When it comes to the United Nations, the word “debate” takes on a civilized bearing, with no relation to heated contests among many sides. Over two nights this week at different settings in New York, UN secretary-general candidates campaigning to fill the shoes of Ban Ki-moon in January 2017 debated publicly.
One event, held at the UN General Assembly Hall to a packed audience, enabled candidates to elaborate on their platforms, which have all been made public previously. The second event, presented by the FUNDS project of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, UNA-UK and Global Citizen, was held at The Graduate Center, CUNY. It offered a far more conversational respite to another full auditorium.
Until the secretary-general election this year, the Security Council’s “P5” — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, all permanent members — opaquely controlled the selection of who got the top job.
To bring more transparency to the process and to behoove the UN to become more relevant, candidates are addressing the UN General Assembly and civil society through “informal dialogues”: presenting their platforms while taking and answering questions as they strive to win the job to lead the UN for the next five years. (Although the process has been opened widely, the Security Council is sticking to secretiveness by holding private interviews with candidates and not revealing publicly what was said.)
The 12 candidates vying for the UN’s highest position are: Helen Clark of New Zealand, Christiana Figueres from Costa Rica, Vesna Pusic from Croatia, Portugal’s António Guterres, Susana Malcorra of Argentina, Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, Natalia Gherman of Moldova, Danilo Turk of Slovenia, Igor Luksic from Montenegro, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia and Slovakia’s Miroslav Lajcak.
On July 11, Al Jazeera English partnered with the office of the president of the UN General Assembly to televise the first live broadcast of secretary-general candidates promoting themselves in a formal conversation in what was billed as a town hall.
Previously, UN Web TV, a C-SPAN for foreign policy wonks and media, had shown 11 of the 12 candidates’ informal dialogues over broadband this spring. The 12th candidate, Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, made her presentation on July 14, also to the entire UN member states.
Of the 12 candidates, 10 participated in two sessions of five candidates each on July 11. Two candidates who were unable to attend, Kerim, a former president of the General Assembly, and Lajcak, Slovakia’s foreign minister, provided video statements aired immediately before the town hall began. Kerim was apparently visiting Senegal, presumably to curry favor from that country, an elected member of the Security Council.
The 15-member council will determine by a series of straw polls beginning on July 21 and conducted over the next months which candidate it will recommend to the UN General Assembly for a final vote by the end of the year.
The first session at the town hall featured Gherman, Guterres, Jeremic, Malcorra and Pusic conversing with Al Jazeera journalists, James Bays and Folly Bah Thibault, who served as moderators. The format allowed candidates to interact directly with the moderators by answering individual questions regarding four points: human rights, peace and security, climate change and sustainable development, as well as the internal workings and management of the UN.
The need for a female secretary-general — the UN has never had one in its 70 years — and the tradition of selecting a secretary-general based on regional rotation were also covered. Eastern Europe is claiming its stake in this year’s election based on never having had the chance before.
The first round got off to a shaky start, with Bays asking Gherman, Malcorra and Pusic what it would take to be a general, as well as a secretary, a favorite question at earlier dialogues. While it was obviously a question summing up the role of secretary-general — someone who must lead and facilitate, coordinate and organize — it was not asked of either male candidate. (Al Jazeera, responding to a question from this reporter about the oversight, said that no question was asked based on gender.)
Each candidate got to articulate his or her platform across the four themes, with questions posed not only by the moderators but also by several ambassadors and others in the audience. As Gherman said to a reporter earlier in the week, the dialogues have helped candidates to focus on the priorities of the UN membership.
One candidate, Jeremic, a former president of the General Assembly and former foreign minister, answered questions mostly by referring to a public position statement of his, containing 53 commitments on reforming the UN that touched on all four points.
The most notable moment in the first round came from Pusic, an ex-foreign minister, who chose not to present a closing statement but to address the previous question, saying: “Does it really matter if the next secretary-general is a woman? I am a woman. That is not enough. I am a feminist and that is enough!”
The audience reacted loudly enough to pause the debate. Guterres followed Pusic, speaking with tears in his eyes and a catch in his throat of his work as the former High Commissioner for Refugees and his dedication to the UN. The tears, however, may have also come from his having to follow right after Pusic’s rousing moment.
In the second session, two of the most favored candidates, Clark and Bokova, both high-level UN officials, met the newest candidate, Figueres; the youngest, Luksic; and one of the most experienced candidates, Turk.
Liechtenstein posed the $20,000 question, “What would the candidates do about peacekeeping misconduct, specifically sexual misconduct?”
Those who responded did so with a message of “zero tolerance,” the need for prosecution and the possibility of removing accused troops from relevant peacekeeping missions: steps the UN already takes.
Figueres, the newcomer, made many statements in her first public appearance as a candidate (she held a conference call with media when she announced her candidacy on July 7). She was the only candidate who raised a hand when the group was asked who would apologize to Haiti for the UN-induced outbreak of cholera in 2010.
Figueres said she would apologize to Haitians and work to provide the necessary sanitation and government infrastructure to remedy the cholera emergency, but she would not offer compensation. (A lawsuit is pending against the UN, filed on behalf of 5,000 Haitians for compensation of their losses.)
Clark, who is head of the UN Development Program, was given a chance to rebut and explain why she would not apologize. Her answer, which was framed on not commenting on the current court case, discussed the need for stronger UN-led action and improvements in the next steps.
On July 12, the CUNY event, webcast live, took a more relaxed approach and sparked with wry humor. Its moderators were Barbara Crossette, a contributing editor and writer to PassBlue, UN correspondent for The Nation and a former correspondent for The New York Times, and Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor and Director Emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies.
The event hosted three candidates, Figueres, Jeremic and Turk. Guterres had been invited but could not attend because he was traveling to Uruguay to, among other issues, meet with government officials about his candidacy, since Uruguay is also an elected member of the Security Council.
The smaller setting gave each candidate a chance to develop a position rather than project a sound bite, and to interact: elements missing from the Al Jazeera production. Figueres reiterated her platform of “collaboration” and “integration.”
On discussing LGBT rights, she said, for example, that religious sensitivities were involved and that religious leaders needed to be part of the dialogue in promoting human rights.
Turk, who is a former UN assistant secretary-general for political affairs and a president of Slovenia, described a platform of diplomacy, noting how the world body walked a fine line between what is convenient diplomatically and what is imperative morally.
“Ethics and diplomacy are inconvenient neighbors,” Turk said. He stressed a roadmap to UN reform based on the ability to recognize and learn from mistakes.
Jeremic, often repeating and even waving his 53-point plan, provided an antidote to the seasoned stance of Turk. Jeremic’s solutions were more radical, entailing, he stressed, immediate paths to reform.
Using the current political crisis in South Sudan as an example, where peacekeepers have had trouble protecting civilians amid fighting by national troops, Jeremic proposed that if the UN cannot back up its peacekeeping operations by ensuring political stability, it should not undertake peacekeeping operations on the ground.
And if the UN cannot reform soon, he added, it will suffer the way of the League of Nations.
This article was updated on July 15, 2016.
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Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.