In a year when people who follow the United Nations are focusing on the election of the next secretary general, the center of early action in that election has moved for the first time in history from the secretive deliberations of the Security Council to an unprecedented open campaign in the General Assembly, which normally has only a rubber-stamp role.

This may be the perfect moment to take a broad new look at the potential of the normally fractious and often unwieldy 193-nation body and work to strengthen it for a tumultuous age, says the General Assembly president who seized the initiative to upend the 2016 secretary-general race.

Mogens Lykketoft is a 70-year-old Dane who, prior to becoming this year’s General Assembly president, had never been a diplomat assigned to the UN or an official of the organization, which may be useful qualifications for a reformer.

An economist turned politician and a leader of Denmark’s Social Democratic Party, Lykketoft was speaker of the Danish Parliament when his government won the one-year General Assembly presidency and asked him to go to New York. His September-to-September term began in 2015 and will end in about three months, a short time in which to make a big difference. The UN secretary general, on the other hand, gets a five-year term, which is almost always renewed.

Presidents of the General Assembly, chosen by governments in regional rotation, have been a mixed lot, and their influence on the workings of the body can be considerable, for better and for worse. In the 2005–06 session, which marked the UN’s 60th anniversary, Jan Eliasson of Sweden negotiated the abolition of the discredited UN Human Rights Commission and the creation of a smaller, tighter Human Rights Council. (He is now the UN deputy secretary general.) In the late 1990s, Theo-Ben Gurirab of Namibia was a strong voice for developing nations, unafraid to tangle publicly with the secretary general over UN policies not in their interests.

But the presidency has also fallen into less constructive hands. Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, in the 2012–13 session, infuriated Bosnians and many other constituencies by promoting Serbian nationalism, including the performance of an incendiary nationalistic song in a UN ceremony. The assembly president in 2013–14, John Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda—who died on June 22 in an accident while lifting weights at his home—stood accused of accepting $1.3 million in bribes from Chinese business interests while in office. Ashe was arrested after the end of his term (when he lost his diplomatic immunity) and charged by US prosecutors with failing to report and pay taxes on his gains. Further charges were pending at the time of his death. 

These fluctuations in performance and integrity are offered by some outside specialists on the UN as a good reason for not giving the assembly president more than one year in the job. In an interview in his UN office—a  relaxed place free of the usual self-important minions hovering and taking notes in the background—Lykketoft showed some frustration with the short time he has had to advance changes and solidify the gains. He suggested, for example, that the work of highly politicized assembly committees, particularly the budget committee, should become more forward-looking to deal effectively with the overwhelming crises that the UN faces, starkly symbolized by the more than 65 million global refugees and the consequent rapid shortfall in the UN’s humanitarian resources. “I think the General Assembly can have more influence,” Lykketoft said.

David Malone, a former Canadian diplomat at the UN and now rector of the UN University, a research center based in Tokyo, said that he sympathizes with Lykketoft, whom he described in an e-mail exchange as “an excellent GA president.” But Malone added that the recent scandal involving Ashe, who refused professional appointees selected for his office by the UN Secretariat, is a cautionary tale: “UN GA presidents left entirely to their own devices and served by personally loyal teams can, exceptionally, get up to no good. Two years would have brought about even worse results.”

Sam Daws, director of the UN Governance and Reform project at Oxford University’s Center for International Studies (and coeditor, with Thomas G. Weiss of the City University of New York Graduate Center, of the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations) acknowledged that a longer term “would certainly give the [General Assembly president] more time to learn the ropes and embed decisions.” But more important, he wrote in an e-mail, “is the informal and/or formal coordination between a [president] and their predecessor and successor…. You really need a three-year cycle to embed any change.”

Presidents of the General Assembly are now chosen earlier to improve turnover. This past June, Ambassador Peter Thomson of Fiji, a former General Assembly vice president, campaigner for sustainable oceans, and president of the International Seabed Authority, was elected for the 2016–17 term.

The Oxford Handbook characterizes the General Assembly as “a standing international conference in which any UN member state can raise any issue it regards as deserving global attention.” It is not a global parliament in national political terms; it has always strongly supported the sovereignty and theoretical equality of member governments—one nation, one vote. Unlike resolutions in the Security Council, most assembly resolutions are not binding; the assembly can only recommend, not enforce, behavior for the member nations, the majority of which are now in the developing world.

Among the thousands of resolutions the assembly has adopted over the years, governments across the political spectrum have made significant use of the invitation to raise issues of war and peace deserving global attention, particularly when the Security Council is deadlocked by the veto power of its permanent members. The assembly’s member nations can employ a 1950 resolution (Number 377) known as Uniting for Peace. It was invoked in 1956, after the British and French seizure of the Suez Canal, to establish a UN emergency force authorized to arrange a ceasefire and take military action if necessary. In 1981, a General Assembly resolution based on 377 declared South Africa’s invasion of Namibia and other aggressions in the region a breach of international peace and security and called on the UN to give military and financial assistance to the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO).

When the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed a storm of protest across the UN, the General Assembly became the focus of efforts to invoke 377 to call for an end to the war (a move that would have been quickly vetoed by the United States in the Security Council). Arab nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation were joined by peace and constitutional-law organizations in asking for an emergency session. The assembly didn’t follow through, however, so no formal action was taken, but the outcry contributed to the global opposition to the war. A year later, Secretary General Kofi Annan called the war illegal.

