Arora Akanksha, the United Nations millennial staffer who launched her own campaign to run for secretary-general last month, held meetings with three high-level Canadian officials this week in New York City, including Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae. Akanksha is a Canadian citizen who was born in India. So far, her candidacy has no national endorsement. She is challenging Secretary-General António Guterres, who is running for another five-year term starting in 2022.
“Ambassadors Rae, Arbeiter and Blais have met with Ms. Akanksha to discuss her potential candidacy,” Grantly Franklin, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada (the ministry of foreign affairs) told PassBlue, referring to the three highest-level diplomats at the Canadian mission to the UN: Louise Blais, Richard Arbeiter and Rae. “Canada regularly discusses potential candidacies with Canadian citizens through meetings and conversations such as these. We are happy to see Canadians taking interest in candidacies.”
The meetings could boost Akanksha’s campaign, which she announced in February, as her candidacy has yet to be recognized officially by the relevant UN parties — the president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, and the monthly rotating presidents of the Security Council — because she is not backed by any country. That is not a written rule per se in the selection process but strongly encouraged. She asked Canada to back her candidacy on March 4.
Akanksha told PassBlue in an e-mail that the meeting went well and that “I am honored and grateful to the Mission of Canada to grant me the opportunity to discuss my candidacy with them.” The meeting was held in person.
Still, a meeting does not mean an endorsement. Global Affairs Canada clarifies: “Canada believes in the importance of a transparent selection process guided by the UN Charter and relevant General Assembly resolutions,” Franklin said. “Any further decision on Ms. Akansha’s candidacy will be made by the Government of Canada in Ottawa.”
Against high odds, Akanksha began a grass-roots campaign on Feb. 9, called UNOW, to run for secretary-general. The 34-year-old staff member has been a UN employee for almost five years, working mostly in the area of UN reform but more recently as an audit coordinator for the UN Development Program. She said she decided to run for the UN’s top post because of her disillusionment with the institution and with Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and head of the UN Refugees agency. Her main priorities are refugees, humanitarian crises and developments. She has no foreign affairs experience.
Akanksha faces a steep climb to be recognized as a legitimate candidate by the UN itself and in broader diplomatic circles.
“The UN has always had two dimensions, two facets of its existence: the first is a grouping of Member States, and the second, aspiring to represent all 7 billion human beings,” said Ben Rowswell, president of the Canadian International Council and a former diplomat, by email. “It strikes me that her candidacy speaks to the second, but the reality of decision-making of something so high stake, such as the choice of the next UN Secretary-General, will be guided by the first one, as a forum of 195 nation-states jockeying for their national interests.
“I would think that the decision of who Canada supports for Secretary-General will take that into account, but there’s no harm in acknowledging the merits of the bids of Ms. Arora through a series of meetings. Canada would like there to be more reality of the UN that it represents 7 billion people, and the bid speaks to that and presents an attractive face to that; a younger woman, a person of color, I can see why Mr. Rae and other diplomats would be impressed by Ms. Arora and be willing to meet with her and add to the coverage of her bid.”
Rowswell added: “In terms of the actual decision-making, supporting candidates against the Secretary-General would be pretty much Canada expressing its displeasure against Guterres, and I don’t see a reason to do so because he’s been very capable through very difficult times. When it comes to vote for one candidate over the other, I suspect Canada will vote for Mr. Guterres.”
In the most recent secretary-general selection process, in 2016, candidates were officially presented to the president of the General Assembly by a member state, and 13 candidates were put through public dialogues and voted on in straw polls by the Security Council, which made the final choice but required a vote in the General Assembly. Before 2016, the process was virtually opaque.
While Brenden Varma, the spokesperson for Bozkir, said early this year that the process is guided by General Assembly Resolution 69/321, which does not strictly preclude people from nominating themselves, he later backtracked by not publicly sharing names of applicants who have no backing by a member state. Currently, he said there were four applicants besides Guterres’s official one.
Akanksha is part of a broader civil society movement striving to ensure an open and transparent selection process this year, especially since Guterres is an incumbent. On March 11, two Europeans, Andrea Venzon and Colombe Cahen-Salvador, launched #Forward, a campaign that says it will hold open, digital global primaries to find a “people-backed” woman candidate to run for the UN job. No woman has ever been secretary-general of the UN in its 75-year-history.
Member states have until May or June to nominate candidates, according to Bozkir’s office.
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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.