Ban Ki-moon’s term as United Nations (UN) Secretary-General (SG) does not end until 31 December 2016. To many seasoned observers, his choice in 2006 validated the soft bigotry of low expectations with respect to the world organisation. In fact though, considering the structural constraints within which he must function, Ban’s record is not all that bad. He has led from the front on issues like climate change, the responsibility to protect, and a development agenda to follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expire this year.
The SG must have integrity, independence and the ability and willingness to set the collective interest of the UN above the partisan interests of member states; provide managerial ability and negotiating skill while establishing rapport with a global audience; know when to take the initiative in order to force an issue and when reticence is welcome, when courage is required and when discretion is advisable, and when commitment to the UN vision must be balanced by a sense of proportion and humour; and a strong sense of the demands and expectations of the organisation against the limits of the possible.
The office of SG combines the role of politician, diplomat and international civil service CEO all rolled into one. The voice of world conscience and the personification of the international interest, with the capacity to influence events but not control them, the SG must have the support of all governments but owe allegiance to none and retain US confidence while being demonstrably independent of Washington. To describe what is needed is to explain why Norway's Trygve Lie, the first SG, famously said his was ‘the most impossible job in the world’.
While some drafters of the UN Charter would have preferred to restrict the SG’s role to the traditional model of an apolitical head of a civil service, obedient and deferential to the political masters, others argued for a more clearly political and activist conception. In the end both conceptions found expression in the Charter, though they do not necessarily cohabit all that easily. The status, authority and powers of the SG are derived chiefly from the clauses of the UN Charter, but depend also invariably on the skills and personality of the incumbent and the state of relations among the major powers of the world. The political role of the SG in turn is a function of the interplay between the Charter functions and powers, the personal attributes, and the political equations among the member states.
The single most important challenge for the Secretary-General is to provide leadership: the elusive ability to make others connect emotionally and intellectually to a larger cause that transcends their immediate self-interest. Leadership consists of articulating a bold and noble vision for the international community, establishing standards of achievement and conduct for states and individuals, explaining why they matter and inspiring or coaxing everyone to adopt the agreed goals and benchmarks as their own goals.
The vote on Ban’s successor is unlikely to take place before November next year, although informal initial rounds of balloting could commence in mid-2016. But preliminary jockeying and early announcements of some candidates is already underway. While 2015 will thus be taken up with discreet reading of the tea leaves and gauging of the global temperature by announced, expected and behind-the-scenes candidates, a more critical agenda item for this year should be to reform the method of choosing the SG and the terms and conditions of office.
The ‘voting’ process puts a premium on the most amiable and least offensive, not the most forceful and effective. Process shapes performance: choosing a weak leader allows the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (P5) to scapegoat the SG (Kofi Annan used to joke that SG stood for scapegoat) for the UN's ineffectual performance.
The UN Charter contains just one brief sentence on the selection of ‘the chief administrative officer of the Organisation’: ‘The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of Security Council’ (Article 97). One would never guess from the actual practice of choosing all past and present SGs that the appointing authority is the General Assembly (GA), not the UN Security Council (UNSC).
In its first session, the GA adopted Resolution I/11 (24 January 1946) which formulated, elaborated and clarified a few details. The first SG would be appointed for five years, with the possibility for another five-year term. The UNSC was requested to forward only one nomination to the GA. Nomination by the UNSC, to be discussed only in private meetings and to be voted by secret ballot, would require the affirmative votes of 7 of the 11 members (since changed to 9 of 15 after the expansion of the UNSC in 1965), including the concurring votes of the P5. That is, the choice of SG is subject to a P5 veto. A simple majority of those present and voting, by secret ballot and without debate on the nomination, would be sufficient in the GA voting.