Lykketoft spoke in the interview about what will likely be his main legacy as the assembly’s president: open campaigning for the next UN secretary general after Ban Ki-moon’s tenure ends on December 31. For several decades, UN members states—now with a solid majority from the developing world—have been calling unsuccessfully for a more democratic process in choosing the secretary general, the UN’s chief administrative officer, who has vague but limited powers within UN headquarters but an influential global platform (a “bully pulpit,” to use Theodore Roosevelt’s term). In the past, choosing a secretary general had become a matter of geopolitical haggling behind closed doors among the five permanent Security Council members with veto power—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—each with its own interests and red lines.

However, when a new resolution was introduced in September 2015 to open the system up, this time “we actually did it!” Lykketoft exulted. The plan that he put into effect at the beginning of 2016 (after some cajoling, but with generally widespread support) was a historic departure for the organization.

This year, the candidates—who are nominated by their governments in letters to the General Assembly president—were invited to submit comprehensive biographies demonstrating their experience, as well as a “vision statement” explaining how they would exercise the UN’s top job in light of the current world conditions and internal shortcomings within the system itself.  These documents are being made available online. Then the candidates were asked to make brief campaign pitches in a UN chamber packed with diplomats from member nations and regional organizations, as well as NGO representatives participating by video call from around the world. Two hours of questioning followed each candidate’s presentation.

Once these public hearings are completed in the coming weeks, a list will be formally presented to the Security Council. This process isn’t mandatory for either the council or the candidates, but Lykketoft’s underlying message is clear.

“The fact of the past is that there was no official list,” Lykketoft said. “There were some names mentioned in the Security Council. Some were turned down, some went forward with straw polls, but the general public in this world didn’t know much about it. Now, at least, the Security Council will have an authorized list of people having been presented in the General Assembly. We—all of us—know more about their personalities, their priorities. There’s been a huge interest among member states to take part in the questioning. But that doesn’t mean that the Security Council is stripped of any power, as of course they’re not.”

Lykketoft acknowledged that there is nothing to prevent the Security Council from adding names of its own. “I don’t think that will happen,” he added. “The balance has been changed somewhat. But it is not only this; it is also that what we have orchestrated inside the walls of the United Nations, in this building, is only part of what is really new—namely, that civil society, NGOs outside, take part. Candidates are meeting in panels not only in New York, but in London and elsewhere in discussions. So a much, much larger public will have a voice here, and get their own impressions and put pressure on their own governments.”

In keeping with the informal tradition of rotating the secretary general’s chair, Eastern Europe has demanded its turn this year, and of the 11 candidates who have presented their credentials publicly so far, eight are from that region. They include Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian who is director general of UNESCO; Natalia Gherman, ex–foreign minister of Moldova; Vuk Jeremic, a Serbian politician; Srgjan Kerim, a media businessman and former foreign minister of Macedonia; Miroslav Lajcak, foreign minister of Slovakia; Igor Luksic, foreign minister of Montenegro; Vesna Pusic, a former foreign minister of Croatia; and Danilo Turk, a former president of Slovenia and UN assistant secretary general for political affairs.

Beyond Eastern Europe, three other candidates have entered the race: Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand and now administrator of the UN Development Program; António Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and, until recently, UN high commissioner for refugees; and Susana Malcorra, the current foreign minister of Argentina.

The relatively high number of women among the declared candidates reflects a burgeoning civil-society campaign, backed by numerous governments, to elect a female secretary general for the first time in UN history. Russia, which at first seemed chilly to the idea of making gender a qualification, now says that it would be “fair” to consider a woman, but that it should not be the determining factor, according to a recent report in Sputnik, a government-backed international news service, quoting Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov.

Gender isn’t the only issue that Russia, a key player in Eastern Europe, has raised. Along with China, it has questioned why the choice of a new secretary general has to be hurried. There were hopes among diplomats that a new secretary general could be selected before the fall, giving that person plenty of time for orientation. Gatilov said that the final Security Council choice, and approval by the General Assembly, could be delayed until at least October.

Assessing what he’s heard in the candidate hearings so far, Lykketoft said that certain themes have emerged in the questioning by diplomats: transparency in UN leadership, better management of the organization, the ability to communicate effectively, and the political skill and courage to ignore pressure by—and curtail the dominance of—powerful nations in appointments.

“It’s very obvious we need a secretary general who can be more independent and, of course, a skilled politician,” Lykketoft said. “We need a person with good communications skills, because the new game is that we communicate not only with governments; we communicate on the global stage. The secretary general should try to call upon the global audience, [which] can put pressure on more regional and global powers to behave—to live up to their commitments as members of the United Nations.”

Listening to the questions directed at the candidates, Lykketoft also noted that “what many countries are afraid of is that cooperation with the private sector”—especially “where big money is coming in”—risks having powerful business interests “taking over decisions or having too big an influence.” But he believes that this inevitable trend can be managed to the advantage of developing nations.

“The Sustainable Development Goals and climate agreement will only be reached in partnership with the private sector,” Lykketoft said. “If we will have any chance whatsoever to fulfill our own expectations, we will have to create partnerships [with] more commitments from the business community and the capital institutions. But also governments will have to create the frameworks of incentives [and] regulations that make it obvious for the private sector to do the right thing.”

Lykketoft is frank about issues on which some governments refuse to engage, citing cultural constraints or national sovereignty. The subject of LGBTQ rights is one of these. He said that during a recent UN conference on HIV/AIDS, from which some activists were barred because of objections by Arab and African governments and the Holy See, “We realized how deep a divide actually is there on how to deal with, in particular, gays, lesbians, and transgender people.” Lykketoft added that, coming from a part of the world where these disagreements are largely a thing of the past, he hoped that “the more transparent the world is, the quicker those changes will take place anyway.”