from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Let the Sunshine in: Increasing Transparency in UN Elections

A United Nations flag flies on a mast at their European headquarters in Geneva. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

June 6, 2016

A United Nations flag flies on a mast at their European headquarters in Geneva. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
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The following is a guest post by Megan Roberts, associate director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, or so the saying goes. While New York and Washington, DC, have been drenched with rain over the past month, the sun is beginning to shine again in both cities. Light is also beginning to shine inside the United Nations, at least when it comes to high-level appointments.  For the first time, the next UN secretary-general (SG), director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), and nonpermanent members of the Security Council will all be selected through more transparent procedures.

Though still a far cry from free and fair elections, these reforms are a historic departure from the traditional secrecy and horse-trading that reigns at the United Nations. And the resulting choices will matter. Elected members help shape the Security Council’s work. The director general of the WHO must lead the organization in responding to fast-moving health crises that do not stop at national borders. And the next UN secretary-general will confront a daunting agenda, including the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, growing demands for UN peacekeepers, and resurgent geopolitical competition among the great powers.

The Races

UN Secretary-General

The current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, will leave office at the end of 2016. Traditionally, the SG selection has been a closed door affair negotiated by the Security Council’s permanent members (P5) and rubber-stamped by the UN General Assembly. Thanks to pressure from civil society groups and activist UN member states, Ban’s successor is being chosen in a markedly more open process. In April, a packed General Assembly hosted the first-ever public interviews with the (then) nine candidates, each of whom faced two hours of questioning from member states after submitting a CV and written statement.

Rather than the stale affair many had anticipated, the interviews turned out to be surprisingly heavy on substance and did not shy away from difficult topics including sovereignty, civil rights, UN reform, and abuses perpetrated by UN peacekeepers. The second round of debates, which begin Tuesday, will allow two new entrants in the race to impress member states. The candidate to watch will be Susana Malcorra, Argentinian minister of foreign affairs who formerly served as Ban Ki-Moon’s chief of staff.

WHO Director General

In late April, the WHO initiated its own process to succeed Margaret Chan, whose term as director general ends in June 2017. Chan’s successor will have his or her hands full in restoring the credibility that WHO lost following its belated response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak. The agency has struggled to raise funds to combat the Zika virus, and it faces complex reform challenges. Unlike Chan and her predecessors, who were selected by the WHO’s thirty-four-member executive board, with frequent allegations of corruption, the next director general will be elected through a secret ballot of all WHO member states. Candidates will be required to present a written statement, as well as field questions from WHO member states in a forum this autumn. Candidates must also adhere to a code of conduct (PDF) during the campaign period. Already, hopefuls from Ethiopia, France, and Pakistan have thrown their hats in the ring, with more expected before the list closes in September.

Nonpermanent Security Council members

The beam of light is even illuminating the Security Council, where last week for the first time countries competing for five nonpermanent seats submitted to questions from member states and civil society. The open hearings, held in advance of the June 28 elections in the General Assembly, covered a wide range of topics, including Security Council reform, climate change, and peacekeeping. They were also a major departure from the traditional campaign. This typically starts with private negotiations within regional groupings that determine which states will run, and frequently results in clean slate tickets. And when competitive races actually take place, campaigning often occurs behind closed doors, with countries seeking commitments from other member states, sometimes years in advance. Under this business as usual scenario, quids pro quo are common; candidates may offer support to countries in other UN elections, development assistance, or commitments to highlight (or steer clear of) certain issues while holding a Security Council seat. This year, three of the five elections are genuinely competitive:  Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden are competing for two seats in the Western Europe and Other group and Kazakhstan and Thailand are competing for one Asia-Pacific seat. (Ethiopia and Bolivia are running uncontested for the Africa and Latin America seats respectively.)

What these Reforms Mean for the Campaign and Tenure of Candidates

Critics have dismissed these changes as mere window dressing. After all, the elections remain exclusive affairs in practice: the P5 will still exercise undue influence on the choice of the next SG, behind-the-scenes negotiations within regional groups will still influence the election of nonpermanent UNSC seats, and major donors will likely still have an outsized role in determining the next director general of the WHO.

Nevertheless, the new transparency processes are having a real impact, rewarding candidates with particular skill sets. Consider the SG race. Going into the first round of hearings, the smart money was on Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, who possessed a unique combination of traits: As head of the UN Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), she has a deep understanding of the United Nations. She also hails from Eastern Europe, the only region that has not yet held the post, and is a woman at a time that support is building to choose the first female secretary-general. However, many found her interview performance disappointing, especially when compared to candidates who came across as more personable, particularly Antonio Guterres of Portugal and Helen Clark of New Zealand. Indeed, had he competed this year rather than in 2006, it’s unlikely that Ban Ki-Moon, described as among the dullest and least eloquent of past secretaries-general, would have outshone his competitors.

The more open process may also have positive implications for the subsequent tenure of the successful candidate. More formal campaigns require candidates to make clear statements about their priorities and to articulate positions on more difficult issues. Even if a select group of member states continues to wield an undue influence in the ultimate selection, civil society groups and the public at large can help hold the victors accountable for their campaign pledges.

The Reforms Come with Added Risk

These tentative efforts at transparency also carry dangers, however. Like partial democratic openings at the national level, they risk giving the surface appearance of change while allowing business as usual to continue in the shadows.  Corruption is a particular concern. With more member states involved in elections, candidates will seek to curry favor, sometimes through quiet promises of cushy appointments or whispered pledges of support. In an effort to discourage such behavior, the WHO’s own code of conduct calls on member states and candidates to avoid “improperly influencing” the elections. However, as Laurie Garrett notes, in this election cycle candidates for WHO director general will need to garner support from 194 member states during a five-month campaign period—a situation ripe for bribes or other forms of corruption. Secret ballots in all three races also complicate identifying corruption after the fact.

Finally, all three elections are not subject to any campaign finance rules, implying that states and candidates with significant election coffers will have an advantage in nudging out less financially wealthy competitors. Anticipating competition from Romania, Estonia is already setting aside funds for its campaign for a nonpermanent Security Council seat in 2020.

Despite these risks, recent efforts to increase transparency in the selection of leaders of multilateral institutions are to be welcomed. They should be treated like the dawn—the promise of greater light to come.

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