NEW YORK – The United Nations last month started the process for selecting its next secretary-general with open dialogue involving nine candidates who want to replace Ban Ki-moon in January 2017. In what General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft called a “potential game-changing exercise,” the nine candidates — five men and four women — stood separately before the entire U.N. membership for a two-hour session to answer questions from various groups of member states, as well as civil society. Never in its 70-year history has the process been so transparent.
Officially called an “informal dialogue,” this was organized by the General Assembly president in a bid to bring much-needed transparency to the selection and appointment of the secretary-general, who the U.N. Charter simply says “shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Candidates for the top U.N. job have traditionally been screened behind the closed doors of the Security Council, where the veto-wielding five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, commonly known as “P-5,” — hold decisive power over who to recommend to the General Assembly. The General Assembly has in turn rubber-stamped the candidate recommended by the Security Council. This practice has invited growing criticism not only from within the U.N. but also people throughout the world who want the best candidate, and not someone politically acceptable to the P-5.
The historic three-day dialogue session was broadcast live via U.N. Web TV throughout the world. Highlighting its importance, Lykketoft said: “For the first time in this organization’s 70-year history, the process for selecting and appointing the next secretary-general is being genuinely guided by principles of transparency and inclusiveness.”
The candidates began their respective sessions with a short statement outlining their visions as the next U.N. chief and answered altogether some 800 questions from the U.N. members and the public on how they would lead the world body. The questions, for example, asked their views on the issues of how to enhance the U.N.’s capacity for conflict prevention and resolution, how to implement the ambitious sustainable development goals adopted last September, how to address the alleged sexual abuse cases within U.N. peacekeeping operations, how to strengthen its cooperation with regional organizations, and how to ensure geographical and gender balance at the senior level in the secretariat. Japan, a member of the “Group of Four” along with Brazil, Germany and India, asked the candidates of their views on reform of the Security Council, which they said is the U.N.’s “unfinished business.”
Of the nine individuals who have declared their official candidacy, seven are from Eastern Europe, the only region that has not produced a U.N. secretary-general. Because of the long-enshrined practice of an equitable geographical rotation within the U.N., many argue that the next secretary-general should be from Eastern Europe. Four of the nine candidates are women — reflecting a growing call that the next secretary-general should be a woman after eight successive males. The candidates come with impressive resumes, many having served such high public offices as president, prime minister or foreign minister of their respective countries. Four candidates also stood out with years of working in the U.N. system: Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, current UNESCO director general; Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal with a 10-years stint as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees; Danilo Turk, former president of Slovenia who served as assistant secretary-general for political affairs under Secretary-General Kofi Annan; and Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and the current administrator of the U.N. Development Program.
While consideration of geographical rotation and gender balance will undoubtedly play a significant role in the selection and appointment of the new U.N. chief, the most important factor should be merit — unwavering commitment to be the conscience of the international community, ability to coordinate divergent voices of 193 member states and garner support for a concerted action to address urgent and challenging tasks, and leadership and vision to make the world a better place for mankind, just to name a few.
The Security Council, particularly the P-5, should take the views expressed during the informal dialogue by the candidates seriously. Under no circumstances should the body be allowed to resort to its traditional way of making the selection on the basis of their political convenience and horse-trading. In that sense, Japan, a nonpermanent member that will assume the rotating presidency of the Security Council in July, has a special responsibility to make sure the results of the informal dialogue will be taken fully into consideration in the Security Council discussion. The U.N. cannot afford to have less than the best at its helm if it is to remain relevant in the decade to come.
A former U.N. official, Hitoki Den is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) published by The Japan Times.