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Decision Time at the UN

As the organisation prepares to select a new Secretary-General, CEO of the Brazzaville Foundation Sir David Richmond asks whether this is the turning point or status quo.

The world has been watching with fascination or foreboding the extraordinary presidential campaign in the US and the acrimonious EU referendum in the UK. Meanwhile the choice of the world’s top diplomat – a voice for 193 nations and a face for seven billion – has made little impact on the general public despite strenuous efforts by the UN and others to lift the veil of secrecy that traditionally surrounds the process. This is unfortunate because now more than ever a strong and effective Secretary-General is needed to reinvigorate the fortunes of the UN and multilateral diplomacy.

In the 71 years since it was formed, the UN has been at the heart of multilateral diplomacy. As a result, and despite its successes, it has frequently been made a scapegoat for failures to resolve conflicts and prevent humanitarian disasters. Yet it is important to remember that the effectiveness of the UN system largely depends on its member states. This is especially true when it comes to preventing or resolving conflict. The key decision-making powers lie with the Security Council, and specifically the P5, whose interests and rivalries have often delayed and sometimes frustrated the UN’s ability to act.

All this means that the UN Secretary-General holds what is quite possibly the world’s toughest job. So much is expected yet crucial decisions are being made, or not made, by others. Nevertheless, despite the limitations on his or her powers, history shows that the Secretary-General can make a real difference and play a vital role whether bringing parties in conflict to the negotiating table or galvanising the international community to face up to a new threat.

At the end of this year the UN will have a new Secretary-General. Unfortunately the mechanism for choosing a Secretary-General encapsulates the UN’s own version of catch-22. On one hand, no Secretary General can hope to be effective if he or she (and so far it has always been he) does not have the confidence of the P5. On the other, the appointment of a Secretary-General acceptable to the P5, each of whom wields a veto, often means finding a candidate that no member of the P5 thinks will rock the boat or damage their interests, rather than choosing someone with the ability and courage to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

Lack of transparency has also been an issue. Up until now, individuals interested in joining the race for the post of the world’s top diplomat have had only a limited constituency to win over. Members of the Security Council consider the candidates and then recommend one of them to the General Assembly, whose vote amounts to a rubber stamp. The decisions that matter are made by the Security Council behind closed doors.

Now, for the first time, steps have been taken to shed some daylight on the process. Candidates have been asked to engage in debate and open themselves to public scrutiny. The UN General Assembly has held public sessions in New York in April and June at which the declared candidates were given an opportunity to set out their stalls and answer questions including some submitted by members of the public. These were supplemented by special candidates’ debates organised in New York and London.

Welcome though this is, there is still a long way to go. These debates have been reported in some newspapers and websites but it would be hard to claim that they have generated widespread interest. And from July, the traditional P5 deliberations will resume in private.

Encouraging more public debate is a step forward, but other unwritten rules also need to be challenged. Among these is the convention that the Secretary-General is chosen from one of the UN’s regional groupings in strict rotation. The East Europeans (who point out that there has never been a Secretary-General from their region) argue that it is their turn. Most of the 11 declared candidates are from Eastern Europe, but others come from New Zealand, Argentina and Portugal. Given the importance of the job, regional rotation is a consideration but should not be determinant. The competition must be open to the best candidates wherever they come from.

Nor should this any longer be an exclusively male club. There is growing pressure from inside and outside the UN system for a woman to be chosen to succeed Ban Ki-moon. Ultimately, selecting the best candidate for the job, regardless of gender, has to be the goal but, happily, some strong female candidates have put themselves forward this time and others may emerge before the process concludes.

The UN is unlikely to see any diminution in the threats it must tackle or any great expansion in the resources available to it. So what qualities should we be looking for in the new Secretary-General?

Most obviously the job requires leadership and political skills of the highest order. This is the reason the post has tended to go to senior political and government figures, although I was involved in the discussions which led to the appointment of Kofi Annan as Secretary-General, the first time the job had gone to a UN insider rather than a seasoned politician. There is no doubt that his knowledge of how the UN system worked and his experience in dealing with the P5 served him well. But whatever their background, the successful candidate will require a daunting range of attributes.

The new Secretary-General must be able not just to manage the sometimes dysfunctional UN bureaucracy in New York, but also have the courage and vision to undertake overdue reform. Equally important and perhaps even harder is the need to find ways to make the many different UN agencies, most of which are largely independent fiefdoms, work together more closely.

He or she will need the decisiveness to plot a course of action and the patience to build up the coalitions and the support on which success depends. The Syrian crisis has been a graphic reminder that P5 agreement remains an essential, although not always sufficient, condition for the success of any UN mediation. The new Secretary-General should be able to work with and, where necessary, apply discreet pressure to the P5 to secure the necessary mandate to operate effectively.

Above all, the new Secretary-General needs to recognise that the world that gave birth to the UN has changed and that the UN needs to change with it. The UN was originally formed to tackle the conflicts between countries, but it finds itself dealing more and more with internal conflicts and the threats from non-state actors such as ISIS. Libya, Syria and Yemen have all demonstrated how difficult it is for the UN to perform its traditional mediating role. At the same time new global threats such as climate change, mass migration and the spread of viruses like Zika and Ebola require solutions that cut across traditional state borders. New definitions, tools and techniques are needed.

The UN remains the one organisation that has the potential to deliver such solutions. In order to do so the new Secretary-General must work closely with the member states and coordinate more effectively the UN’s various organisations and agencies. But he or she should also recognise and welcome the fact that an increasingly active and vocal civil society is now a key player in its own right. How to channel and harness the support of civil society around the globe is a new and vital task for the Secretary-General.

For all its faults, the recent successes of the Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change have shown that the UN remains not just relevant but indispensable. The demands of the twenty-first century will require more not less multilateral diplomacy, and the UN has to play the leading role. But to do so successfully, the UN needs to change and adapt. No Secretary-General can hope to meet everyone’s expectations or to transform the UN overnight. But the crucial first step is to choose a Secretary-General who understands how much is at stake and can give the organisation the strong and courageous leadership it needs.


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