What do Portugal, Argentina, New Zealand and Costa Rica have in common with eight Eastern European countries — five of which used to form part of Yugoslavia?
Not much, really, except that all 12 are fielding candidates to replace United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when his term expires on Dec. 31.
Unlike the U.S. presidential elections, the process for selecting a U.N. chief has long been shrouded in secrecy. That’s starting to change, however, and in mid-July, 10 of the 12 candidates participated in a first-ever televised “debate” of sorts hosted jointly by the Al Jazeera TV network and the president of the U.N. General Assembly.
Despite hopes that this year would usher in greater transparency, however, the U.N. Security Council continued its opaque selection process with a series of informal straw polls to weed out candidates. The results are kept confidential, though they invariably leak out to the media.
In an unofficial straw poll held a week after the televised debate, Portuguese diplomat António Guterres — who served as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015 — came out on top. Next on the list was former Slovenian President Danilo Türk, followed by Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova — the current director-general of UNESCO — and two ex-foreign ministers from former Yugoslav republics: Serbia’s Vuk Jeremić and Macedonia’s Srgjan Kerim.
In a subsequent straw poll, Guterres again got the most “encouragements” (i.e. votes), followed by Jeremić. Third was Argentinean Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, a Turtle Bay veteran who managed peacekeeping operations and the World Food Program and served as Ban’s chief of staff. (Türk dropped to fourth place.)
Diplomats will continue to hold straw polls to whittle down the candidates until they reach a consensus. The goal is to recommend a ninth secretary-general to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September, with a final winner expected to emerge in October.
Djerdj Matkovic, Serbia’s ambassador to the United States, says his country nominated Jeremić for the job “mindful of the principle of geographic distribution for leadership in the U.N. system.” That’s a reference to the informal regional rotation practice under which the next U.N. chief is likely to come from Eastern Europe — a region that has never produced a secretary-general.
From 2012 to 2013, Jeremić was president of the UNGA’s 67th session, where he “demonstrated exceptional leadership skills and much-needed activism,” said Matkovic.
“He is also the only candidate with a detailed policy platform elaborating on 53 concrete commitments in five main areas — sustainable development; climate change; peacekeeping operations and humanitarian assistance; human rights; and reform of the U.N. Secretariat,” Matkovic said. “As the election process is in full swing, we are encouraged by the fact that after two straw polls, Mr. Jeremić came in second place, the best-ranking candidate from the Eastern European group. That clearly demonstrates wide support and trust within the U.N. Security Council for the candidate of Serbia.”
But the Security Council, whose five veto-wielding members have final say in the nomination, is far from united. The contest over who will lead the world body is likely to pit the United States against Russia in a diplomatic tug of war. Last month, Politico’s Benjamin Oreskes and Nahal Toosi reported that Moscow backs UNESCO Director-General Bokova, while Washington is throwing its weight behind Argentina’s Malcorra. Russia is said to prefer an Eastern European, in part because it has close ties to the region, while the U.S. has been quietly pushing for a woman to become the next U.N. secretary-general.
The geopolitical proxy war has led to concerns that the victor will wind up representing the “lowest common denominator” — a pliable, safe pick, much like Ban was a decade ago.
Ban himself has joined a chorus of nations advocating for a woman to helm the world body, which would be a first in its 70-year history. All eight of the current and former U.N. chiefs have been men, and a change is long overdue, says Maguy Maccario Doyle, Monaco’s ambassador to the United States.
“I think the qualities women have are the qualities leaders need today,” said Maccario, who was her country’s first consul-general in New York at a time when the wealthy European microstate lacked its own embassy in Washington. “It’s important to have someone who’s going to do the best job, and women have the leadership skills necessary, because we’re more likely to find solutions and try to understand everyone’s points of view.”
The surprisingly strong support that Portugal’s Guterres has enjoyed, however, may derail calls to elect either a woman or an Eastern European to the top U.N. post.
Whoever becomes the next secretary-general will have to face the perennial issue of who has veto power at the 15-member U.N. Security Council — a privilege now enjoyed only by the council’s five permanent members: China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States. Over time, other countries have protested the inherent unfairness of this system, with pressure mounting to include emerging powers such as Brazil and India, as well as economically powerful nations like Germany and Japan.
The next person to take up residence on the 38th floor of the U.N. headquarters as secretary-general will oversee a staff of over 40,000 and an annual budget of $5.4 billion. While it is a powerful position, the U.N. chief is invariably constrained by the five permanent members of the Security Council.