In choosing to require only one candidate instead of a slate of a few for its consideration, the plenary house gave up an appointing power whose importance was to grow considerably in the following decades. For the growing paralysis of the UNSC, first during and because of the Cold War dynamics, and subsequently because of its growing misalignment with the changing power structure in the real world of international politics, combined with the growing dysfunctionality of the GA as it quadrupled in size, placed a disproportionate weight on the role of the SG in shaping UN policy.
In theory, the GA could reclaim a co-equal role by rescinding Resolution 1/11. In practice, it should do so and ask for a minimum of three and a maximum of five candidates, else the SG will remain deferential to the executive body, and in particular to the P5, over the collective interests and preferences of the broader membership. To date the UNSC has always forwarded just one candidate’s name and in not one case has the GA rejected the UNSC-recommended candidate.
Another long-standing reform initiative has called for a single seven-year term to provide stability and take away the possibility of an SG being influenced in his decisions/actions by calculations of a second term. Thus these two key changes (a slate of several candidates and a single but longer term of office) could be effected by the GA without any Charter amendment.
In Resolution 60/286 (8 September 2006), the GA provided additional guidelines for choosing an SG, adding ‘gender equality’ to regional rotation as a consideration, calling on the GA president to consult member states and forward their views to the Security Council, and requesting all candidates to present their views to all UN member states. Based on a combination of the two criteria of regional rotation and gender equality, the strongest candidates in 2016 should be central and eastern European women: no woman and no eastern European has been chosen to date.
An early declared candidate is UNESCO Director-General (2009–present) Irina Bokova, the former Foreign Minister of Bulgaria (1996–97). Another early candidate is International Law Professor Danilo Türk, a former UN Assistant SG (2000–05) and President of Slovenia (2007–12). From 1992 to 2000, Türk was Slovenia’s ambassador to the UN, including a two-year term on the Security Council in 1998–99. As a matter of personal interest to this author, Türk wrote his PhD thesis on the principle of non-intervention.
A potential equally credible candidate, albeit from southern Europe, is UN High Commissioner for Refugees (2005–present) Antonio Guterres, the former Prime Minister of Portugal (1995–2002). By all accounts he has done a thoroughly competent job as chief of the UN refugee agency, a post he won against stiff competition from former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans.
We also have two former antipodean prime ministers widely believed to be interested in the top UN job: Helen Clark of New Zealand (UNDP Administrator since 2009) and Kevin Rudd of Australia. Through an anachronistic accident of history, these two countries belong to the West European and Others Group (WEOG) in the UN political geography of the world. As such they are technically eligible, as it is the turn of WEOG on the regional rotation basis. Leaving aside their qualifications, experience and reputations, it is questionable how willing the Europeans would be to accept an SG from down under for their once-in-40 years turn at the world’s top diplomatic post.
Most UN observers rate Dag Hammarskjöld (1953–61) and Kofi Annan (1997–2006) as the two best SGs. A central challenge that both had to contend with, with mixed success, is how to combine the UN’s unique legitimacy and international authority with the global reach and power of a superpower. Had the P5 known in advance how the two were going to act once in office, it is doubtful either would have been chosen.
As we prepare to select the next SG in 2016, this leads to a sobering conclusion: the very skills and character traits needed for the world’s top diplomatic office will ensure the best candidates are vetoed. Solidarity, empathy, integrity, decency, moral compass, intellect: words to define a good and effective SG who speaks as the conscience of common humanity amidst the hurly-burly of great power diplomacy. Until we see the likes again of Hammarskjöld and Annan, the UN is unlikely to recapture the heights of influence it attained during their years of stewardship.
A former UN Assistant SG, Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Among other books, he is the author of The United Nations, Peace and Security (Cambridge University Press), The Responsibility to Protect (Routledge), Nuclear Weapons and International Security (Routledge); co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy (Oxford University Press); and editor-in-chief of the journal Global Governance.
*Cover Image: UN Secretaries-General - Trigve Lie, Dag Hammarskjöld, U Thant, Kurt Waldheim, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (UN.org), Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-moon.
Join the discussion in the comments section below