A Surprisingly Competent Choice For The United Nations

by W.P.S. Sidhu


On October 5th members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), in an exceptionally rare moment of consensus, agreed on who would become the ninth secretary general of the world body by a vote of thirteen in favour and two abstentions. The following day the UNSC formally and unanimously recommended their choice through a vote of acclamation. In doing so, a mere 15 UNSC members have selected the leader of an organization that represents 193 member states and their seven billion citizens.  

To be fair, despite the undemocratic selection process António Guterres, the 67-year-old former prime minister of Portugal and the UN’s former high commissioner for refugees, is, according to most UN watchers, the most deserving candidate among the contenders who coveted the high office. Guterres was the only candidate who consistently topped all the five UNSC secret ‘straw polls’ and always had nine or more of the 15 votes. Now as the only candidate recommended by the UNSC to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) his formal endorsement by the 193 members of the assembly is a foregone conclusion.

This democratic deficit notwithstanding, the selection process this time around was noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, following a UNGA resolution, which invited member states to “present candidates with proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations and strong diplomatic, communications and multilingual skills”, there was call for greater transparency and vetting of the candidates.

All 13 contenders were formally nominated by their respective governments. (Bulgaria, in keeping with its byzantine character, abandoned its original candidate – Irina Bukova – in favour of a second candidate – Kristalina Gorgieva in the hope that the latter would stand a better chance of winning the contest). Following their nomination, thanks to the initiative of the UNGA president, Mogens Lykketof, all candidates presented vision statements and were subjected to unprecedented public hearings by members. The process also relegated to the dustbin of history the old UNSC practice of surreptitiously proposing candidates without them being formally nominated or publicly examined.

Second, traditionally, the secretary general position has been determined by rotating geographical criteria. For instance, the previous incumbent (Kofi Annan) was from Africa while the present one (Ban ki-Moon) is from Asia. As per this unwritten convention this time around it was supposed to be the turn of Eastern Europe (although following the assimilation of most countries into the European Union this category is difficult to justify). However, in a break with tradition (and with a greater focus on merit rather than geography) candidates from all parts of the world were allowed to compete. This is likely to make the geographical criteria history.

barack_obama_chairs_a_united_nations_security_council_meetingFinally, the contest also saw an unprecedented seven women candidates – more than twice the number of women considered for the post in the past 70 year UN history. Many of the women candidates were supported by civil society movements, such as Women SG Candidate (@She4SG). However, despite this momentum the male-dominated UNSC did not endorse any one of them, leading to charges that there was a ‘steel ceiling’ for women.

This greater transparency, rejection of the geographical criteria, and greater women participation are evolutionary step that merely makes the process somewhat more open, equitable and transparent; the UNSC still has the final say. Besides, while transparency of the process might be commendable it does not necessarily put forward the best candidate – as the ongoing US election illustrates. Similarly, abandoning the global criteria has still not seen the very best global candidates enter the fray. Finally, while a woman secretary general would have been laudable and historic, gender parity might also be promoted by a male incumbent (as Guterres has promised in his vision statement).

Despite these reforms Guterres’ selection owes as much to his credentials as it does to the behind the scene political exigencies, maneuvers, and deals, particularly among the five permanent (P5) UNSC members, that made him a unanimous choice.

Given the lackluster and maladroit tenure of Ban Ki-moon, perhaps one of the weakest incumbents, selected by the P5 behind closed doors, there was an impetus to have a strong, independent, able leader and manager with a proven performance record. Among the contenders Guterres fit the bill perfectly.

Second, there was also recognition that Guterres was uniquely suited for dealing with the biggest challenge facing the world body – the unprecedented international refugee and migration crisis (the biggest since the establishment of the UN).  

Finally, the selection of Guterres might in part be the result of a deal which hands the helm of the Department of Political Affairs (the UN’s all-powerful policy analysis and implementation branch) and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (which commands over 100,000 troops and a budget of over $8 billion) to Russia and China respectively. U.S. and French officials presently head these departments. One indication of this was that Russia had hinted on the eve of the crucial vote that it would support a woman candidate from Eastern Europe only to do a volte-face the next day. This would not be the first time such deals were struck – a former secretary general had offered leadership of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to France in return for support of his candidacy.

For Guterres winning the top UN post might have been the easy part. Confronted with formidable challenges, running the UN with fickle P5 support would be as impossible as driving a car moving in different directions at the same time. It will require all his skills and then some.

W.P.S. Sidhu is Visiting Clinical Associate Professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation.

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