Choosing the next UN Secretary-General: real change ahead?

For the first time in the UN’s history, the global public is having the chance to hear about the individual agendas and the visions of all the nominees for next UN Secretary-General.

Ourania S. Yancopoulos
30 May 2016

Secretary-General candidates at the informal dialogues at the UN, New York

Traditionally, the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) selection process has taken place almost completely behind closed doors – with only the members of the United Nations Security Council making the selection. In the past, a “campaign” for UNSG relied entirely on appealing to the Security Council’s Permanent Five (P5) members rather than to the Member States the Secretary-General is charged to represent and serve. It was less about competing on merit, having strong values and beliefs, or even a personality, and instead about “clearing” the P5 – and specifically the perpetually deadlocked “P2”. In short, the main qualification for the winning candidate was an ability to clear the discerning gaze of both the United States and Russia.

But this time around, things are different. For the first time the full list of UNSG candidates is known across the UN system and by the global public as well, renewing both interest in the United Nations and hope for its future work.

Last month, the world was introduced to the first round of UNSG candidates. At that time, nine hopefuls were looking to take over from the current UNSG, Ban Ki-moon, when his second of two terms ends this December. From April 12 - 14 these candidates participated in informal public discussions and dialogues at the United Nations’ New York Headquarters, answering questions in front of the organization’s 193 Member States, and with the general public asking questions through civil society members and social media.  A second round of informal dialogues with other new candidates will take place June 7th.

Consequences of the added transparency

In the past, candidates were told to keep a low profile and stay out of the public eye – and above all, to avoid both public criticism of the United Nations, and articulation of a new direction for its work. This year’s nominees however, are publicly setting agendas in ways never seen before. Looking back, The Guardian notes that the current Secretary-General would have never survived today’s process: “He was barely seen in public before his appointment and was not even allowed to enter the UN headquarters.”

The new openness contributes not only to a potentially surprising range of candidates, but also to the expression of individual agendas. Candidates have seized the opportunity of this global platform to communicate strong, sometimes controversial messages – refreshing in light of the longstanding tradition of UN officials not taking sides or expressing views.

Could it be that this Secretary-General selection process will serve as an opportunity to get a leader who actually stands for something?

Current media hype and coverage has largely focused on the process’s unprecedented transparency, as well as the race’s so called “frontrunners.” It has largely neglected - and even ignored - the specific visions of each candidate for the future of the United Nations.

The media is perhaps not entirely to blame. Lacking brevity, it perhaps seemed that all nine candidates were afraid to voice opinions, answer difficult questions, and commit to one, new way forward. However, having attended the three full days of interviews myself I can say that there are candidates – and largely not the “frontrunners” – who provide unique plans and concrete directions.

Many analyses claim the race has two “frontrunners”: Portugal’s Antonio Guterres, who served most recently as chief of the UN agency for refugees, UNHCR, and New Zealand’s Helen Clark, current head of the United Nations Development Program, UNDP. Both are insiders to the UN system and familiar with UN work. But in terms of creating a more representative, more accountable, and more effective United Nations, it will not be enough to pick a candidate who might run the UN in a “business as usual” style.

Signs of the UN’s failures abound, including sexual abuse by peacekeepers in Central Africa and the cholera outbreak in Haiti. On top of this, the credibility of UN work is being jeopardized by the organization’s inability to make good on resolutions regarding its own internal work, in particular equitable gender and geographic representation in its senior leadership. In the face of all this, the Secretary-General selection process is increasingly seen as an opportunity to pick a “fixer”: a strong leader who will set a new agenda and chart a new way forward.

The UN needs a leader who will commit to change.

The following four candidates not only stood for something new in their recent public dialogues with Member States, but also provided the most original visions for the future of the United Nations.

Irina Bokova – a common humanity through culture


Irina Bokova (Bulgaria) at the UN informal dialogues in New York

The vision of Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova, current Director-General of UNESCO, is simple: “I believe in a common humanity through culture and heritage.” She identified the “catalyzing role” of cultural diversity in promoting social inclusion and community building across nations. As Secretary-General, Bokova said she would use culture as a means to promote global community building, diversify the donor landscape, and elevate the role of soft power within UN work.

She said culture’s role “cannot be overlooked” in development: “New cultural industries are rising around the world. They create jobs…[They] are also a way for achieving more economic growth and inclusion.” She added that cultural industries are “one segment of the global economy we need to invest in.”

Bokova said she would also promote culture to implement the 2030 agenda: “I can’t imagine social development without respecting culture.” Bokova noted the role of culture in combatting terrorism and extremism specifically: “Growing forces want to convince us that we cannot live together. This is unacceptable to me…All we need today is new competence to live together and respect one another. The year 2015 is a turning point.”

Vesna Pusić – the UN is flawed


Vesna Pusic (Croatia) at the UN informal dialogues in New York

Having less direct UN experience than Bokova, Vesna Pusić – who most recently served as Croatia’s Foreign Minister – rocked the boat with frank observations about the UN’s shortcomings. In her written vision statement, Pusić called the UN “a flawed institution but also an essential one.” Pointed opinions like these distinguished her from her competitors.

