In June 2016 I wrote up my reflections on the then state of the race to become the ninth UN Secretary General, having attending a civic society hustings with three of the candidates in London. 

Fast forward to October 6th 2016, and following a series of straw polls the Security Council voted by acclamation to recommend António Guterres as their choice to the General Assembly in Security Council Resolution 2311. On 13 October 2016, the seventy-first session of the United Nations General Assembly ratified the Security Council’s choice by acclamation, formally appointing Guterres as the next Secretary-General for a five-year term beginning on 1 January 2017.

Such are the vagaries of  academia (polite way of saying I submitted it to some blogs who passed) I put it aside and have only just gotten round to sharing it just now…

My piece discusses the SG’s unique role, the appointment process and includes at the very end some recent links to report cards of Guterres’s performance in office to date.

London the latest leg of race for UNSG

On June 3rd in London a public meeting was held with three of the eleven declared candidates to succeed Ban Ki Moon as the next and ninth United Nations Secretary General. This was only the second time such a public event has been held (see here for details of the earlier April 14th event in New York), and its organisation owes much to the combined efforts of the current President of the UN General Assembly Moggens Lykketoft, the 1 for 7billion campaign and various NGOs such as UNA-UK and FUNDS who have all campaigned for a more transparent and inclusive appointment process. By arriving not just on time but early, I was able to secure a seat in the front row, meanwhile some 35,000 people had submitted questions online. So what is at stake and why are so many so interested?

Trygve Lie (Secretary General 1946-1952) famously called it “the most impossible job in the world”. Of his successor – Dag Hammarskjold (SG 1953-1961) – no less a personage than JFK reflected I realise now that in comparison to him, I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century” Kofi Annan (1997-2006) remarked that “SG” stood for “scape goat” rather than Secretary General, a joke Ban Ki Moon himself told me (and two thousand others) when he spoke in London earlier this year at UNA-UK’s impressive UN@70 anniversary event. Elsewhere Simon Chesterman has elegantly surmised that there is a fundamental tension as to whether the office holder is more “secretary” than “general”, that is an administrator of policy or global leader who will make policy by giving rather than simply taking orders. Whereas other political offices are perhaps up to the holder what they choose to make of them, the role of UN Secretary General is almost uniquely circumscribed as the recent dispute between Ban Ki Moon and Saudi Arabia illustrates.

Whilst the UN Charter is concise when it comes to the appointment process, role and powers of the Secretary General, the (harsh) realities, (ingrained) traditions and (competing) expectations of international society are such that one could be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want the job. Yet there are currently eleven officially declared candidates and several more names in the mix. Therefore it follows that at least eleven people think the job of Secretary General does indeed matter and judging by the tug of war (or should that be “peace”?) within the UN membership over the appointment process they are not alone. To be blunt here, if the role didn’t matter then the P5 (permanent five members of the Security Council – China, France, Russia, UK, USA) wouldn’t care so much about who gets the job. What influence have they been able to bring to bear on the appointment process in the past?

Current practice (stemming from Article 97 of the UN Charter and subsequent Resolutions) has been for the 15 strong Security Council to recommend one name to the 193 member General Assembly, and that name has emerged from a series of straw polls conducted in closed meetings with the P5 exercising their veto. Historically therefore the race has been run behind closed doors with few openly declared candidates, seemingly being won by the candidate least likely to offend the Great Powers rather than the one best placed to stand up to them on behalf of the UN’s 188 other member states or wider membership – that is “we the peoples”.

The opaque nature of such practice – often compared unfavourably to a Papal Conclave – has seen the P5 free to frame their choice of candidate in terms of their national rather than the global common interest, “discouraging” or “vetoing candidates as they see fit. Such politics continue once the SG is in office, where as history shows, the USSR tried to sack holder (Dag Hammarskjold in 1960) and replace the office completely, whilst the USA successfully vetoed the reappointment of another (Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1996). Furthermore unwritten convention would have it that SG9 should come from Eastern Europe (due to geographic rotation) not be a national of the P5 (although they divvy up other key posts) and come from one of the UN’s smaller members states. Previous SGs coming from Norway, Sweden, Burma, Austria, Peru, Egypt, Ghana and South Korea.

June’s public meeting held in London was the latest part of a push for “inclusivity” and “transparency” from global civil society and concerned UN member states. They had earlier achieved a significant victory with the September 2015 adoption of General Assembly Resolution 69/321 outlining the appointment process. Subsequently a letter soliciting candidates was addressed openly to all member states on December 15th, an important implication of this being that candidates must have the support of their member state and cannot otherwise self-refer.  A commitment was made to keep an updated list of declared candidates and their CVs in the public domain (see here), with the first candidate to declare being Srgian Kerim (Macedonia) on December 30th. It was stressed that attention be paid to “gender and geographical balance” (in that order) and decided;

“Without prejudice to the role of the principal organs as enshrined in Article 97 of the Charter, to conduct informal dialogues or meetings with candidates for the position of Secretary-General, without any prejudice to any candidate who does not participate, thus contributing to the transparency and inclusivity of the process”.

There are two observations to make at this point. You may well be wondering how on earth the steps just outlined mark an innovation when all they amount to are publicly advertising the post, and requiring candidates to provide CVs and submit themselves to interview. Secondly and more damning may well be your observation that nothing essential has changed. General Assembly resolutions are in any case non-binding, and A/RES/69/321 above makes clear that Article 97 of the Charter remains in force. Meaning it is still for the Security Council to make a recommendation to the General Assembly and the Council is not obliged to change its previous practice in light of the announced process or the push for “transparency” and “inclusivity”. Instead these are but “contributions” which do not even prejudice against any candidate who has not participated.

