from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Other Election to Watch in 2016: Selecting the Next UN Secretary-General

December 17, 2015

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the sixty-fifth session of the UNHCR's Executive Committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on October 1, 2014.
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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.

As the scrum of U.S. presidential candidates clamors for attention, another important election kicked off on Tuesday: the selection of the next secretary-general (SG) of the United Nations. As Ban Ki-Moon prepares to step down at the end of 2016, after two five-year terms UN watchers have been speculating for months about his successor—and the process by which he (or she) will be elected. After eight male secretaries-general, pressure is mounting for a woman to take the helm in Turtle Bay. Many expect Ban’s replacement to hail from Eastern Europe, the only region that has not filled the post. Whoever succeeds Ban will confront a daunting global humanitarian crisis, resurgent great power politics, and unprecedented strains on UN peacekeeping. She or he will need to sustain global momentum behind the Paris climate agreement and the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals, while deftly responding to fast moving crises throughout the world.

Firing the starter’s pistol for the SG race, this week the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council jointly released a letter inviting member states to nominate candidates. Traditionally, the selection of an SG has been a closed-door affair negotiated among the great powers. The process is likely to differ markedly this year, given growing attention from civil society, increased interest among UN member states, and changes in the process for selecting heads of other international institutions since Ban himself was chosen in 2006.

The UN Charter gives scant guidance on how the secretary-general should be selected, stating only “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Since 1946, the Security Council has closed ranks during each election, offering the General Assembly only a single candidate to confirm. The process whereby the Security Council selects this individual has been shrouded in secrecy, with Council members using informal straw polls to test out candidates without putting names to a vote. Often a candidate’s nationality has proven as important as his qualifications, with appointments following an informal, but not guaranteed, system of regional rotation. The entire arrangement limits the General Assembly (with 178 members not represented on the Council) to a rubber stamp role in the selection process, while excluding any input from civil society.

Pressure has been building for a more open and inclusive selection process. These demands have only grown as other major international institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have adopted tentative, if still controversial, steps to select their leaders in a more transparent and competitive manner. Within the UN system itself, a number of executive positions, including the International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization, have explicit criteria and timelines, and candidates are interviewed, all characteristics that the election of the UN secretary-general has lacked.

Complementing these official efforts, several prominent civil society campaigns, including 1 for 7 Billion and the Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General, are demanding greater transparency in SG elections. The Elders, composed of eminent retired statesmen and women chaired by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are also calling for a number of changes to make the procedure more inclusive. Within the wider UN membership, meanwhile, a cross-regional coalition called the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Group—which brings together countries as diverse as Ghana, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland—is focusing the General Assembly’s attention on the need for an improved process.

These disparate efforts have put pressure on the Security Council to yield some of its privileges to the broader UN membership. In September the General Assembly passed a resolution calling on the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council to kick off the SG selection process with a joint letter. The resolution noted that the General Assembly would meet with all SG candidates, and that gender and geographic criteria should be considered in the selection process. After much discussion within the Security Council, the jointly authored letter was released this week. Among other things, the letter refers to voluntary, informal meetings between candidates and the membership of the General Assembly. This joint letter, coming so early in the calendar, suggests that the selection of the next SG could be a less opaque and exclusive process in 2016.

Despite this apparent progress, a number of unanswered questions remain. The first relates to timelines. Civil society activists, as well as the ACT group, are requesting that countries adhere to a clear deadline for nominating SG candidates. In the past, late entrants have been brought to the fore to break deadlocks after multiple rounds of voting showed Council paralysis. In 1981, for instance, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar emerged at a late stage after it became clear that other candidates did not have the support of the permanent members of the Council. The lesson? “Wait your way through enough rounds of voting and the Security Council will take anyone who doesn’t seem out and out objectionable,” advises David Steven. While it might make for a winning campaign strategy, the General Assembly will have less time to review late entrants. The most obvious obstacle to this potential reform is Russia, which has so far resisted efforts to articulate a specific timeline for nominating candidates.

The second uncertainty is whether specific criteria for the position will be articulated. Though the secretary-general leads a global force of more than one hundred thousand peacekeepers and manages a multi-billion dollar annual budget, precise qualifications for the position have never been developed. The September General Assembly resolution was vague on this front, simply calling for candidates with “proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations, and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills.” The joint letter went no further in defining qualifications. Ideally, subsequent negotiations will be more specific as to the skills and experience required for the position.

A third unknown is whether the Security Council will finally agree to present more than one candidate for the General Assembly vote. The Elders have advocated for three names, while the1 for 7 Billion coalition argues for at least two candidates. Enabling the full UN membership to choose among multiple candidates would increase the perception of a competitive process. There could, of course, be downsides. Candidates (and their governments) would be tempted to curry favor with particular blocs of UN members. In the aftermath of a tightly contested race, moreover, the winning candidate could find it difficult to secure the support of those who had opposed him or her. For their part, the permanent members of the Security Council understandably seem inclined to keep the current, one-candidate arrangement. This would be unfortunate, however. For while a competitive election carries risks, it promises to increase the perceived legitimacy of the resulting choice.

The most likely scenario is that the 2016 selection of the next UN secretary-general will be the most open and transparent yet, while falling well short of the one-country-one-vote aspirations of most members of the General Assembly. Like many outcomes at the United Nations, it will be a messy amalgam of great power privilege and the illusion of inclusion. All this uncertainty hasn’t stopped more confident UN watchers from placing their bets on the eventual winner—at the time of writing, the odds favor Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian, who currently leads UNESCO.