Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
The campaign to become the next secretary general is now well under way.
The UN General Assembly Hall. Photo by Getty Images.The UN General Assembly Hall. Photo by Getty Images.

The campaign to become the next secretary general is now well under way, although the final outcome may well not be determined before the end of the year. The current incumbent, Ban Ki-Moon finishes his second five-year term in office on 31 December. The UN Charter describes the secretary general as the ‘chief administrative officer’ of the organization, akin to the role of a permanent secretary in the British civil service, from which the model was derived. In practice of course it is much more. The secretary general is at the heart of international diplomacy as anyone who has been in New York in September knows all too well. In that month the General Assembly begins its annual session attended by every foreign minister in the world and by many heads of government, including the president of the United States, bringing the centre of Manhattan to gridlock.

The next secretary general will be the ninth since the UN’s establishment in 1945. In theory the Charter gives that decision to the General Assembly, but the Charter was skilfully crafted by the victors of the Second World War so that the General Assembly’s decision is based on the candidate proposed by the Security Council. While the latter has grown in number from the original 11 to15, it is still dominated by the victors in 1945, the five permanent members – the United States, Russia, China, France and Great Britain. This time at least the process is more open, with candidates making public statements, posting resumes and attending hustings hosted by the General Assembly. In a novel development there has even been the suggestion that two candidates might be proposed to the General Assembly. At the end of the day however the selection process remains under the tight control of the permanent members of the Security Council. A candidate who does not have their endorsement will get nowhere.

Traditionally there has been a regional rotation in the choice of secretary general, although it is striking that three, Trygve Lie (1946−52), Dag Hammarskjold (1953−61) and Kurt Waldheim (1972−1981) were Europeans. There have been two Asians, U Thant (1961−71) and Ban Ki-moon (2006−), and two Africans, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992−96) and Kofi Annan (1997−2006). In addition there has been one Latin American secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar (1982−92). The only regional group not to have successfully nominated a candidate for secretary general is Eastern Europe. It is no surprise therefore that many of the declared candidates, and some still likely to declare, are from Eastern Europe.

Among the most prominent to have declared is Irina Bokova, a former Bulgarian foreign minister and current head of UNESCO. Her long residence in the French capital, the seat of UNESCO, and the fact that Bulgaria has always enjoyed close relations with Russia historically puts her in a strong position. She is joined by several other East Europeans: Igor Luksic, Montengro’s foreign minister; Vesna Pusic, former Croatian foreign minister; Natalia Gherman, former foreign minister of Moldova; and Srgjan Kerim, former foreign minister of Macedonia, as well as Danilo Turk, a former president of Slovenia who has run unsuccessfully in the past. It is also widely rumoured that there is another East European candidate in the wings, Kristalina Georgieva, vice president of the EU Commission and formerly in charge of humanitarian assistance. From outside of the region Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and more recently UN high commissioner for refugees has declared his candidacy. His able leadership of that organization and the global prominence of the refugee issue have given his candidacy a boost.

Many governments, especially in the developing world, are unhappy that Eastern Europe is making such strong claims for the post. They point out that while it was a recognizable region in the Cold War, all Eastern European states are now in the EU and NATO, or aspirant members, so that it is no longer a distinctive region. More widely many member states believe that after 70 years it is high time that there be a woman secretary general. Indeed this is the declared British position. Last week Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and head of the UN Development Programme, declared her candidacy. Another antipodean widely believed to be interested, and likely to declare his candidacy, is the former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd.

The election of the next UN secretary general coincides with the final months of President Obama’s presidency. In giving his support to a candidate he may well lean to backing one of the women candidates, conscious of the male domination of the post hitherto.  If that woman should come from Bulgaria that would likely win Russian endorsement and consequent approval by the other Security Council members.

The writer is a former under-secretary general of the United Nations.