The next United Nations leader: a time for transparency

David Mepham
29 August 2006

The biggest job in international diplomacy – the secretary-general of the United Nations – is up for grabs in the next few weeks. Kofi Annan will officially leave his post on 31 December 2006, but the race to succeed him is fast entering the final straight.

In a thoroughly opaque process – not greatly dissimilar to the selection of a new pope – some of the fifteen countries on the UN Security Council have already put forward candidates for consideration. In late July 2006, the council held its first straw poll. Each government signalled its preferences by marking on secret ballots whether it would "encourage" or "discourage" a candidate or offer "no opinion". The second straw poll – seen as hugely significant in terms of the final outcome – is likely to be held very shortly.

Although many of the proposed candidates have impressive records of political and diplomatic service behind them, none of them is widely known beyond their home countries or outside of the UN system. The four main contenders are from Asia, a reflection of an existing unwritten rule that the top UN job should rotate and that this time is Asia's turn.

The marginal frontrunner to succeed Annan is Ban Ki-moon, minister of foreign affairs and trade in South Korea. In the July straw poll he received more "encouragements" and fewer "discouragements" than any other candidate. He has good relations with the United States (having served twice in the Korean embassy in Washington) and with China. Ban has been deeply involved in trying to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, including a major role in attempting to defuse the North Korean nuclear issue at the fifth round of the six-party talks on Korea, held in Beijing in November 2005. But ironically this may work against him. There are few people who appear to have the trust of the Chinese, the North Koreans and the other parties to this process, and there may be pressure to keep him in post.

David Mepham is head of the international programme at the Institute of Public Policy Research (ippr). His most recent report is Changing States – a progressive agenda for political reform in the Middle East (January 2006)

Also by David Mepham in openDemocracy:

"David Held's missing links" (June 2004)

"Accountability in Africa: whose problem?" (February 2005)

"A mixed-bag summit" (September 2005)

"Hamas and political reform in the middle east" (February 2006)

The current second favourite – but this author's tip for the likely winner – is India's candidate Shashi Tharoor. A rank outsider a few months ago, Tharoor's stock is rising fast. He has been a key ally of Kofi Annan, and as the UN under-secretary-general for communications and public information, he has overseen the reform of one of the UN secretariat's largest departments. He is also a gifted communicator, a serious intellect and is widely respected internationally. Although there are mixed views about him in the US, Washington's desire to forge a deeper relationship with New Delhi could work in his favour. But his appointment might be opposed by Pakistan and others in the Islamic world and he could suffer from being a UN "insider".

A third contender is Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka. Dhanapala has worked in the private sector and the UN system, where he was under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs between 1998 and 2003 and is generally seen as having performed well. His proficiency in Chinese will go down well with Beijing. But against him is age (at 67 he is the oldest of the declared candidates) and the worsening situation in Sri Lanka, where he serves as chief advisor to the president.

The fourth candidate is Thailand's deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai, who received seven "encouragements" in the July straw poll and has the support of the Asian regional bloc Asean behind him. He has a strong track record of successful management reform and international negotiation and diplomacy. Set against this, however, is his closeness to the interim Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been criticised for his conduct during the abortive general election in April and his crackdown on Muslim communities in the south of the country.

These four individuals are the only ones to have so far declared an official interest in the position. But there is still a real possibility that an outside candidate could emerge victorious. Although not Asian, there is continuing speculation that Kemal Dervis, the former finance minister of Turkey and current and effective head of the United Nations Development Programme, will throw his hat into the ring.

A time for reform

The choice of Annan's successor matters hugely. The United Nations is at a critical moment in its history: badly divided by the Iraq war and the oil-for-food scandal, and still traumatised by the attack on the UN headquarters in Iraq on 19 August 2003 in which the highly respected Sergio Vieira de Mello and twenty-one others (mostly UN officials) were killed. Kofi Annan has steered the UN through these troubled times. He has also made progress in overhauling the UN's internal systems, although he has been stymied in that effort by the attempted micro-management of member-states and by the consistently destructive position of the US Congress.

Although the post carries limited formal power, the UN secretary-general has the responsibility and the opportunity to exert considerable moral leadership. Through quiet but effective personal diplomacy, Annan has become a respected international voice for decency and sanity in the international system. For example, Annan has been a strong advocate of the idea of a "responsibility to protect": an international obligation to act in situations of acute humanitarian crisis like Darfur. He has also been a powerful voice internationally for development, human rights, the environment and international legality. His successor will need to be someone of exceptional ability and character that can build on these achievements, as well as developing an agenda of their own.

But the process for selecting him or her remains risible. As Brian Urquhart, former under-secretary-general at the UN, argues in an article in the September-October 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs:

"There is no formal procedure for searching for, nominating, or vetting candidates, nor, as yet, is there any provision for the Security Council to interview aspirants to this vital post."

The decision will be taken behind closed doors with no opportunity to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates in the Security Council or in the general assembly. It is probably too late this time for it to be done any other way. But this should really be the last occasion in which the secretary-general of the United Nations is selected on this flawed basis.

In place of the horse-trading and secret deals, we need a radically revised process; more transparent and professional, and truly commensurate to the importance of the job. Specific reforms should include a single term of six years, a proper process for nominating and selecting candidates, a clear manifesto statement from each of the prospective candidates, open hearings in the Security Council and the general assembly, and an end to the notion of regional rotation. We wouldn't select the secretary of the local sports club the way we choose the United Nations secretary-general. The UN and the world deserve something better.

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