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In a Crisis, Does the UN Have a Leadership Succession Plan?


The UNTV studio in New York, where technicians produced a virtual press briefing with Secretary-General António Guterres (on screens), focusing on the coronavirus outbreak, March 19, 2020. Who is next in line to Guterres, should be become suddenly incapacitated? EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, continues to go into the UN headquarters building in New York City to work — even as Covid-19 races throughout the region.

“Right now, Guterres is probably the safest man on the planet,” said a former UN official familiar with the security protocol. “He’s working at an empty UN, driven in a sanitized car back and forth from his sanitized residence.”

Guterres has held two virtual media briefings in the last week, a first for the secretary-general. On March 23, he called for an “immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world,” adding: “It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives. . . . To help create corridors for life-saving aid. To open precious windows for diplomacy. To bring hope to places among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.”

As of Monday, March 23, 39 UN personnel worldwide were confirmed to have the virus. On March 20, the UN said 24 cases of its personnel across the system had the virus. Guterres has not been tested so far. [UPDATE: As of March 24, 51 UN personnel systemwide have the virus.]

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On March 20, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order mandating that all “nonessential” businesses must close. But the UN campus, based in East Midtown Manhattan and technically international territory, does not fall under the edict’s purview.

As previously reported by PassBlue, one independent expert on UN protocols and procedures clarified that “I’m rather sure this will be worked out informally between New York State/New York City authorities and the UN, in the event the UN wants to keep the premises partially accessible to diplomats and UN staff.”

When asked if the UN would make its campus available as a temporary field hospital, as other large spaces in New York City may do, Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for Guterres, responded: “No request of this type has been received. The UN will always be a good neighbor and will do whatever we can to support our host city.”

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While Guterres, who is 70 years old, is not at the UN full time, his intermittent presence in the Secretariat building raises hypothetical questions. What is UN protocol if a secretary-general is incapacitated? (In answering a question about how he was feeling, he told the media on March 23: “I’m feeling strongly determined. This is the moment in which the UN must be active. . . .”)

Is there a line of succession?

Only one UN secretary-general has died while in office. In 1961, Dag Hammarskjold, a Swede, was killed in a mysterious plane crash en route from the Congo to what is now Zambia. His death remains unsolved.

Article 97 of the UN Charter spells out the process for appointing a secretary-general: The Security Council recommends a candidate to the General Assembly, which votes to confirm or not. At the time of Hammarskjold’s death, the Charter did not delineate a line of succession, leaving a void in the UN’s top leadership for a few months.

Back then, a replacement would have been someone that both the Soviet Union and the United States agreed on, and it was the height of the Cold War. The Soviets wanted to use the void to change the secretary-general position from a solitary role to a troika, which the US and other allied countries opposed.

A compromise was struck: instead of a proposed troika of under secretaries-general — Georgi Arkadev of the Soviet Union, Ralph Bunche of the US and Chakravarthi Narasimhan of India, based on post-World War II regional power structures — there would be one secretary-general and an unnamed number of politically diverse deputies, appointed by the secretary-general.

It took two months of negotiations for the Security Council to agree to nominate U Thant, the permanent representative of Burma (now Myanmar), as acting secretary-general for the remainder of Hammarskjold’s term. Less than a month later, he was appointed secretary-general for a term to end in 1966. U Thant went on to have a second, full term and historically remains the longest-serving secretary-general, totaling 10 years and 2 months.

The UN Juridical Yearbook of 1962 cites an opinion showing that the UN was led by the existing under-secretaries during the Security Council negotiations, who each retained decision-making abilities over his own “sphere of competence,” or program.

It wasn’t until late 1997 that a formal line of succession was established. Then, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian, sought to make a series of reforms that included the position of deputy secretary-general. This position was intended to alleviate some of the increasing demands on a secretary-general and allow the UN leader to delegate crucial tasks to a personally appointed deputy.

Traditionally, the administrative procedure should the secretary-general become unavailable, is the deputy secretary-general, then the chef de cabinet and, “in the very rare situation if they are all away,” an under secretary-general from the Executive Committee is designated as officer in charge, Dujarric said.

Amina Mohammed, 58, and a Nigerian, is the current deputy secretary-general. Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, 65, of Brazil, is the chef de cabinet.

“For now, the UN is observing the health protocols that are in place, to avoid any undue risk to the Secretary General or any other United Nations personnel,” Farhan Haq, a spokesperson for the UN, said in an email.

This article was updated to reflect the UN’s request to change the language of “line of succession” to “administrative procedure.” 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

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.

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