The labyrinthine process of electing new UN chief

Method of replacing Ban Ki-moon will be most transparent in UN’s 70-year history

The decision on Ban Ki-moon’s  successor is expected to be made by the end of September. Photograph: Getty Images

The decision on Ban Ki-moon’s successor is expected to be made by the end of September. Photograph: Getty Images


Of global figureheads, perhaps only the pope or the president of China is selected in as mysterious a manner as the secretary general of the United Nations. The de facto leader and chief spokesman for the organisation is nominally appointed by the General Assembly of all UN members, “upon the recommendation of the Security Council”, according to the UN charter.

In practice, that means the decision has always rested with the five permanent veto-wielding members of the council. Behind closed doors, they engage in protracted negotiations before striking a deal and producing a single name for the assembly to sign off on.

“The security council in the past hasn’t even deigned to give us smoke signals,” says Natalie Samarasinghe, co-founder of 1 for 7 Billion, a campaign seeking an overhaul of the appointment process. “Most of the time we had no idea who was even running for the job.”

The process of replacing Ban Ki-moon, the South Korean whose second term as secretary general ends in December, will be the most open in the UN’s 70-year history. Twelve candidates – six men and six women – publicly declared following nominations from their own member states. They have taken part in debates and published vision statements, and the UN itself has agreed broad criteria for the appointment.

“For me it represents quite a dramatic change,” says Samarasinghe, who is also executive director of the United Nations Association in the UK. “This is a process that really wasn’t a process for the best part of seven decades . . . It sounds pretty basic, but the fact that we have a broad timeline, we have some selection criteria, we have a public list of candidates, the chance to hear from those candidates, is a huge, huge step forward.”


The decision remains with the security council, and it is not obliged to choose from the list of declared candidates. But while Samarasinghe believes the changes to the process will make it politically more difficult for the council to choose someone who has fared poorly, others are more sceptical

“At the end of the day, it will be winnowed down to a number of names and types of people who have a chance of getting it past the three awkward members of the P5, namely the Chinese, the Russians and the Americans,” says Paul Kennedy, professor of history at Yale University and author of The Parliament of Man, a history of the UN. According to Kennedy, the process has always been about finding the lowest common denominator – the man (for it has always been a man) who least offends Russia, China and the US.

“Every one of these reformist campaigns forgets the hard nitty-gritty politics. Who has this person possibly offended in the past?”

The decision on Ban’s successor is expected to be made by the end of September, but two straw polls taken within the 15-member security council in recent weeks have given useful insights into how the process is shaping up. In the straw polls, members are given a ballot paper for each candidate and invited to indicate whether they would like to encourage, discourage or offer no opinion on that individual.

The latest poll on August 5th saw the emergence of a frontrunner in Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and ex- head of the UN refugee agency. Guterres received 11 “encourage”, two “discourage” and two “no opinions”, according to leaked results. In the first poll, on July 21st, Guterres received 12 “encourage” and three “no opinion”.

Former Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic moved up to second with eight “encourage”, four “discourage” and three “no opinion”, edging out Argentinian foreign minister Susana Malcorra who got eight “encourage”, six “discourage” and one “no opinion”.

Dark horse

Former Slovenian president Danilo Turk – seen by many as the dark horse – dropped to fourth from second with seven “encourage”, five “discourage” and three “no opinion”, while Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, director general of UN cultural organisation Unesco, came fifth.

The aim of these early polls is to narrow the field. Former Croatian foreign minister Vesna Pusic, who came last in the first ballot, dropped out of the race, while others who were hotly tipped, such as former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, have seen their momentum abate.

But the contest is far from over. If either or both of Guterres’s two “discourages” came from a P5 member, his campaign may have been dealt a fatal blow. But the preferences of the P5 will not become clear until later in the process, when colour-coded ballot papers will distinguish P5 ballots from the rest. Guterres also has two things working against him: he is not a woman and he is not from eastern Europe.

Civil society groups and nearly a third of the 193 UN member states have pushed for the first woman secretary general. Four of those countries, Japan, Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela, are on the security council. And many states, including Russia, argue that, under the convention of geographical rotation in place since the early 1990s, it’s the turn of eastern Europe to take the top job.

Seven of the remaining candidates are from that region, including a number of western- oriented ex-prime ministers and foreign ministers who may raise Russian objections.

That could favour Bokova, who has impeccable international credentials but was also educated at an elite Moscow university and had family ties to the Bulgarian Communist Party before the Berlin Wall came down. Bokova received seven “discourage” votes on August 5th, however, and some analysts believe the US and the UK are unconvinced. Washington is believed to be lobbying for Malcorra, the foreign minister of Argentina.

Immense challenges

Ban’s successor will take on the role at a time of immense challenges. The UN has been criticised for its responses to the Syrian civil war, Ebola and the refugee crisis. Its peacekeeping role is a focus of intense debate and opinions diverge sharply on how far the secretary general can go in standing up to the security council.

The identity of the secretary general matters more than ever, Samarasinghe argues. “A good person, someone who knows how to navigate the system, can manoeuvre within the confines of the politics to very great effect,” she says. “That can be everything from using the moral authority to speak out on issues, as Ban Ki-moon has done on things such as climate change and violence against women and LGBT rights, to making smart appointments.

“We’re not going to solve climate change or the refugee crisis ourselves. We need global co-operation. We need the UN to step in and to step up. So I think this is one of the most important appointments that the UN will ever make for secretary general.”

While acknowledging that the head of the UN secretariat – a vast bureaucracy of 41,000 people – remains an important voice of “soft power”, Kennedy believes the role has become less important than it was in the mid-20th century. Nor does he have great expectations for Ban’s successor.

“A secretary general could turn out to be a surprisingly articulate person for the third world, or for women and the social agenda. And that would be welcome . . . But on the whole, the awkward three would prefer that the secretary general is not, himself or herself, an awkward person.”

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