In August 2015, I wrote an article describing six common myths about the appointment process for the UN Secretary-General, as well as the efforts underway to improve it. Since that time, there has been significant progress towards adopting and institutionalizing procedures that are more transparent, inclusive, and fair.
In fact, on the 15th of December 2015, the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council took the historic step of officially launching the process through a joint letter to all Member States. The decision marks the first time in the UN’s history that the selection process has a clear and public start date, and the first time that all Member States have been formally invited to propose candidates.
Below, I’ve summarized key developments since August 2015—and what still must be done to ensure that the best possible candidate is appointed by the end of the year.
The General Assembly Adopts Resolution 69/321
During the spring and summer, the UN General Assembly negotiated the text of resolution 69/321 through its “Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the General Assembly”.For the past several years, the Ad Hoc Working Group has addressed the selection and appointment of the Secretary-General as one of its four thematic topics.
From the outset there were considerable obstacles to reform. As described in “Six Myths,” the power and influence of the primary opponents—key members of the Permanent Five members of the Security Council—as well as the Ad Hoc Working Group’s consensus-based process, left many skeptical that any real progress could be achieved.
However, over the course of the negotiations, several trends emerged which contributed to a successful outcome. Longstanding supporters of reform, such as the members of the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency (ACT)  group and the Non-Aligned Movement, developed concrete common positions and collaborated amongst themselves to build broad, cross-regional support. These groups were joined by prominent states such as Brazil and Canada. The vocal support of the United Kingdom, as a member of the “P5”, emboldened states that might otherwise have been reluctant to challenge the dominance of the Security Council over the process. Moreover, many states which had not previously engaged in discussions of UN reform were inspired by the UN’s 70th anniversary to support these initiatives.
Throughout that process, the 1 for 7 Billion civil society campaign advocated for ten reforms to structure the process; establish more transparent and inclusive procedures; promote greater ownership of the process by Member States; and enhance the independence of the Secretary-General’s office. Significantly, none of the campaign’s proposals require an amendment to the UN Charter; all could be adopted by a resolution of the General Assembly. Furthermore, as illustrated by the campaign’s “Map of Support,” they were widely supported by Member States.Key elements of many of these proposals were ultimately incorporated into resolution 69/321.
The resolution, which was formally adopted on the 11th of September, 2015:
- Notes that there has never been a female Secretary-General, and encourages Member States to put forward women candidates;
- Calls for informal dialogues or meetings with candidates in the General Assembly, in order to allow for interaction between candidates and Member States;
- Establishes a significant role for the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council, requesting that they distribute a “joint letter” to formally start the appointment process and that they circulate information about all Secretary-General candidates; and
- Proposes new selection criteria for the position, including: “proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations, and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills”
Other measures were discussed in the Ad Hoc Working Group but were not ultimately adopted in resolution 69/321.For instance, it was not possible for Member States to agree to language on the possibility of a longer, non-renewable term for the Secretary-General, or the recommendation of several candidates by the Security Council to the General Assembly. The question of promises about senior level appointments—made by candidates in exchange for the support of the permanent members of the Security Council –was also not addressed. Ahead of this year’s Ad Hoc Working Group, 1 for 7 Billion will continue to urge Member States to debate these critical issues.
While falling short of the hopes of many states, the language adopted in resolution 69/321 provides greater clarity and structure to a traditionally opaque process, offering more opportunity for Member States to assess the candidates and to monitor its progress.If implemented effectively, these provisions could make the process significantly more transparent, inclusive, and merit-based.
A “Joint Letter” to Launch the Process
However, despite enjoying the universal support of the UN’s membership, it remained uncertain whether or not the new procedures would be put into place.While some resolutions pertaining to UN reform have been quickly implemented, others have languished for decades.
The first step was to secure a “joint letter” by the Presidents of the General Assembly and of the Security Council to officially launch the selection process. Initially proposed by the ACT group, it was designed to signal the commitment of the General Assembly and the Security Council to greater inclusiveness and transparency from the start—and indicate recognition by the Security Council that the broader membership also has a legitimate role in the process.
As described in resolution 69/321, the letter would be sent to all Member States, and invite candidates to be presented in a “timely manner”. By providing a “description of the entire process”, the joint letter would ensure that everyone with a stake in the appointment—including Member States, civil society, and the general public—could follow its progress at all stages.
As President of the Security Council, the United Kingdom (in consultation with the President of the General Assembly) circulated a draft of the joint letter in November. Despite widespread support for an early start, a handful of states managed to block the draft in the Council, arguing that the letter should be postponed until 2016 at the earliest. Nonetheless, Member States continued to call for the timely implementation of resolution 69/321, with many highlighting the issue during a joint debate at UN headquarters.They were supported by the UK’s determination to push the issue, even after the US assumed the Council presidency in December. Security Council Report’s “What’s in Blue” blog offers further details of the negotiation process.
The final version of the joint letter was officially circulated to all Member States on the 15th of December, 2015. After weeks of negotiations—and despite the obstacles imposed by some of the Council’s members—the UN will finally begin to implement the more transparent and inclusive procedures its members unanimously adopted this year.
From the beginning, the 1 for 7 Billion campaign has argued that the sooner the letter is finalized, the more time there will be to implement the other critical measures in the resolution—such as the distribution of the candidates’ resumes, and meetings with candidates in the General Assembly—that will help to make fair and thorough assessment of the candidates possible.
As Ban Ki-Moon prepares for the final year of his term, candidates will begin to come forward in earnest. Already, one candidate has been formally presented to the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council: Srgjan Kerim, the former Permanent Representative of Macedonia to the United Nations. In the interest of transparency, Kerim’s CV and other accompanying documents have been made available online by the President of the General Assembly.
In order to implement resolution 69/321, the President of the General Assembly has announced his intention to convene meetings with candidates in the General Assembly as they are presented in 2016. According to the joint letter, these meetings can begin to take place before the Security Council begins its deliberations. The letter further states that the Council should begin to make its recommendation by the end of July 2016. In other words, we can expect that the pace of developments will only increase over the coming months.
In the past, the United Kingdom has also proposed Arria-formula meetings to evaluate candidates in the Security Council. While it is unclear when these would take place or how these would fit into the process, Arria-formula rules would make it for these sessions to include civil society participation.
Of course, ultimately the decision of whom to appoint rests with UN Member States. Nonetheless, with the appointment process officially underway, it will be vital for advocates to carefully monitor the process as it unfolds, ensuring that key players follow through on their commitments under resolution 69/321. In 2016 we can help to set a precedent for a more fair, transparent, and inclusive process—one which will resonate for years to come.
ACT is cross-regional group of 25 Member States which promotes greater transparency and accountability in the working methods of the United Nations.
 For instance, General Assembly resolution 68/307 (2014) moved the date of ECOSOC and Security Council elections from the fall prior to the start of term to the spring. In contrast, resolution 51/241 (1997) asked Member States to discuss the length of the Secretary-General’s term prior to the appointment of another Secretary-General; however, such a discussion has yet to take place.
See the ACT’s group’s position paper on the Secretary-General appointment process, “A Call to ACTion”