UN urged to end ‘haphazard lottery’ of leadership selection process
Reform existing system before 2016 appointment or world will not get strong general secretary it needs, organisation warned
By Sam Jones, 7 November 2014
The UN must abandon the “secret deals and horse trading” that govern the selection of its secretary general and replace them with a fair and transparent process that ensures the best candidate gets the job, according to a coalition of NGOs, UN associations and former UN officials.
The signatories of an open letter to member states argue that, given the array of current crises, the selection of Ban Ki-moon’s successor as head of the UN in 2016 will be one of the organisation’s most important decisions over the next decade.
“The new secretary general will have to address a world confronted with increasingly dangerous civil wars, humanitarian and environmental disasters, terrorism, regressive development, economic and financial turmoil, and inequality,” they write. “The need for global leadership and international cooperation is greater than ever.”
But, they add, the procedure for choosing a secretary general – adopted in 1946 – is “significantly outdated” and incompatible with selecting the best candidate.
Under the existing rules, the members of the UN security council debate the candidates before nominating one and recommending them for appointment by the UN general assembly.
However, the process allows any of the five permanent members of the security council – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – to veto any candidate. Convention also decrees that there cannot be two consecutive secretaries general from the same region.
The letter’s signatories, including Amnesty International, Avaaz, Civicus and the World Federation of United Nations Associations, want all UN members to be involved in the search for, and appointment of, future leaders.
Under the banner of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, they are calling for “an end to the secret deals and horse trading that see five countries hold sway over an appointment that affects all the world’s people”.
They are also urging the UN to come up with an official shortlist, and to hold open sessions in which all states can question the nominees.
Sir Brian Urquhart, who served as personal assistant to the first secretary general, Trygve Lie, and was instrumental in the development of the organisation’s peacekeeping force, has long argued for the system to be overhauled.
“The next secretary general should be a man or woman of exceptional gifts and character, but it remains to be seen whether UN member states have any interest in improving the haphazard lottery that passes for a selection system, which would be rejected as a bad joke by any serious institution in the private sector,” he said.
“With no open search procedure, no criteria, no vetting of candidates, no statement of intent, no interview, and a list virtually restricted to those who have declared themselves, it is something of a miracle that the United Nations has been as well served as it has.”
Edward Mortimer, who was chief speechwriter and director of communications for the previous secretary general, Kofi Annan, said the current process was simply not fair.
“Last time round, China insisted that it was Asia’s turn, the US quietly agreed with China on Mr Ban as the most inoffensive Asian candidate, and Russia didn’t mind as long as it wasn’t an eastern European,” he said. “The choice was left, in effect, to just three people – George W Bush, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao. We woke up to that fact much too late. We cannot make the same mistake this time.”
The current UN deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, acknowledged the importance of the debate, adding: “I think one should try to be as universal as possible.”
Although he declined to say whether he personally supported calls for a change to the system, Eliasson paid tribute to Urquhart’s “valiant efforts” to reform the selection process and question the notion of automatic geographic rotation.
“He made the case, which is understandable, that one should go for the best possible person whatever region he or she comes from,” Eliasson told a roundtable discussion in London on Thursday.
“He also had the idea that there should be a search process, that there shouldn’t be people campaigning, there should be a search. That was debated, I was part of that group … [but] nothing much came out of it.”