In a year when people who follow the United Nations are focusing on the election of the next secretary-general, the center of early action in that election has moved for the first time in history from the secretive deliberations of the Security Council to an unprecedented open campaign in the General Assembly, which normally has only a rubber-stamp role.
This may be the perfect moment to take a broad new look at the potential of the normally fractious 193-nation body and work to strengthen it for a tumultuous age, says the General Assembly president, who seized the initiative to upend the 2016 secretary-general race.
Mogens Lykketoft is a 70-year-old Dane who, before becoming this year’s General Assembly president, had never been a diplomat assigned to the UN or an official of the organization, which may be useful qualifications for a reformer.
Lykketoft was quick to explain that he has had a lifelong involvement in global issues.
“I’ve always been very interested in international affairs,” he said. “I actually became active in politics through international engagement in the ’60s. The Vietnam war. The fascist colonel’s coup in Greece. The Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia. I’m a child of those years.”
He joined protests against apartheid in South Africa and later, as a former Danish finance minister, promoted greatly increased assistance to developing countries.
An economist turned politician and a leader of Denmark’s Social Democratic Party, Lykketoft was speaker of the Danish Parliament when his government won the one-year General Assembly presidency and asked him to go to New York. His September-to-September term began in 2015 and ends in less than three months, a short time in which to make a big difference. The UN secretary-general, on the other hand, gets a five-year term, which is almost always renewed.
Presidents of the General Assembly, chosen by governments in regional rotation, have been a mixed lot, and their influence on the workings of the body can be considerable. In the 2005-06 session, Jan Eliasson of Sweden negotiated the abolition of the discredited UN Human Rights Commission and the creation of a smaller, tighter Human Rights Council. (He is now the UN deputy secretary general.)
But the presidency has also fallen into less constructive hands. Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, in the 2012-13 session, infuriated Bosnians and other constituencies by promoting Serbian nationalism, including the performance of an incendiary nationalistic song in a UN ceremony. (Jeremic is also running for UN secretary-general.)
The assembly president in 2013-14, John Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda — who died on June 22 in an accident while lifting weights at his home — stood accused of accepting $1.3 million in bribes from Chinese business interests while in office. Ashe was arrested after the end of his term (when he lost his diplomatic immunity) and charged by US prosecutors with failing to report and pay taxes on his gains. Further charges were pending at the time of his death.
These fluctuations in performance and integrity are offered by some outside specialists on the UN as a good reason for not giving the assembly president more than one year in the job. In an interview in his UN office — free of the usual self-important minions taking notes in the background — Lykketoft showed frustration with the short time he has to advance changes and solidify the gains.
He suggested, for example, that the work of highly politicized assembly committees, particularly the budget committee, should become more forward-looking to deal effectively with the overwhelming crises that the UN faces, starkly symbolized by the more than 65 million global refugees and the rapid shortfall in the UN’s humanitarian resources.
“I think the General Assembly can have more influence,” Lykketoft said.
David Malone, a former Canadian diplomat at the UN and now rector of the UN University, a research center based in Tokyo, said that he sympathized with Lykketoft, whom he described in an e-mail exchange as “an excellent GA president.”
But Malone added that the recent scandal involving Ashe, who refused professional appointees selected for his office by the UN Secretariat, is a cautionary tale: “UN GA presidents left entirely to their own devices and served by personally loyal teams can, exceptionally, get up to no good. Two years would have brought about even worse results.”
Sam Daws, director of the UN Governance and Reform project at Oxford University’s Center for International Studies (and co-editor, with Thomas G. Weiss of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY, of the “Oxford Handbook on the United Nations”) acknowledged that a longer term “would certainly give the [General Assembly president] more time to learn the ropes and embed decisions.”
More important, Daws wrote in an e-mail, “is the informal and/or formal coordination between a [president] and their predecessor and successor. . . . You really need a three-year cycle to embed any change.”
In June, Ambassador Peter Thomson of Fiji, a former General Assembly vice president, campaigner for sustainable oceans and president of the International Seabed Authority, was elected for the 2016-17 term.
