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The Secretary-General Sweepstakes

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: Oct. 3, 2006

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Kofi Annan concludes ten years as UN secretary-general in December, a period during which he was both feted as Nobel laureate and vilified for his role in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal. His experience should give pause to anyone looking to step into his well-worn shoes (CSMonitor). But competition for the top UN post has been lively this year, featuring seven formal candidates and unprecedented amounts of public campaigning (AP), according to UN watchers.

Following tradition, the UN Security Council this year has held a series of straw votes, in which Ban Ki-Moon, South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs and trade, has emerged as the clear favorite. Ban was the overwhelming choice (LAT) in the last such vote on Monday. There will be a formal Council vote next week, followed by a UN General Assembly ballot. But there are signs the General Assembly won’t serve as the rubber stamp it has in previous such votes. For one, some rivals are complaining Ban exploited his position (WashPost) as Seoul’s top diplomat in securing trade deals with UN members, a charge he dismisses. And the scorn expressed by leaders in the developing world at the opening of this year’s General Assembly was addressed as much at the UN Security Council as at Washington. The debate, which is expected to culminate in October, will shed new light on a position that has usually derived more power from its bully pulpit than invested in it by the UN Charter.

It is understood the Bush administration supports Ban, in part, says the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland, to smooth relations with a key Asian ally. Ban also comes closer than the other lead candidate, India’s Shashi Tharoor, to fulfilling Washington’s wishes for a skillful functionary, more a secretary than a general, according to the Economist. A paper from the conservative Heritage Foundation says the secretary-general is meant to be the UN’s chief administrative officer and not “a diplomat for all seasons.” A recent U.S. Task Force on the United Nations says it makes more sense for UN daily operations to be run by a chief operations officer, “directly assisting the secretary-general in carrying out sound management and oversight” but such a post is not yet in place. Annan himself has handed over such duties to his deputy secretary-general. Overall, he has had mixed success in pushing for sweeping reforms, especially in areas such as procurement, where endemic problems plagued the oversight of the oil-for-food program, causing great embarrassment to the secretary-general. Annan referred to 2004, when the scandal broke, as an “annus horribilis” that cast a long shadow over the United Nations.

Ban has so far sounded the right notes, stressing oversight and procurement reforms, greater accountability, and transparency in the organization. But one of his biggest challenges may come from a body with great sway over the UN Secretariat and which has so far resisted calls for reform—the UN Security Council. This Online Debate between CFR’s Lee Feinstein and the American Enterprise Institute’s Joshua Muravchik measures the Council’s effectiveness and legitimacy.

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