Look East for a New UN Leader

Look East for a New UN Leader

The election campaign for the UN’s next Secretary General is the most transparent in history, but the politics are as murky as ever. As diplomatic wrangling continues, one thing is clear: The next leader will come from Asia.


Ban Ki-Moon, South Korea’s foreign minister, has emerged as frontrunner in a straw poll to choose the next UN Secretary General. But was it a “discourage” vote, a tactical offer to negotiate, a “No way, Jose” or a flat-out veto?

Such are the cryptic signals sent by diplomats on the Security Council and by other UN members, which the rest of the world is now trying to decipher.

The South Korean ended up leading the pack with fewer votes than he earned in the last straw vote. One delegate who once supported Ban has now lost interest and effectively abstained, while another voted to “discourage” his candidacy. But none of the other candidates could muster enough support to match his thirteen “encouragements.”

But was that discouragement a veto or was it a ploy, as member states exacted promises from Ban about positions their nationals would fill? Or were delegates playing for time in the hope that Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, battered by a coup at home and a poor straw vote showing, would pull out? Would that clear the way for another candidate from ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations), where Singapore, always productive of potential candidates, has two or three in hand?

And when it comes to a public vote, would the delegate who slipped a dagger in the dark into the back of a candidate be prepared to do the same in public?

If this sounds like a papal election with a Medici candidate, it’s really not. In fact, this election campaign is possibly the most transparent in the UN’s history. But while the campaign itself is transparent, the election is as murkily duplicitous as ever.

Every five or ten years, the world is amazed at the opacity of the process for choosing the UN Secretary General. According to the Charter, the Security Council, currently fifteen members strong, recommends a candidate to the General Assembly, which could technically reject the recommendation.

To complicate matters, after the anonymous straw polls, when the Security Council publicly votes and comes to a formal adoption, a candidate could win with only nine votes (or lose with fourteen) if the one holdout is a permanent member and votes against the frontrunner–as happened in 1996, when US Ambassador Madeleine Albright vetoed Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

In the heady aftermath of the cold war, impending Secretary General elections have concentrated minds, bringing regular calls for making the process more transparent and democratic. Each election has effectively ignored those calls, and the world has immediately forgotten the fuss, heaving a sigh of relief once the drawn-out process ends.

This time, with plenty of notice, there were calls for the Security Council to nominate two or more candidates so the General Assembly could decide. Confident that the Assembly would not be able to get its act together and reject a Security Council candidate, the Council members tacitly ignored the idea.

So there is no provision in the Charter for the Secretary Generalship to rotate around the regions of the world (indeed, the first two both came from Scandinavia). But there is now a consensus that geographic proportionality is important. The United States and Britain both repudiate that principle but bow to its application, not least since China has made it plain this time around that it would veto any non-Asian candidate.

The second runner-up hitherto has been Shashi Tharoor, the Indian candidate who currently heads the UN’s Department of Public Information–and incidentally a prime mover behind Kofi Annan’s original candidacy. He is clever and articulate–which in this race may well work against him–and, most damning to some, a UN insider.

But just as the sub-Saharans never really regarded Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian, as a genuine African, the concept of a Secretary General from Asia was sorely tested by the candidacy of Prince Zeid of Jordan. He did surprisingly badly in the straw poll, perhaps because of fears of what the apocalyptic Christian right would make of a descendant of the Prophet sitting in the world’s most prominent seat. But his poor showing had more to do with the fact that East Asians and South Asians don’t really regard Arabs as Asians, especially one who has shown a most un-Confucian concern for human rights.

In previous years the Security Council would solemnly consider even self-nominations to the post. This time the Council decided that countries had to nominate candidates. In some ways, this is antithetical to a core principle of the UN, since the Secretary General is an international civil servant, above country.

Beginning under Boutros-Ghali and accentuated under Annan, nongovernmental organizations have increased their importance and visibility inside the UN system. This time, candidates have been approached with checklists for their views, in particular on human rights issues. They have been speaking about their candidacies at venues ranging from the Asia Society to the International Peace Academy, while touring the world talking to governments in support of their case. The Center for UN Reform Education has actually interviewed most of the candidates and put its results in the public domain.

It would be difficult for governments to support someone who was dismissive of these tests, for fear of public reaction. On the other hand, candidates have to behave like American presidential primary contenders, signaling one way for the masses while steering the other for the conservatives–or vice versa. Interestingly, Ban Ki-Moon, who allegedly has support from both China and the United States, expresses strong support for the International Criminal Court and for the Responsibility to Protect–the doctrine of humanitarian intervention adopted in principle at least year’s Summit.

Neither China nor the United States is ecstatic about either concept, but both are perceptive enough to realize the slimness of the chances of any candidate who opposes bedrock UN decisions. But with the process clearly trending toward blandness and compromise, it is surprising that most of the successful candidates have been as good as they have been. For example, Trygve Lie, the first Secretary General, complained that Dag Hammarskjold, his Swedish successor, was a disastrously boring civil servant. Hammarskjold grew to become the very model of a modern Secretary General. There is something about the post, being the focus of so much concentrated world attention and expectation, that does that to a man, and would perhaps even to a woman if the Council had been bold enough to appoint one.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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