A new grass-roots campaign, called #Forward, is launching open, digital global primaries to find a “people-backed” candidate to run for United Nations secretary-general this year, for a five-year term starting in 2022. The campaign aims to make the selection process more transparent and democratic while also attracting more attention to the election itself.
“When you look at, for example, the UN secretary-general selection process, and the fact that there is no popular will that is taken into account in this process, this is a huge shame,” Colombe Cahen-Salvador, a co-founder of the movement, told PassBlue in a videoconference. “As a result, no one knows about it, and no one cares about it in the general population.”
Cahen-Salvador and Andrea Venzon, who are European citizens based in London, founded #Forward. They are young but experienced political organizers. In 2017, in response to the Brexit referendum, they said, they founded Volt Europa, a political party movement that elected one candidate to the European parliament and many local counselors in Europe. Last year, Cahen-Salvador and Venzon also founded a nongovernmental organization, called Now!, to support causes like gender equality and climate change. At Volt Europa, they said they organized 60,000 people across the continent; Now! has 10,000 members across 120 countries, they said.
The UN secretary-general selection process has always been secretive, but it was less so in 2016, for the first time since the institution’s inception in 1945. Then, through numerous civil society organizations’ efforts and assistance from key UN figures, such as the president of the General Assembly at the time, an open procedure was instituted. It enabled 13 people, including seven women, to present themselves as candidates, with their country’s endorsement, through formal public forums.
Now, Secretary-General António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and UN Refugees chief who has been in the top job since 2017, is running for re-election. Since Guterres is an incumbent and is said to have support so far from the permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States), other potential candidates have shown little appetite for running against him.
The founders of the #Forward initiative, which they announced on Twitter on March 11, decided to get involved in the UN process to try to ensure that it will be transparent and democratic in the selection endeavor this year and that more people will care about it.
“We did some tests, talking to friends all over the world, and no one even knew that this was happening,” Cahen-Salvador said. “So we thought, ‘O.K., well let’s change this,’ and a way to get people interested in general in those things, I think, is to run elections. Because if you have elections, certainly there’s a bit of political game around it.”
The initiative has only one criterion for applicants: being a woman or identifying as a woman. “We need positive discrimination and more women in power,” Cahen-Salvador said. “And for us, this is one of the fundamental criteria of this global primary.”
The 1 for 7 Billion campaign was instrumental in expanding the process of the 2016 secretary-general race to include nominations by all member states as well as parliaments and civil society organizations, although no candidates emerged from the latter two sources. This year, it is encouraging the same opportunities.
“We’ve always said the best possible person should be appointed to the role, and we don’t take a position on candidates,” a spokesperson said. “But if you asked our members who they’d like to see as the 10th SG, you’d probably get a list of women.”
Cahen-Salvador and Venzon launched a website to seek volunteers for the project. They will start recruiting candidacies in April, they said, aiming for qualified, credible people. In May, they plan to hold an online public vote.
“If we find some heavyweights with diplomatic experience or government experience, they could actually be plausible candidates,” Venzon said. “It would be a huge plus for us, because then we also push for their countries or other countries to maybe support them so that they could actually enter the race.”
Despite the current president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, indicating in January that the application process has begun for candidates to present their nominations, following guidelines in General Assembly Resolution 69/321, neither Bozkir nor the monthly rotating president of the Security Council — both responsible for the process — has circulated candidates’ names that are not backed officially by member states. The #Forward campaign will try to get countries’ support for a winning candidate.
“I think definitely we’re going to look for support [from] member states, especially if we find a heavyweight,” Cahen-Salvador said. “We will first seek support from their nation, but also others, and we also have some names in mind of countries potentially interested.”
Overall, the goal of the campaign is to democratize the selection process and give Guterres a viable candidate to run against. Arora Akanksha, a UN staffer who announced her candidacy for secretary-general last month, is not recognized as such by Bozkir or the president of the Security Council yet, because she is not backed by her country. (She has a Canadian passport but was born in India.) Although Bozkir’s spokesperson said this week that there were four applicants, he would not say their names.
Cahen-Salvador emphasized that the process, starting with the Security Council’s dominating role in the decision-making, needs to be more democratic. “We won’t change this unless citizens start mobilizing across the world,” she said. “So let’s do it, let’s give it a kick.”
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.