With nine months to go before Ban Ki-Moon finishes his tenure as UN Secretary-General, the search for his successor is well underway. Since the adoption of General Assembly resolution 69/321 last September, the UN has begun to implement the most transparent and inclusive appointment process for a Secretary-General in its history.
As of writing, seven official candidates have been nominated in response to the new“joint letter” process, including three women; the UN is closer than ever to appointing its first female Secretary-General. The names of all of the candidates, as well as their curricula vitae, have been made public on a newUN website. And in three weeks, all Member States will have the opportunity to get their questions answered by the candidates in the General Assembly.
While these historic developments have set the stage for a fair and open process, more must be done to ensure a highly qualified and effective Secretary-General will head the organization in years to come. If the task for 2015 was to lay a solid foundation, then 2016 must be the year that new procedures are implemented and institutionalized in a meaningful way. It is also an opportunity to build on achievements so far, making the process as strong as it can possibly be.
“Informal Dialogues” with the Candidates
One of the major provisions of resolution 69/321 was the establishment of “informal meetings or dialogues” with candidates in the General Assembly, to promote awareness of the candidates and their priorities for the UN. Under the leadership of the current President of the General Assembly, these meetings have begun to take shape. From 12 to 14 April, each official candidate will be provided with a two hour, publicly webcast session in the General Assembly, during which all Member States will be able to ask questions. Ahead of the meetings, the President has requested a “vision statement” from each of the candidates.
However, despite universal support for these dialogues in theory, putting them into practice raises a number of important questions:
Will all candidates participate, and will their decision to participate affect their candidacy? How will the General Assembly meetings with candidates in April be reflected in the actual selection and appointment of a candidate?
Will candidates come forward after the April meetings? How will they engage with the new, more transparent process?
Will civil society questions be included in every meeting with candidates? If not, how can civil society make sure their voices are heard?
At this time, it is expected that all official candidates will participate in the April meetings. However, resolution 69/321 does not require candidates to participate in order to be appointed--and actually urges States not to hold non-participation against them. In fact, during a recent debate, the Russian Federation questioned the value of holding these GA meetings at all. As there is no official deadline for candidacies, another concern is that candidates may be able to evade scrutiny by coming forward at the last moment. While the President has expressed his intention to schedule a meeting for any official candidate, regardless of when they are announced, this could prove more difficult to implement in practice—especially if the Council’s recommendation process stretches late into the fall.
If a candidate is chosen who does not take part in these GA meetings, it would undermine the transparency and legitimacy of the entire appointment process. It would also send a strong signal to future candidates that transparency is not in their interest: that their best chance of becoming Secretary-General is to avoid engagement with the public and the majority of Member States. In order to make these meetings a vibrant and respected part of the process, it will be crucial for Member States, the media, and civil society to encourage all candidates to participate--and to hold the Security Council accountable if it fails to take these meetings into account.
In an exciting development, civil society has also been invited to pose questions through a newwebsite created by the UN’s Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS). From this pool, a thirty-question shortlist will be chosen by an NGO selection committee. The President of the GA will then select up to two questions from the shortlist during each session, “time permitting”.
This news has been met with mixed reactions from Member States. The Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency (ACT) group--a cross-regional group of States committed to UN reform--has called for civil society participation in the meetings. It has also encouraged candidates to interact with civil society outside of the GA dialogues. However, some States have expressed reservations about how this interaction will look in practice. In response to these reservations, it is critical that civil society engage actively and constructively in the GA dialogues, by posing important questions, monitoring the meetings, and sharing the candidates’ responses widely.
Given the limited number of questions per candidate, as well as the possibility that some candidates will not face questions from civil society at all, it is likely that many NGOs will also pursue other avenues to interact with candidates. For instance, last month the 1 for 7 Billion campaignwrote to all official candidates urging them to serve only a single term as Secretary-General. 1 for 7 Billion hopes to see a variety of civil society initiatives to engage with and assess the candidates in the months ahead.
The Push for Further Reform
As the GA’s new procedures have started to come into effect, momentum is building for further improvements to the appointment process. In late February, Member States held an “informal brainstorming session” on some of the key issues left over from negotiations last year. Just this week, the GA’s Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the General Assembly met to debate the selection and appointment of the Secretary-General, and negotiations for a new resolution are expected to start in late April.
In particular, 1 for 7 Billion remains committed to two outstanding proposals: appointing the Secretary-General for a single, non-renewable term, and the recommendation of more than one candidate by the Security Council to the General Assembly.
Under current practice, the Secretary-General is appointed for a five year term, subject to renewal. Yet the politics of re-election have been linked to troubling practices, such as ‘backroom deals’ in which candidates are pressured to promise posts in the UN Secretariat to the nationals of powerful countries. In a rapidly changing world, an extended, non-renewable term would provide the next Secretary-General with a clear mandate and the political space needed to implement a long-term vision.
Similarly, there is no provision in the UN Charter as to how many candidates the Security Council can recommend to the General Assembly. While the GA’s rules of procedure call for a vote by secret ballot, in recent years the Assembly has made the appointment by acclamation. This has led to a process in which the GA has abdicated its decision-making power by ‘rubberstamping’ the Security Council’s preferred candidate. By recommending more than one candidate, the Council could empower all Member States to make their voices heard.
Notably, both of these proposals were raised by Member States duringlast year’s negotiations in the Ad Hoc Working Group. Since then, support for both proposals has only grown. Our campaign’s research reveals that more than 145 out of 193 UN Member States support a serious discussion of the Secretary-General’s term, including the possibility of a longer, non-renewable term. The campaign has also found that more than two-thirds of the UN’s membership has called on the Security Council to recommend more than one candidate for the General Assembly to choose from. To find out where your country stands, see ourtwo charts summarizing the position of every Member State.
While the new procedures have made the process more transparent than ever before, it is equally important to improve its inclusivity and fairness. These two proposals would help to ensure the appointment of a Secretary-General who enjoys the confidence of—and is equally accountable to—all UN Member States.
Amidst all the speculation about the candidates, it can be easy to overlook the process itself. Indeed, much of the media coverage has taken the new procedures for granted. Yet in 2016, the first year in which these new procedures are being tested, it is clear that process is more important than ever. How the appointment process takes shape this year will have repercussions for decades to come.
 Resolution 69/321 was adopted by consensus in the General Assembly.
 Resolution 69/321, para. 42: “Decides...to conduct informal dialogues or meetingswith candidates for the position of Secretary-General, without any prejudice to anycandidate who does not participate” (italics mine)
 See the Joint Inspection Unit report, “Transparency in the Selection and Appointment of Senior Managers in the United Nations Secretariat” (JIU/REP/2011/2) para. 81: “The information presented in annex II, however, shows that historically, certain positions are reserved for certain Member States and that no Secretary-General has been immune to political pressure in this regard.”