“Changing the composition of the U.N. Security Council is just about as difficult as changing the U.S. Constitution,” said former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. “I think it’s critical that the Security Council reflects the world as it is today, rather than as it was in 1945. This really is a pressing issue, and I encourage diplomats to address it.”
Clark — one of six female candidates for the job, who had a disappointing showing in the initial straw polls — spoke July 13 at the Center for International and Strategic Studies. In introducing her, CSIS President John Hamre noted that ever since 1945, the United States has championed the U.N. as central to its interests.
“But recently, we’ve become a bit disenchanted as a nation, and I think that’s a mistake,” he said. “What distinguished the first and second half of the 20th century was that we had a set of international institutions to deal with transnational problems that we could not resolve ourselves. Americans have forgotten this, and it’s a part of our obligation to bring back this consciousness of the very important role the U.N. plays to make it a safer and better world. That’s really what’s at stake now when we look at the next leader of the U.N.”
Clark, who has headed the U.N. Development Program since 2009, conceded that the 193-member world body “must step up its performance.”
“I worry for its future,” she said. “There is a real risk it could drift to the periphery at a very time when we the people need to have confidence in the U.N.’s capacity to resolve the world’s many problems and not be a bystander. It needs someone of global standing. The secretary-general must also understand and have empathy for the world’s many small states which look to the U.N. to protect their rights and interests — and that comes rather naturally to me.”
Recalling her work in development issues — including those relating to climate change — Clark said: “I don’t think any other candidate could match the engagement I’ve had in Africa, which constitutes about half the Security Council’s business.”
If chosen for the job, which she called “an enormous soft-power position,” Clark said her top two priorities would be strengthening the U.N.’s peacekeeping role around the world and seeing the secretary-general’s office take the lead on development and environmental issues.
Clark said she would absolutely not tolerate sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers — a reference to recurring scandals that have plagued the “blue helmets” in conflict zones ranging from Haiti to the Congo. She added, however, that “peacekeepers need to be supported in the field” with both financial and strategic resources.
Haiti, in fact, became a focus of Al Jazeera’s televised debate when moderator James Bays asked five of the candidates if the United Nations should apologize to the Haitian people for introducing a deadly strain of cholera that has so far killed 10,000 people (though some estimates put the deaths at 30,000) and sickened hundreds of thousands more. Of the five, only Costa Rica’s Christiana Figueres raised her hand.
A seasoned diplomat with 35 years of experience, Figueres, 60, is no stranger to world politics. Her father, José Figueres Ferrer, was president of Costa Rica three times.
“Christiana is a very dynamic woman. Anyone who meets her in person can tell you that,” said Román Macaya Hayes, Costa Rica’s ambassador in Washington. “She led a very successful process in the climate change negotiations, moving from essentially a failed Copenhagen meeting to a successful Paris meeting in six years. Coordinating a large number of countries, sometimes with conflicting interests in a complex multilateral setting, to reach an agreement, is a skill set she can apply to anything — security matters, humanitarian missions, immigration and refugee issues — where any one initiative at the U.N. might meet with opposition from different member states.”
Yet Figueres’s chances of leading the U.N. seem relatively slim at this point (she has been in the bottom rung of both polls; another woman, former Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic, withdrew her candidacy as of press time).
“It’s such a fluctuating process,” Macaya pointed out. “One veto can essentially kick someone out, and then someone else might become the favorite. It’s an open process. She’s in the game, and she’s competing.”
Regardless of who wins, the next U.N. chief must make stopping mass atrocities and genocide a priority, says Naomi Kikoler, deputy director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at Washington’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
She said Ban Ki-moon’s tenure as U.N. secretary-general “will always be marred by the fact that the Sri Lankan crisis unfolded” on his watch — a reference to the mass atrocities committed in 2009, during the final stages of a 30-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels
“Kofi Annan had to deal with the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica. We can’t have more Rwandas and Srebrenicas,” she said. “The next secretary-general has to recognize that the credibility of their institution is predicated on the ability to prevent crimes from happening before they unfold.”
Kikoler, who also praised Ban for launching an initiative known as Human Rights Up Front, urged his replacement to “make a very symbolic step” in the first 100 days by personally meeting with Syrian refugees on the Turkish or Jordanian border — and by fearlessly condemning human rights atrocities committed by Syria’s Assad regime.
“The next secretary-general should be a voice for the voiceless, for people who are unable to protect themselves,” she told The Diplomat. “Many of these candidates know intimately what it means to have mass atrocities unfold on their own borders. I hope that means they will be champions for human rights. It’s almost like member states have [previously] agreed to the lowest common denominator. At this moment, what we need is someone who’s going to be a real leader.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.