Seemingly therefore the new process does not change who makes the appointment, nor necessarily the calculus underlying their decision. Nor does it limit those eligible to only those who have publicly declared. That said, it is difficult to envision a set of circumstances where the Council do not reflect on the candidates public performances and platforms and thus whether they will hold the confidence of the bulk of the membership. Likewise one can scarcely imagine the appointment of a candidate who opted not to undergo the public scrutiny of their peers. Bearing all this in mind, what is the state of the race and how did it all play out in London, June 3rd?

Presently eight of the eleven declared candidates are indeed from Eastern Europe, but the key selection criteria being discussed this year is gender – SGs 1 through 8 have all been male. It was a little disappointing therefore that in London we were treated only to three of the male candidates, H.E. António Guterres, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees and former Prime Minister, (Portugal) H.E. Vuk Jeremić, Former President of the UN General Assembly and former Foreign Minister, (Serbia) and H.E. Dr. Igor Lukšić, Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration (Montenegro).

This gender framing of the race was raised in the Q&A with the question “are you a feminist?” (all responded yes) and picked up on again in unfavourable audience reaction when one candidate spoke of having “a couple of guys in mind” for a key new post. One suspects the rest of the field are reserving their time for canvassing more influential constituencies in what is after all an intergovernmental selection rather than democratic election process. Video and a rundown of who said what can be found elsewhere. Whilst there were no outright surprises – peacekeeper sexual abuse, treatment of UN whistle blowers, feminism, human rights advocacy, the nightmare in Syria and both squaring and squaring up to the Great Powers all came up – there were a some rather telling moments.

For the most part of the hour long event in their interactions with one another and references to the incumbent, all three candidates were diplomatic, absent of any outright disagreements. Notable however was Vuk Jeremić, whose politicking (he deliberately and continually referenced his candidacy) climaxed with him directly admonishing Igor Lukšić’s suggestion for budget reform speaking as “the only guy here who has chaired” the General Assembly’s budget committee. By his own account Vuk has a 53 point manifesto and a very busy first day in office planned, something which raised a few eyebrows on social media and groans in the room the more he mentioned it. Overall here’s my own reflections on how all three came across.

António Guterres

A quietly confident diplomat who openly reflected on rather than simply trotting out his extensive first-hand experience at UNHCR as well as what he saw as the fundamentals of the Sec Gen role. António portrayed that role as one of a “convenor” or “catalyst” rather than “lever” whose focus should be on marshalling states big and small in favour of their common interest in maintaining international peace and security through the prevention of armed conflict. The nuance here was in his observations that the UN can bring together those who can bring their influence to bear on situations – tacitly admitting the UN itself often lacks this influence itself – and that prevention was broader than diplomacy alone.

Vuk Jeremić

A politician supremely confident in his own proposals (e.g. increasing OHCHR budget by 50%, convening a monthly meeting of a taskforce on genocide and mass atrocities prevention) and his ability to enact them. Vuk emphasised his specific plans and his will to achieve them. He explicitly addressed Chesterman’s tension when he argued the next Secretary General should not just be a Chief Administrator who does what the P5 instruct but rather should be a political operator “with a spine”. A seemingly implicit rebuke of the incumbent.  Staking out a detailed platform in advance – remember his has 53 points – would he argued, give the next Secretary General a mandate to overcome political opposition, vested interests or bureaucratic inertia. Where the others variously reflected on the office and its possibilities, it’s fair to say Vuk was the one who campaigned for the office most openly.

Igor Lukšić

In contrast to the clarity of Guterres’s deliberate reflections and the campaigning combined with proposals of Jeremic, Lukšić came across variously as a talented technocrat and optimistic idealist – quite the combination. Ultimately he had a lot to say and a command of his stats, but was lacking in clarity or sound bites. Whilst the latter is no bad thing, the former stood out in comparison to the other two, although in a sense this came across as someone comfortable with sharing their thinking on the issues rather than just pivoting to specific positions. Two points of note were his identification of under-development, pandemics and the challenges of globalisation as the biggest threat in the next ten years and his suggestions for UN budget reform, the latter being a perfect example of the kind of unglamorous institutional reform that would have far reaching consequences if executed successfully.

Will one of these three men be the next holder of “the most impossible job on earth”? The short answer is that we’ll have to wait and see. Commentators seem to agree that whilst the convention on geographic rotation (i.e. that it’s Eastern Europe’s turn) has probably been breached. Touted front runners such as Helen Clark and António Guterres originating from New Zealand and Portugal respectively. It also seems that the push for a female appointment is still strong.  Attention has shifted back to New York where further public informal dialogues with diplomats may well be held as other candidacy declarations emerge before the action shifts from the public deliberations thus far to those of the Security Council at the end of July. As for the timing of the final decision, it is expected between one to three months before the expiration of the incumbent’s term, therefore between September and November at the latest.

Whilst expectations remain high that the Council will select a woman from the list of publicly declared and vetted candidates, there is little to no expectation that they will go further in recommending two names to the General Assembly (thus giving them the choice), proposing a single lengthened term of office (thus freeing SG9 from the shadow of reappointment) or polling the General Assembly let alone global civic society. For whilst the UN Secretary General surely belongs to us all, the appointment itself still belongs by and large to the P5 members of the Security Council.

What happened next?

PassBlue, February 2017 on his first month in the job 

ECFR, July 2017 commentary on how its lonely at the top for the UN Chief

PassBlue, September 2017 assess his reform agenda

devex, January 2018 report on the International Center for Research on Women’s C+ Report Card rating

PassBlue, January 2018 look back on his first year with the Trump Administration

Diplomatic Academy on Vienna , March 2018 with a year in review