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.