LONDON – It’s not an election, it’s a selection. And although all the countries in the United Nations General Assembly have equal rights, some are more equal than others.
Ban Ki-moon retires at the end of this year, and it’s time for the United Nations to choose a new secretary-general. By the end of this year’s session of the General Assembly in early October, we will know who it is. Which raises two questions: how do they make the choice, and why should anybody care?
The secretary-general of the United Nations is, in some senses, the highest official on the planet, but the selection process is hardly democratic. In fact, it has traditionally been a process as shrouded in secrecy as a papal conclave.
It is the Security Council’s 15 members who pick the candidate, although all 192 members of the General Assembly then get to vote on their choice. And even on the Security Council, it’s only the views of the five permanent members (the P5) that really count, because each of the five great powers has a veto and the others don’t.
This is why people with strong opinions and a record of taking decisive action don’t get the job. That sort of person would be bound to annoy one of the P5 great powers — Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States — or even all of them one after the other, so the entire system is designed to prevent a maverick with big ideas from slipping through.
The secretary-general must never come from one of the great powers (that might give him access to enough resources to make a nuisance of himself), and the successful candidate should not be charismatic. The final choice is usually a “safe pair of hands,” some blameless diplomat from a middle or smaller power like the incumbent, a career diplomat from South Korea who ranks 32nd on the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People.
Candidates therefore tend to be relative unknowns. If you look through the current list of candidates, for example, the only two names you might recognize, even if you are a political junkie, are former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, now administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and later U.N. high commissioner for Refugees.
But who is Irina Bokova, Natalia Gherman or Igor Luksic? They are, in that order, a former acting foreign minister of Bulgaria, the current foreign minister of Moldova, and a former foreign minister of Montenegro. Well, all right, Bokova is also the current director-general of UNESCO, but you still didn’t know her name, did you?
Why so many Eastern Europeans (eight of the 12 candidates come from that region)? Because it’s Eastern Europe’s “turn” this time. That region always missed out until the end of the Cold War, because the countries of Eastern Europe were effectively under Soviet control and therefore contravened the unwritten “no secretary-general from a great power” rule.
You might also ask why Eastern Europe is a whole separate region at all, given that its total population from Poland to Bulgaria is less than the population of Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia or Pakistan. Same reason: It used to be seen as a separate region because it was occupied by Soviet troops and most of its governments were ultimately controlled from Moscow. History looms very large at the U.N.
There is some progress. Half of this year’s candidates are female, and there is a strong feeling around the U.N. that it is high time for a woman to become secretary-general. There is also an attempt this time to make the process more “transparent,” but it is otherwise unchanged. The Security Council still comes up with a single candidate who doesn’t offend any of the great powers, and the General Assembly then rubber-stamps its choice.
It’s basically a civil service job, suitable for persons of cautious disposition. How could it be otherwise? You only get what you pay for, and no great power is yet ready to pay the price in terms of its own sovereignty of having a powerful independent leader at the U.N.
What would be the point of choosing such a leader anyway, so long as the U.N. has no military forces or financial resources of its own? It would only lead to frustration: The secretary-general can’t act independently of the will of the great powers because they designed it that way.
The job is still worth doing, and there is never a shortage of applicants. The secretary-general can speak out as the conscience of the world when there are massive violations of human rights, and once in a while she can actually organize a peace-keeping mission to stop the horrors (if the great powers agree).
And she becomes, by virtue of her position, the most striking symbol of that more cooperative, less violent world that most politicians, diplomats and ordinary citizens actually aspire to. But we are still a very long way from the promised land.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military historian based in London.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.