In 2016, the United Nations will see a new Secretary-General take over from Ban Ki-moon, as he steps down after two terms of leading the UN. The imminent change of leadership has spurred on civil society to campaign against the current election process. They see it as highly out-dated and in favour of the political agenda of the five permanent members of the Security Council instead of the whole UN. It is however, not only the permanent members of the Security Council who are self-serving. All of the member states are. The fact that they are first of foremost states inevitably makes the UN political and as a result, every interaction is politicized. As such, there is a discrepancy between what the general public believes the UN to be and what it actually is. It is the expectation of the UN to be an effective instrument for solving disputes, where states leave their national needs at the door versus the realisation that they do not. Therefore, this blog post will explore how global politics come into play within the UN system, how it affects this system and how a reform of the election of the Secretary-General could change the political climate within the UN.
Global politics in the UN-system
Being bound by the international political environment, often lead member states to pursue their own national agenda. This is especially visible within the regional blocs at the UN. At the moment there are five blocs: African Group, Asian-Pacific Group, Eastern European Group, Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC) and Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG). Created on the belief that states close to each other regionally share the same interests and agendas, the idea was that members from each bloc would represent the interests of all their neighbours when taking up a seat in smaller UN bodies which have revolving memberships, such as the Human Rights Council.
However, not all countries share the same interest or get along with their neighbours. Some of the examples would include North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, Japan and China, and so on. As a result, some countries are more aligned politically with a different bloc to their own, making cooperation with neighbours hard. Due to this, Israel has formally been included into WEOG although geographically not being part of Western Europe. ‘Interest blocs’ has also been created such as the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation. The blocs often adopt bloc tactics to further their regional or national aims. It includes voting together en masse and to lobby internally and externally by using the group’s power as a bargaining tool. Vote-trading and political deals have also become commonplace within the UN system.
The effects of global politics within the UN-system
The problem with the blocs system is that more often than not their political objectives do not correlate with the work that the UN is trying to promote. As such the UN has often become paralysed and incapable of acting when necessary. For example, the African Group has been shielding Sudan from scrutiny and action during the genocide in Darfur and China’s human rights abuses have become non-negotiable due to its political and economic power. This has been called ‘spheres of influence peacekeeping’ in which traditional power politics take precedent over the UN principle of collective security. Powerful states become disinterested in peacekeeping missions into areas where they hold no interest whilst there is too much interest in sending troops from those states that do. For example, France independently went into Rwanda during the genocide in 1994 when it became apparent that no other member state would.
This is an example of a veto holder acting on its own behalf regardless of the Security Council. Smaller states can also access the veto through their regional or interest blocs. They do so by getting a permanent member to block a specific resolution within the council. The Organisation for Islamic Cooperation has relied upon Russia and China to block several Security Council actions on Syria during the recent on-going conflict.
Selection of a new Secretary-General
As of today, the new Secretary General is still chosen by the five permanent members of the Security Council. There is no formal selection process or public scrutiny of candidates put forward by his or her state. The choice is made in secret to best serve the permanent five’s political interest. Often this means picking a ‘weak’ candidate, i.e. someone who will not challenge the status quo. There are even reports on deals being made and upheld between the permanent five and the selected candidate. The General Assembly has to confirm the new Secretary-General by majority vote but this is often a mere formality.
The selection of the Secretary-General is therefore the pinnacle of how politicised the UN is. Only five members get to decide who should represent 7 billion people based on bloc tactics, long-standing regional disputes and political climate. It shows a UN disregarding cooperation and rather focusing on short-term political gain. It undermines the credibility of the UN and has made it loose its reputation as a non-partisan organisation. More importantly it projects an image of the UN that people can no longer believe in nor support. The 1999 millennium survey by Gallup showed that “less than half of those interviewed judged the performance of the United Nations to be satisfactory.” 
Reform through the ‘1 for 7 Billion’ campaign
The ‘1 for 7 Billion’ campaign is the latest attempt to curb this inherent politicised situation within the UN. Supported by over 70 different NGOs, it is asking for a process that produces the best possible candidate for the position as Secretary-General. This entails that elections are held in a timely and structured manner, that they are based on formal selection criteria and qualifications and that it encourages gender equality and includes candidates from all regions. That it is transparent to the wider UN membership, civil society, the general public and media and lastly that it be inclusive for all members of the General Assembly and open to appropriate input from civil society.
The campaign is already building momentum. On the 27 April 2015, several states spoke up at the General Assembly in favour of the reform. Equally the UK’s permanent Ambassador to the UN, Mr Rycroft supported ‘1 for 7 billion’ in his inaugural speech. With the support from the UK, there will be a continued drive forward for the proposal to improve the current selection process, which is out-dated, subject to backdoor deals and dominated by the permanent members of the Security Council.
However, the reform put forward is not new. In 1999, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan also called for a reform to create a more transparent and democratic UN. He prescribed greater participation coupled with accountability. For him that meant not solely focusing on internal reform. The UN should also open up for greater participation from the international public domain. Letting public and private sector as well as civil society have a larger say in the governance of the UN.
If the ‘1 for 7 billion’ reform gets accepted, Annan’s vision would to a certain extent come true. It would allow for greater civil society participation and it would show a UN supporting democratic values. Focusing less on power politics and more on what is necessary to do. With the right person at the front of the UN, he or she could re-commit the UN to being what it was set up to be. Brokering the differences among states in power, culture, size and interest. Making sure that the whole diversity can express itself fully and in doing so becoming a stronger, more transparent and democratic UN.