Quoting Pusić’s vision statement that the UN is “flawed,” Saudi Arabia asked if this “adversarial attitude” would impede her ability to run the organization. Pusić responded, “I am 63 years old. I have never seen an organization or individual that is not flawed.” She added that her awareness and candid acknowledgement of the UN’s shortcomings make her a realist and uniquely qualified for the job.

Unlike her competitors, Pusić clearly supported LGBT rights. And when Saudi Arabia suggested that this was her “attempt to impose social values that are not internationally accepted,” Pusić said “bravely” that no culture is set in stone: “When certain values, let’s say regarding women…are treated as human rights, human rights become part of different cultures…Nobody can force their adoption, but bringing certain things to the forefront is no threat to anybody.”

Natalia Gherman – specificity requires partnerships


Natalia Gherman (Moldova) at a media stakeout following the UN informal dialogues in New York

Moldova’s Natalia Gherman committed to being “the General of the Secretariat and the Secretary of the Member States.” She elaborated, saying the Secretary-General must be a facilitator of unity: “She should be the point person and promote an organization of the UN that values innovation and remains open to reform.”

For Gherman, this reform requires synergy and interaction at all levels through partnerships: “The role of the UN is to avoid fragmentation, duplication, and work in a complementary fashion.” She emphasized the need for the UN to delegate tasks to more nimble and more specialized global partners from the private sector and civil society, as well as NGOs, Member States, and regional organizations.

She said the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires these partnerships: “Regional arrangements have the best local expertise.” For Gherman, these arrangements also have the best emergency and rapid response capabilities: “There is no time or space when civilians’ lives are under threat. It requires rapid response and deployment of highly qualified personnel.” Partnerships such as these, she said, will ensure “complete ownership of the agenda” and ensure that “nobody is left behind.”

Gherman added that “better communication” with partners would guarantee a supply of fresh ideas, impetus, and better understanding. She urged the UN to communicate honestly, not only about its progress and achievements, but on all negative elements as well. She called on the UN to reach out to the world’s citizens and explain its relevance and commitments: “If they understand, we gain – we have partnerships, and ownership, and the youth of the world – without that it will be very difficult to succeed.”

Vuk Jeramic – sport + youth = a new world order


Vuk Jeremic (Serbia) at the UN informal dialogues in New York

At 40 years old, Serbia’s Vuk Jeremic, is the youngest SG nominee. In his interview, Jeremic emphasized the role of youth involvement and sport in the creation of a new world order.

In an institution dominated by older men, Jeremic set out an argument that the world’s older population had not done a good job, despite numerous chances. Instead, he called on the “youth” - who make up 1.8 of the world’s 7 billion - to be more involved, to make international decision-making powerful, meaningful, and interesting.

To the United Nations he said, “If you believe in ‘business as usual,’ then I am not your guy…I am the candidate for change.” He insisted that the Secretary-General be a “person with spine” and said he intended to be a “hands on SG,” working with Member States and regional organizations.

Jeremic also said that sport has a key role in education and health. As the 67th President of the General Assembly, he pushed for close collaboration and special engagement with the International Olympic Committee: “I personally believe that sports reflect the pillars and values of the Organization…Sports have the power to change the world.”

The ‘woman card’

There is a strong push for a woman to be elected as the next Secretary-General, and the added transparency of the selection process further raises pressure to pick a woman. As many campaigns both inside and outside the organization have pointed out, of the UN’s eight Secretary-Generals, not one has been a woman. The UN, which has failed time and time again to make good on its promises for equitable gender representation among its senior staff, remains most woefully behind in this promise, in its most prominent leadership position.

But the hope for a new direction does not come simply from picking a woman. It is perhaps more important to view the race as not divided between women and men, but between people who want to change the United Nations, and those who want to continue with “business as usual.”

A new way forward?

For the first time in the UN’s history, we have had a chance to hear – and in detail – about the visions of all the nominees for next Secretary-General. We have an idea of their vision for the future of the organization, and we know what they stand for. And while the pressure to identify a female candidate is more than welcome, the selection of the next SG cannot be about putting a woman in office simply because she is a woman. It should be about putting at the helm of the world’s one, truly international organization, a woman who promises something new, who will stand for something – who will be different, signalling a dramatic and much needed shift for the United Nations.

In the current race, there are women who are providing new visions and new ways forward – not only because of their gender, but because of their different backgrounds, views, and opinions in addition to their gender.

Despite having forward thinking candidates and the informal dialogues, it is still up to the Members of the Security Council to decide whether to honour the progress these candidates wish to bring to the United Nations. We can only hope they make the right decision.

Ourania Yancopoulos will be reporting for opendemocracy 50.50 from the second round of public discussions with UNSG candidates scheduled for 7 June.

All images: Ourania Yancopoulos.

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