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Selecting the Secretary-General: From Custom to Law

By Jonathan Cristol

Ban Ki-moon’s term as secretary-general ends after the 2016 U.N. General Assembly (UNGA). There is no strict legal process for selecting his successor. The U.N. Charter only says, “The Secretary-general shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” The practice has been governed by a combination of custom, U.N. Security Council (UNSC) procedural rules, and UNGA resolutions. The lack of formal rules on the selection of the secretary-general makes it a subject ripe for reform and provides a backdoor channel for reforming the UNSC without actually reforming the UNSC.

The selection of the next secretary-general is a constant topic of discussion at this year’s UNGA. It comes up in every meeting about the future and functioning of the organization, and is talked about over coffee and while rushing through the halls of the Secretariat. At the start of this year’s UNGA, Estonia and Costa Rica, on behalf of the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency Group (ACT), convened a “High-Level Meeting on the Selection of the Secretary-general: Opening Up the Process.” That meeting not only proposed greater transparency in the selection of the next secretary-general, but also provided a broader forum for other ideas to reform this selection  process.

The secretary-general is selected by a secret vote in the UNSC and is subject to the veto. To avoid the UNSC requirement of note-taking and report-writing, even for closed meetings, the UNSC holds related meetings outside of the UNSC Chamber, where it takes a series of straw polls until someone is selected—very similar to the papal conclave. The process continues off-and-on for weeks or months until a new secretary-general is chosen and then is “voted” on by affirmation within the actual UNSC Chamber. That candidate is then “recommended” to the UNGA, which always accepts the UNSC’s candidate. Thus the formal selection of a new secretary-general takes place on whatever day that the UNSC reaches its decision—there is no “Election Day.”

The practical effect of the selection process is that the secretary-general is seen as being beholden to the P5—though everyone at the U.N. headquarters with whom I have spoken about this issue is careful to say that Ban Ki-moon is not perceived this way. However, the idea that the UNGA has no voice in who leads the organization, and the Charter’s lack of specificity about the selection process, are why calls for reform have gained traction. Minna Liina-Lind, the deputy permanent representative of Estonia to the U.N., told me, “We think that opening up the process, and making the entire membership involved, will increase the possibility of finding the best possible secretary-general; and I think that this would make the position itself stronger.”

There are a variety of possible ways to make this process more transparent. The UNSC could open its deliberations to all member states, or move the negotiations back to its chambers where a post facto record of the deliberations would be produced. This would allow all member states to, in hindsight, see what the positions of the UNSC member states were, and could motivate states to take different positions than they would have taken had their preferences remained secret.

Another possible reform would be for the UNGA to present a list of candidates from which the UNSC could choose. The UNSC could alternatively present a list of acceptable candidates to the UNGA from which the assembly could choose, though that practice is strongly discouraged by a non-binding, customary regulation dating from 1945, which says, “It would be desirable for the Security Council to proffer one candidate only for the consideration of the General Assembly.” Either of these permutations would make the process similar to the American process of nominating a Supreme Court Justice. The President wants to nominate a justice who will adhere to his own positions and philosophy, but also needs to nominate someone who can actually be confirmed by the Senate. The UNGA or UNSC would nominate the best candidates to represent their own interests, but those who could also be accepted by the other body.

Any of these reforms would give the member states a greater stake in the secretary-general and would provide for a closer relationship between the UNSC and UNGA. Giving the UNGA more say in the selection of the secretary-general would deflect some criticism of the undemocratic nature of the UNSC, while still allowing the council to have the final say on the selection of the secretary-general. The major criticism of such a change is that the knowledge of the specific opposition to a secretary-general’s election would hamper that person’s ability to work well with all states. However, while it is known that Japan was the primary obstacle to Ban Ki-moon’s “election” when it was a member of the UNSC, that has not resulted in lasting enmity between the Japanese mission and the secretary-general and his early supporters.

The Charter does not mention the length of the secretary-general’s term, which is set by the UNSC for each cycle. The custom, which has not always been followed, is a five-year term renewable one time. The two-term tradition emerged after Kurt Waldheim’s unsuccessful 1981 attempt, vetoed by China 16 times, to seek a third term. One idea that is gaining steam is to change to a single, longer term for the secretary-general. The “consideration” of this idea has been an official policy since 1998 but it has never been seriously considered until now. A single term of 7-8 years is frequently mentioned, but ACT advocates further discussion of the issue without specifying a specific length. The argument for such a change is that the need to be reelected means that the secretary-general can’t do anything to upset the P5 or even the non-permanent members of the UNSC. The Elders, a group of “independent global leaders” who are working with Estonia, Costa Rica, and ACT, say that this is “in order to strengthen his or her independence and avoid the perception that he or she is guided by electoral concerns.”  A single, longer term would allow the secretary-general to act more independently of the UNSC, which is why none of the P5 support this change.

There are few parameters about who the secretary-general should be, beyond the “best possible candidate for the job.” On Aug. 22, 1997, UNGA resolution 51/241 endorsed the idea of regional rotation and said that “due regard” should be given to “gender equality.” Thus, it is widely expected that the next secretary-general will be a woman from Eastern Europe, which is the only region from which there has been no secretary-general. UNESCO Administrator and former Bulgarian Foreign Minister Irina Bokova is widely considered the frontrunner; however, “charisma” is listed by the UNGA as a desirable trait and Bokova is not an especially dynamic or inspirational speaker. Though it is generally thought that the custom of “regional rotation” will be honored, and the four official candidates are all Eastern European, U.N. Development Programme Administrator Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, is another potential candidate. Clark has a good chance this cycle because the number of potential Eastern European candidates that will be acceptable to Russia are extremely small and the likelihood of a veto is high. Bokova is likely acceptable to Russia, but if she faces a veto from any of the other P5, then it is possible Russia would prefer a “Western” candidate to an Eastern European, who it might perceive as likely to act against Russian interests.

The premise of selecting an secretary-general who operates more independently of the UNSC, or even just opening up the selection process to the member states, are ways for the council to make a major concession to the UNGA while still maintaining ultimate control over the choice of the next secretary-general. It is a smart way for smaller states to pursue UNSC reform, and to devolve some influence to the UNGA, without diluting the power of the UNSC. 

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Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College.  Follow him on Twitter at @jonathancristolHe reports from the United Nations on international security and UN reform.

[Photos by Jonathan Cristol]

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