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Diplomats Debate Method of Choosing Next UN Secretary-General

26 May 2006

The process of choosing the world's diplomat-in-chief is under way behind closed doors at U.N. headquarters in New York. The man or woman who is eventually selected will replace Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations when he steps down at the end of this year. VOA's correspondent at the U.N., Peter Heinlein, reports, the secretive selection process is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Since the world body was founded in 1945, the selection of secretaries-general has followed a familiar pattern. According to a procedure vaguely outlined in the U.N. Charter, the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council settle on a candidate. The Council then passes one name to the General Assembly, which votes its approval.

Former long-time Undersecretary-General Brian Urquhardt once described the selection as the "most labyrinthine process imaginable, shrouded in big power secrecy." But with Kofi Annan's second five-year term due to end in December, the process is being challenged by a growing chorus of voices demanding greater transparency.

Urquhart himself, now a 90-year-old senior statesman, was part of a task force that recently produced a report recommending an opening-up of the selection process. He says it is fortunate that there have been no absolute disasters so far, but warned that it is time to take the process more seriously.

"This is a very haphazard system," he said. "It is not the way that any normal business-like, large organization would set about choosing its chief officer."

Another of the report's authors is former senior U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering. Pickering knows something about the selection process. As America's ambassador to the U.N. in the late 1980s, he participated in the selection of Egyptian diplomat Boutros-Boutros Ghali as secretary-general.

The report recommends that, in the interest of openness, the Security Council appoint a nominating committee to seek out qualified candidates. Pickering says the Council should then submit at least two names for consideration by the General Assembly.

"The Assembly should play a role early on, and assist in surfacing candidates," he said. "Ideally, the selection process should start from both ends of the organization, and meet somewhere in the middle. Both organizations should be responsible for finding and surfacing and providing names to the other organization to consider informally."

The idea of multiple candidates has strong support among the increasingly assertive bloc of smaller and developing nations known as the G-77, which has traditionally had little or no say in the selection process.

G-77 member India has floated a proposal calling on the Security Council to submit the names of three candidates for a vote in the 191-member General Assembly.

That suggestion evokes sharp reactions from the five permanent Security Council members. Washington's U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, suggests it might violate the U.N. Charter.

"That would provoke a charter crisis, if they proceeded with that, since, obviously, the General Assembly can't tell the Security Council how to proceed," he said. "And, the Charter gives responsibility to the Security Council. So, we're hoping the Indians won't proceed with that measure, which would overturn 60 years of both practice at the U.N., and what we think to be the clear mandate of the U.N. Charter."

Other U.N. ambassadors, such as Canada's Allan Rock, say an election for secretary-general would create winners and losers, provoke animosities among nations, and inevitably damage an organization that prides itself on consensus.

"We would end up with camps for and against one candidate or another," he said. "We would go in the opposite direction to consensus. We would end up with a secretary-general about whom questions would be raised concerning the depth and breadth of support among member states for that person's leadership, and that's not good for the institution."

At the same time, Rock agrees there is a need for greater openness in the selection process.

"We don't think it's good for the institution that the secretary-general be someone whose name is heard for the first time in the last week of November, and who's presented as a surprise by the Security Council as a recommendation to the General Assembly," he said.

Several names have already surfaced, including a few who are openly campaigning for the job.

Permanent Council member China is at the head of a long list of countries arguing that, according to tradition, the post should rotate regionally, and that it is Asia's turn. Others, including permanent members Britain, France and the United States, are suggesting that it may be time to put aside tradition and find the best man or woman for the job, regardless of where the person is from.

Veteran U.N. watchers say that, in an organization where tradition is still highly valued, the next secretary-general is likely to be an Asian. But, in a sharp break from the past, when only men were considered, the list of potential choices this time includes a significant number of women.

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