Wanted: new UN chief fit to represent the world

After decades of secrecy and backroom deals, countries and civil society are pushing for a transparent process to elect a new leader for the United Nations, so the organization can become more connected and relevant to the people it's supposed to represent.

What's undisputed is that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's second term in office coming to an end in December 2016, meaning the UN is looking for its next chief.

What's disputed is the way the position has been filled, usually by five world powers engaged in secret negotiations. This time around, other countries want to have a say in the decision.

Proponents of the reform say that opening up the process by providing a clear job description, a list of required qualifications and a shortlist of candidates would result in the election of a leader who could strengthen the position of the secretary general and the UN system as a whole.

Most of those in favour of reform are quick to point out that they do not want to undermine the legacies of previous secretaries general, but that a more transparent process could give more legitimacy to the post and empower the UN chief to stand up to world powers.

Pakistani human rights lawyer and activist Hina Jilani, one of The Elders, a group of independent global leaders formed by former South African president Nelson Mandela, said that a strong secretary general could fulfil the duty to uphold human rights even if it means going against countries' national interests.

"A secretary who is elected by a process which is more participatory would give the perception in the United Nations that he really represents the interests of the people - not necessarily the people, but the interests of the people," Jilani told dpa.

"He has a duty to perform ... going beyond interests of the member states but in the interest of world peace, so he should be the one upholding the principle."

Natalie Samarasinghe, executive director of the United Nations Association–UK and the co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, said the current system is not set up to deliver a UN chief fit to deal with global challenges.

"I think people assume that an organization that's as big as the UN has standards such as a job description, a timetable and a shortlist, and when they hear that it doesn't, they wonder, 'Well, why? What's behind it?'" Samarasinghe told dpa.

"And it ultimately creates a division between people and the UN."

According to the UN Charter, the secretary general is elected by the General Assembly, which includes all 193 UN member states, per the recommendation of the UN Security Council.

In reality, this means that the five veto-wielding members of the council - China, Britain, France, Russia and the US - decide on one candidate in secret negotiations and present the name to the assembly.

Bargaining often includes promises by candidates and their countries of trade deals, political favours and appointments for key UN positions.

While Britain and France are in support of reform, China, Russia and the US have been more reluctant to overhaul the process.

Minna-Liina Lind, Estonia's deputy ambassador to the UN, whose country is part of a group of nations calling for a new process, said world powers are increasingly faced with the pressure for transparency, which is a result of the world itself becoming more transparent through democracy and the use of social media.

"For some countries, some permanent members, the system so far has been ideal," Lind said.

"But then they also started realizing that actually there's a need for a little bit of change to adapt the situation to nowadays, to 2015, and to the expectations."

Lind said she was optimistic about current trends, including a resolution passed by the General Assembly in September requesting the Security Council inform countries about the selection criteria and the status of the process.

In a December 15 letter, the Security Council committed to a transparent process including circulating the names of candidates to other member states and promising to make its recommendation for the post "in a timely manner."

Samarasinghe said a better election process would also result in the most qualified people being appointed for key UN positions, which could eventually set in motion a renewal of the UN system.

"It would be a symbol that reform is possible, and I think it could - over time - influence other working methods, improvements at the Security Council," she noted.

Those seeking to reform the process agree that the candidates' qualifications should be the most important criteria for election.

Additionally, many point out that it is high time for a woman to hold the top position of the 70-year-old organization, which has had eight male leaders.

"Everything else being equal, I would think that it would make sense to give preference to a woman," Jilani said.

Last update: Sat, 02/01/2016 - 08:03

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