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The World’s Top Diplomat

ban ki-moonVenetia van Kuffeler observes proceedings in the run-up to appointing Ban Ki-moon’s successor

Who will be the next Secretary-General of the United Nations? That is a question that will be asked with increasing frequency as Ban Ki-moon prepares to leave office at the end of next year after two terms as the world’s top diplomat. The process of choosing a successor has not formally begun, but there is already plenty of debate and speculation about the selection criteria that should be used and the identity of the likely candidates.

 According to the UN Charter, the Secretary-General is the organisation’s ‘chief administrative officer,’ controlling the Secretariat with an international staff of more than 43,000 and presiding over the UN’s principal organs, including the Security Council and the General Assembly.

 In fulfilling this unique task, the Preparatory Commission that set up the UN said more about the sort of person required to fill it. They should “embody the principles and ideals of the Charter” and “stand for the UN as a whole.” They must act as “a mediator and informal adviser of many governments.” Fulfilling these tasks would demand “the highest qualities of political judgement, tact and integrity.”

 The process of selection has changed somewhat over time. In the early days a name would emerge as a result of discreet consultations within the Security Council. When Dag Hammarskjöld was appointed in 1953, he didn’t even know he was a candidate until he was offered the job. By the time Kurt Waldheim was chosen 18 years later, candidates and their supporters were actively campaigning for the job. Decolonisation and the addition of new UN members created pressure for the appointment of candidates from the developing world.

 Two things have not changed. The Security Council remains the key decision-making body, forwarding a single name for the General Assembly to endorse. And within the Security Council, the five permanent members still wield greatest influence, at least in the negative sense of being able to veto any nominee of whom they disapprove.

 There has also been a remarkable consistency in the profile of successful candidates. Of the eight Secretaries-General appointed to date, two had been foreign ministers, four had served at the UN as diplomats or officials, and the remaining two could claim both. The permanent members in particular do not want someone with a global political profile who might use it to usurp their authority. They want a skilled professional diplomat, preferably with a working knowledge of the UN system, capable of managing its machinery effectively and mediating between them in the event of a crisis.

 Two further considerations are expected to influence the choice of Ban Ki-moon’s successor. These are stipulations laid down by the General Assembly that ‘due regard’ should be given to rotation between the UN’s five regional groups, and to gender equality. Although the principle of regional rotation is non-binding, appointments made since the 1980s suggest that it is generally accepted. As the only region not to have had a Secretary-General to date, the strongest claim currently lies with Eastern Europe, a group of countries roughly corresponding to the old Soviet bloc. The case for the UN to appoint its first woman head is also being pressed with increasing force and has been endorsed by Ban Ki-moon himself. After 70 years as an exclusive gentlemen’s club, it will be a tough call to resist.

 Almost all of the leading potential candidates mentioned so far are therefore either women or from Eastern Europe. Irina Bokova, current head of UNESCO, former Foreign Minister of Bulgaria and former Ambassador in Paris, is believed to be the front-runner. She enjoys a good relationship with Washington DC, Moscow and Beijing, and Paris has just awarded her the distinction of ‘Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur.’ Another contender is Vesna Pusić, the well-respected Croatian First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs. Dalia Grybauskaite, the President of Lithuania, and Kristalina Georgieva, the Vice-President of the European Commission, are two other women from Eastern Europe who are sometimes mentioned, but it is hard to conceive how either candidate would be able to avoid a Russian veto.

Several male hopefuls from Eastern Europe are waiting in case the campaign for a woman Secretary-General falters. These include Vuk Jeremic, the Serbian Foreign Minister and former President of the UN General Assembly, and Miroslav Lajcak, the Slovak Foreign Minister and former High Representative for Bosnia. Danilo Turk, the former President of Slovenia, who was also a UN Assistant Secretary-General under Kofi Annan, is also talked about.

Women candidates from other regions may get their chance if there is no agreement on someone from Eastern Europe. The most prominent are Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand now running the UN Development Programme, and Michelle Bachelet, the current President of Chile who previously headed up UN Women. Although both have strong UN credentials, their political seniority would be a break with precedent. One to watch might be Maria Angela Holguin from Colombia. As the Foreign Minister of a mid-ranking power with experience as a Permanent Representative to the UN, she fits the typical profile of a Secretary-General.

 This is just the beginning of the campaign and the only certainty so far is that all Ambassadors worldwide will be actively following this election for the world’s top diplomat.


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