A lone raised hand: who will become the next UN Secretary-General ?

Six women and six men are competing to become the next UN Secretary-General. As the drama unfolds, it’s still not clear who will make the Security Council’s shortlist when it votes this week.

Ourania S. Yancopoulos
20 July 2016

Christiana Figueres, Costa Rican nominee to be the next UN Secretary-General.

The United Nations Security Council meets this week to discuss its top picks for next UN Secretary-General (UNSG). There are currently 12 candidates for the job - one of the longest lists of official nominees ever, and the only one in history that is completely gender-equal: six women and six men. The question of the top-pick is highly contested. This was evident following the first-ever Presidential-style debate with UNSG candidates hosted by Al Jazeera at the UN last week. There, popular “frontrunner” - former New Zealand Prime Minister and head of the United Nations Development Program, Helen Clark - appeared up-ended by newcomer, Costa Rican nominee, Christiana Figueres. Despite this turn of events, the tables continue to shift, and new candidates such as Kevin Rudd are still requesting to join the process - suggesting that when the Security Council meets on Thursday, there’s no telling who will come out on top.

Two hours into “The UN Debate,” moderator James Bay, Diplomatic Editor of Al Jazeera English, requested a “show of hands” for candidates, who, “as Secretary-General, would admit responsibility and apologize to the people of Haiti.” One of the most controversial efforts of the United Nations today is its stabilization mission in Haiti, where studies have traced the cholera outbreak and epidemic, to UN Peacekeepers. Official records show that 9,202 people have died, but a more recent study by Médecins sans Frontières found that this official count - by ignoring thousands of deaths that occurred in rural areas - is likely to be a gross understatement.

Four of the five candidates on stage shifted uncomfortably behind their podiums. Slovenia’s candidate, Danilo Türk, and Montenegro’s nominee, Igor Luksić, shared a glance, and appeared to begin to raise their hands. One nominee - her gaze still on Bay, immediately raised her right hand high. Türk shrugged, unsure how to continue. Meanwhile, there stood Figueres, at the center-stage of the United Nations General Assembly: a lone hand raised on the question of UN responsibility and accountability -  a minority of one.

In her explanation, Figueres identified the cholera outbreak as an “unintended consequence of a very important goal of the United Nations. But we have to be responsible even for unintended consequences.” If selected next Secretary-General, Figueres pledged to completely eradicate malaria and cholera from Haiti: “That is a moral responsibility the United Nations has, and it must be fulfilled.”

In addition to her impressive performance at this historic UN Debate, Christiana Figueres seems to have it all.

First, Figueres is a woman. After eight male Secretaries-General, many are showing a strong preference for a female at the UN’s helm. However, as Clark has pointed out, gender and geographic balance are not the most important criteria for the UN’s top job: “The search for next Secretary-General must be a search for the best talent,” she said, “This is a critical job.” And it’s clear to many that Figueres may have that too.

As Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Figueres directed the efforts behind what The Guardian has called “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.” The 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement is the first of its kind: all 196 nations contributed to the climate deal, proving that compromise is both possible, and “works for the planet.” Through her pivotal role as UN Climate chief, Figueres knows  – in her own words – to direct work in a “deeply collaborative manner to address the toughest problems of our planet.” In the debate’s opening remarks Figueres said, “I have delivered a multilateral breakthrough…And multilateralism at its best, is at the heart of the United Nations.”

The only factor where Figueres may fall short is geographically. The same Resolution 51/241 that calls for greater gender equality in the UN’s top-post also codifies the practice of “regional rotation” in identifying potential candidates. And according to the United Nations’ geo-scheme there is, as Figueres put it, “a sentiment” that it is the turn of Eastern Europe to be Secretary-General. However, this sentiment is not binding and Central America has also yet to be represented in the UN’s top job.

Addressing this issue, Figueres said that with eight candidates from the Eastern European block - three women, five men - she appreciates the willingness of that region to step forward and be willing to take on the responsibility: “The candidacy of Costa Rica is in no way a disrespect - it has the intent of opening-up options, of displaying all of the leadership possibilities there are, in order to allow the Security Council and the General Assembly to make a decision that is as informed as possible.”

But perhaps what may be seen as the most impressive factor of all is not the demographic requirements that Figueres fulfills, or the past success she has achieved at the United Nations and beyond, but her ability to garner widespread support - and fast. In last week’s debate Figueres demonstrated in a matter of days what some candidates have failed to do over the course of months: the ability to gain the far-reaching support necessary to carry out her pledged commitments. Support for the world’s “seventh greatest living female leader” according to Forbes, and one of Time Magazine’s top 100 “pioneers” for 2016, is highlighted by statements from Costa Rican President Solís, among others, “She has the ability to rekindle our confidence and inspire each and every one of us to live up to our highest purpose.”

Immediately following the debate, the Al Jazeera polling results showed, unsurprisingly, major public support for Helen Clark who has been regularly touted as the frontrunner in this race. Nominated by her government on 4 April, Clark has had the time and resources to gather support other candidates have not. She and her “Kiwi Team” have worked tirelessly with  international media and cultivated a massive social media following. On the morning of 13 July in New York, Clark held the most support overall with a total of 1921 favorable votes. However, the polls also showed massive support for the race’s newest nominee. At that time, Figueres was the only candidate close to Clark, with a total of 1632 votes. The two frontrunners, both women, had won 3553 of the poll’s total 6270 votes in a race of twelve candidates - 57%. Later that day Figueres had surpassed Clark in the poll, and continues to hold more support today.

However, according to the Al Jazeera poll, in recent days other candidates have moved ahead - namely the Bulgarian candidate, and current UNESCO Director-General - Irina Bokova. As of this morning Bokova holds 30% of the poll’s total votes. Campaigning on an agenda of “new humanism,” Bokova believes in 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.


UN Debate with candidates for the position of the next UN Secretary-General.

The Al Jazeera poll shows how in just a week the top favorites for UN Secretary-General have undergone a dramatic reshuffle. In all the excitement it is important to remember that the global public, while engaged, does not choose the United Nations Secretary-General. Instead, the decision is made by the Permanent Five (P-5) members of the UN Security-Council, who will participate in a “straw poll” selection this week.

The “straw poll” is an informal voting method designed to narrow down the field of candidates for UN Secretary-General. Since 1981, the Council has conducted straw polls where members vote to either “encourage” or “discourage” each candidate for Secretary-General. However, while the straw-ballot process has allowed for more flexibility, it has also made the process more secretive - votes can be cast informally, meaning there are no official records. Once an acceptable candidate emerges, a formal and private meeting is held to adopt a resolution with the Council’s recommendation to the General Assembly. This is expected to take place in October.

Figueres’ apparent success in so little time is important. She has achieved in a matter of days, what some candidates have failed to do over the course of months. She appears to have demonstrated the will, the determination, and the ability to lead wherever and whenever, as well as the ability to attract far-reaching support.

When asked what she would do if she were not selected next Secretary-General she said, "I'm not giving up the fight...above all I shall continue to sound the voice of alarm. We have not realized the emergency we are dealing with. I have publicly invited everyone to swallow an alarm clock and to rise to the urgency of what we are facing. I will continue to do that.”

Despite the urgency of Figueres' message, it remains to be seen whether her time at the top will be limited - and just who the candidates on the Security Council’s shortlist will be.

Follow the conversation on Twitter via: #UNSGCandidates #NextSG #AJUNDebate #She4SG.

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