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U.N. improves its leadership selection process

by Hitoki Den

The United Nations took a major step this month toward bringing much needed transparency into the process of selecting and appointing the next secretary-general in 2016. In a joint letter signed by their respective presidents, the General Assembly and the Security Council invited U.N. member states to submit the names of candidates for the top U.N. job for their review by next spring.

The process of selecting the secretary-general has been shrouded in secrecy. The U.N. Charter says little about the process — Article 97 says only that the “secretary-general shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” In the past, therefore, candidates for the top U.N. position were screened behind the closed doors of the Security Council, where the veto-wielding five permanent members — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States, commonly known as the “P-5,” hold decisive power in deciding who to recommend to the General Assembly. It has been the practice that the General Assembly approves the candidate recommended by the Security Council.

The lack of transparency in the selection of the secretary-general has given rise to increasing criticisms from within and outside the U.N. In response to growing calls from the general U.N. membership and civil society to make the process more transparent and select the most suitable person for the post, the General Assembly unanimously adopted in September a resolution affirming that the selection process “shall be guided by the principles of transparency and inclusiveness, building on best practices and the participation of all member states.” The resolution requested the presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council to start the process through a joint letter addressed to all member states. After months of intensive discussions, the joint letter was signed by the presidents of the two bodies and distributed Dec. 15.

Mogens Lykketoft, president of the General Assembly, said he plans to organize informal dialogue with candidates in late March or early April so the General Assembly can review their credentials before the Security Council begins its selection by the end of July.

Based on the council’s recommendation, the General Assembly will then appoint the successor to Ban Ki-moon, whose term will expire at the end of 2016.

Because of the long-enshrined practice of regional rotation at the U.N., some believe that the next chief should be from Eastern Europe. Others argue that after eight successive men, the next U.N. head should be a woman, irrespective of regional rotation. The joint letter encouraged the member states to “consider presenting women, as well as men, as candidates” while noting “the regional diversity” in previous selections.

Srgjian Kerim, a former Macedonian foreign minister, and Vesna Pusic, Croatia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, have been registered as official candidates. Several others, including former Slovenian President Danilo Turk and UNESCO chief Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, are also tipped to enter the race.

The selection of the new secretary-general is arguably one of the most important decisions that the international community will make for the next 10 years. He or she should be not only the world’s top diplomat and the manager of the international bureaucracy, but also a reformer and strong human rights defender. The secretary-general, often called the “secular pope,” is also expected to provide a vision and leadership for the betterment of the world.

Unlike a national leader, the secretary-general does not have people and territory to govern, or a military to command. The only thing he can count on in his efforts to make the world a better place is moral authority. The position thus requires the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity, and a firm commitment to the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter, as the joint letter emphasizes.

Looking back at the U.N.’s history since its inception in 1945, the organization was more effective and able to play a useful role when it had a secretary-general with vision and leadership. Dag Hammarskjold, the second to hold the post, remains a highly respected figure more than 50 years after his tragic death in a plane crash in 1961, for having developed the political role of the secretary-general under the U.N. Charter and for his leadership role in establishing the organization’s first full-fledged peacekeeping operation during the Suez Crisis in 1956, among others. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the sixth secretary-general, is remembered for his “An Agenda for Peace,” which laid down the foundation for the U.N.’s work in conflict prevention and resolution. Kofi Annan, the seventh, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for his efforts to revitalize the U.N., safeguard human rights and for his commitment to the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

The U.N. has been criticized for being less effective of late. Given the magnitude of pressing issues facing mankind, the organization needs a capable leader with vision and leadership at the top. Failure to select a person of proven leadership, managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations, and strong diplomatic, communications and multilingual skills, as the joint letter calls for, would risk the organization drifting further into irrelevance in the next decade and beyond.

A former U.N. official, Hitoki Den is the author of the recent book “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) published in Japanese by The Japan Times.