The process of selecting the next United Nations secretary-general entered a critical stage this month, with the powerful Security Council beginning its consideration of the candidates.

In an unprecedented move in the U.N.’s 70-year history, the General Assembly conducted in April, June and earlier this month its first informal hearings of all 12 candidates whose names had been submitted by their respective sponsoring governments. Now the ball is in the court of the Security Council, which has the responsibility under the U.N. Charter to recommend desirable candidates to the General Assembly for appointment this fall.

Before deciding who to recommend in a formal vote, the council will hold several rounds of what is calls a “straw poll,” a mechanism devised to informally gauge the degree of support for each candidate. The first straw poll has been set for July 21, with more to be held before the formal vote expected in October.

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-5s” — hold decisive power over who to recommend to the General Assembly. This practice has led to wide criticism among not only the general U.N. membership but also civil society groups throughout the world who want the best candidate, and not someone politically acceptable to the P-5s, to be tapped for the job.

The General Assembly hearings, during which the candidates presented their visions and answered various questions from the entire 193 members of the world body and some civil society organizations in a separate two-hour session broadcast live via U.N. Web TV throughout the world, helped bring much needed transparency to the selection process.

While the hearings proved to be useful in providing the U.N. with an opportunity to understand each candidate better in a transparent and open setting, the General Assembly was not tasked with assessing each candidate’s performance and deciding who would be most suitable candidate for the top U.N. post. Nor was there an agreed mechanism among the general U.N. membership to do so. The task of narrowing down the candidates with a view to selecting the most suitable one thus remains in the hands of the Security Council.

Ambassador Koro Bessho of Japan, which assumed the rotating presidency of the Security Council for July, announced at a recent news conference that the council had met with three candidates for informal, closed-door meetings and that it would continue to do so, hoping to meet all before the first straw poll.

In the straw poll, 15 members of the council will cast a ballot for each candidate indicating “encourage,” “discourage” or “no opinion.” The council has agreed not to use color-coded ballot papers distinguishing the veto-wielding P-5s from the rest of the 10 elected members, at least initially.

The result of each straw poll will be shared with the candidates in confidence so that they can appreciate the degree of support they have from the Security Council. Candidates who receive fewer “encourage” votes will be expected to withdraw from the race.

If they cannot be narrowed down to a handful, the council could resort, as was the case in the past, to the use of color-coded ballot papers, which will reveal the preference of permanent members ahead of a formal vote. A “discourage vote” from a permanent member would be a strong indication that the candidate would be subject to a veto during the council’s formal vote.

With all candidates boasting impressive careers, including having served in such high offices as prime minister and foreign minister, the task of narrowing down the candidates appears particularly challenging this time.

Of the 12 candidates, eight are from Eastern Europe, the only region that has not produced a U.N. secretary-general since 1945. Six are women, reflecting a growing call that the next U.N. chief should be a woman after eight successive male predecessors. Six of the 12 candidates also stood out with intimate knowledge of how to manage the U.N. bureaucracy through years of working inside the organization’s system — after all, there is a difference between having worked “in the U.N.” and “with the U.N.”

While consideration of geographical rotation and gender balance will undoubtedly play a significant role in the selection and appointment of the next secretary-general, the most important factor should be merit — unwavering commitment to be the conscience of the international community, ability to coordinate different voices of the 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-5s, should pay due regard to the performance of each candidate during the General Assembly hearings. Under no circumstances should the body be allowed to select the next secretary-general on the basis of their political convenience and horse-trading.

Japan, as the rotating president of the council this month, carries a special responsibility to make sure that the council will select the most qualified candidate, as the U.N. can no longer afford to have less than the best at its helm.

A former United Nations 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, and many other articles on issues concerning the United Nations and Asia.

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