Lykketoft spoke in the interview about what will likely be his main legacy as the assembly’s president: open campaigning for the next UN secretary-general after Ban Ki-moon’s tenure ends on Dec. 31. For decades, UN member states — now with a solid majority from the developing world — have been calling unsuccessfully for a more democratic process in choosing the secretary-general, the UN’s chief administrative officer, who has vague but limited powers within UN headquarters but an influential global platform; a “bully pulpit,” to use Theodore Roosevelt’s term.
In the past, choosing a secretary-general had become a matter of geopolitical haggling behind closed doors among the five permanent Security Council members with veto power, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, each with its own interests and red lines.
However, when a new resolution was introduced in September 2015 to open the system up, this time “we actually did it!” Lykketoft exulted in the interview. The plan that he put into effect at the beginning of 2016 (after cajoling but with generally widespread support) was a historic departure for the organization.
This year, the candidates — who are nominated by their governments in letters to the General Assembly president — were invited to submit biographies demonstrating their experience, as well as a vision statement explaining how they would exercise the UN’s top job. These documents are available online.
The candidates were also asked to make brief campaign pitches in a UN chamber packed with diplomats as well as civil-society representatives participating by video from around the world. Once the public hearings are completed in the coming weeks, a list will be formally presented to the Security Council. This process isn’t mandatory for either the council or the candidates, but Lykketoft’s underlying message is clear.
“The fact of the past is that there was no official list,” Lykketoft said. “There were some names mentioned in the Security Council. Some were turned down, some went forward with straw polls, but the general public in this world didn’t know much about it. Now, at least, the Security Council will have an authorized list of people having been presented in the General Assembly. We — all of us — know more about their personalities, their priorities. There’s been a huge interest among member states to take part in the questioning. But that doesn’t mean that the Security Council is stripped of any power, as of course they’re not.”
Lykketoft acknowledged that there is nothing to prevent the Security Council from adding names of its own. “I don’t think that will happen,” he added. “The balance has been changed somewhat. But it is not only this; it is also that what we have orchestrated inside the walls of the United Nations, in this building, is only part of what is really new –namely, that civil society, NGOs outside, take part. Candidates are meeting in panels not only in New York, but in London and elsewhere in discussions. So a much, much larger public will have a voice here, and get their own impressions and put pressure on their own governments.”
In keeping with the informal tradition of rotating the secretary general’s chair, Eastern Europe has demanded its turn this year, and of the 11 candidates who have presented their credentials publicly so far, eight are from that region. Besides Jeremic, they include Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian who is director general of Unesco; Natalia Gherman, ex-foreign minister of Moldova; Srgjan Kerim, a media businessman and former foreign minister of Macedonia; Miroslav Lajcak, foreign minister of Slovakia; 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.
Beyond Eastern Europe, three other candidates have entered the race: Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand and now administrator of the UN Development Program; António Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and, until recently, UN high commissioner for refugees; and Susana Malcorra, the current foreign minister.
In addition, Costa Rica plans to announce the candidacy of Christiana Figueres, until this week the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Assessing what he’s heard in the candidate hearings so far, Lykketoft said that certain themes have emerged in the questioning by diplomats: transparency in UN leadership, better management of the organization, the ability to communicate effectively and the political skill and courage to ignore pressure by, and curtail the dominance of, powerful nations in appointments.
“It’s very obvious we need a secretary-general who can be more independent and, of course, a skilled politician,” Lykketoft said. “We need a person with good communications skills, because the new game is that we communicate not only with governments; we communicate on the global stage. The secretary-general should try to call upon the global audience, [which] can put pressure on more regional and global powers to behave — to live up to their commitments as members of the United Nations.”
Listening to the questions directed at the candidates, Lykketoft also noted that “what many countries are afraid of is that cooperation with the private sector” — especially “where big money is coming in” — risks having powerful business interests “taking over decisions or having too big an influence.” But he believes that this inevitable trend can be managed to the advantage of developing nations.
Lykketoft is frank about issues on which some governments refuse to engage, citing cultural constraints or national sovereignty. The subject of LGBTQ rights is one of these. He said that during a recent UN conference on HIV/AIDS, from which some activists were barred because of objections by Arab and African governments and the Holy See, “We realized how deep a divide actually is there on how to deal with, in particular, gays, lesbians, and transgender people.”
Lykketoft added that, coming from a part of the world where these disagreements are largely a thing of the past, he hoped that “the more transparent the world is, the quicker those changes will take place anyway.”
A longer version of this article appeared in The Nation.