitting here,” she said, explaining that since others from outside Eastern Europe were already candidates, she thought it was necessary to have someone from Latin America join in. That way, her region would not be overlooked.
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.