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A Secretary or a General? UN Seeks New Chief

by Margaret Besheer April 12, 2016

While much of the world is watching the U.S. presidential race play out, another contest is taking shape that, while not as contentious, could have significant international implications. It is the election of the next U.N. secretary-general.

Eight governments have put forward candidates since the nomination process officially opened in December. For the first time, half of them are women.

In the past, secretaries general were chosen behind closed doors, but this year, in another first, the process will be open to public scrutiny.

This week, the candidates will be publicly questioned by member states about their qualifications for the top post and their vision for the organization, during two-hour "informal dialogues" in the U.N. General Assembly.

Starting Tuesday, each candidate will have 10 minutes to explain his or her vision for the 70-year-old institution and then take questions from member states. There also will be a chance for civil society groups to ask questions via short videos they have already submitted to the president of the General Assembly.

Regional Diversity

Traditionally, the role of world's top diplomat is rotated regionally. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is from Asia; his predecessor, