28 April 2016

A new process for selecting the UN Secretary General

The new selection procedure for the UN Secretary General shows that, after all, reforms of the United Nations are possible. In a series of guest articles, representatives from politics, science and civil society answer to the question: If you could change one thing about the functioning of the UN, what would it be? Today: Stephen Browne. (To the start of the series.)

“Today, more than ever before, a strong and uniquely qualified person is required to lead the UN.
Sometime after the middle of this year, the next United Nations Secretary-General (SG) will be elected to take over from Ban Ki-moon in January 2017. Why is the choice of the ninth SG so important?

The SG is the world’s most senior diplomat and the UN’s “chief administrative officer”, according to Article 97 of the Charter. The only function of the SG described by the Charter is “to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his (sic) opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security” (Article 99). There is no other job description. However, the qualities of the incumbent have never been more critical, both for the United Nations itself, but also for wider concerns of global governance. You only have to think through the responsibilities of the SG.

Vision and guidance are required

In working with the Security Council, an SG does not merely make proposals, but can persuade and cajole reluctant governments into taking decisions. Those decisions have to be interpreted and implemented. They must be monitored and reported on.

In addition to its responsibilities for peace and security, the UN oversees human rights and justice, organizes humanitarian relief on an ever-expanding scale, and includes more than 30 major development organizations undertaking tens of thousands of projects. The SG cannot oversee all the actions of the diverse and dispersed UN system, but is responsible for making many of the appointments of those who do. Twice a year, the SG chairs meetings (the Chief Executive Board) comprising all his senior appointees and the heads of the more independent specialised agencies. Those meetings require the chair’s vision and guidance.

The SG is the chief communicator of the values and norms of the UN, and the immediate head of a New York secretariat of several thousand staff of every nationality, and therefore a daily manager of people and administrative systems.

Growing challenges

Across this huge range of responsibilities, the challenges to the UN today are growing. Some of the world’s major conflagrations remain unresolved. Human rights and the status of women are still widely abused. The UN struggles to keep up with repeated humanitarian disasters. And its development activities across social, economic and environmental domains are increasingly marginalised, dispersed and duplicative. In repeated global public surveys conducted by the FutureUN (FUNDS) project, many parts of the UN are considered of low relevance and effectiveness. Its management systems were described in March in the New York Times by a former Assistant Secretary-General as “maddeningly complex incapable of delivering the intended result.”

The UN is an organisation governed by sovereign countries, of which the secretariats are the agents. Cumbersome collective governance does not facilitate nimble actions, nor does it favour radical reform. However, as has been demonstrated over 70 years of UN existence, there have been times and opportunities for beneficial change, orchestrated by reform-minded and visionary UN heads. A new opportunity is approaching with the appointment of the next SG who will have an early “honeymoon” period in 2017 to take action and promulgate changes to address the huge challenges facing the UN.

The most important immediate reform concerns the SG selection

Whether the next incumbent seizes this opportunity will depend crucially on that person’s qualities. The most important immediate reform required, therefore, concerns the process of selecting the next SG, a responsibility of the Security Council.

Hitherto, the task has been effectively driven by the five permanent members, which can wield their veto against any candidate they do not favour. The process risks the selection of the weakest, and most pliable, rather than the strongest candidate. Today, more than ever before, a strong and uniquely qualified person is required to lead the UN if it is not to continue falling short.

An open and more transparent process

This time around, there is more concern about an open and more transparent process. Traditionally, there has been a regional rotation of candidates, with the turn now falling to Eastern Europe. But in a joint letter in December 2015 from the presidents of the Security Council and the General Assembly, governments from all regions are invited to make nominations.

Hitherto, the Security Council has only proposed a single candidate to the General Assembly, which has always acquiesced. This time, the General Assembly has invited all nominated candidates to hearings so that their views can be heard and their experience and vision examined. There will also be several civil society hearings organised, including by the FutureUN project in New York and London. The curricula vitae of nominated candidates are being published online for public scrutiny. After eight male SG’s, female candidates are actively solicited.

A new spirit of boldness and originality

These are important and welcome changes, but it remains to be seen whether they will be enough to guarantee a strictly meritocratic process leading to the selection of a high-calibre SG. That will also require a new spirit of boldness and originality among all governments in nominating candidates, and among the Permanent Five in influencing the selection.

In a recent FutureUN survey of experts and UN-watchers, respondents were asked to name their preferred candidate. The name most frequently mentioned was Angela Merkel.

Stephen Browne is Fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York and Director of the “Future of the United Nations Development System” project.

Pictures: UN Photo/Marco Castro [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr; Stephen Browne.

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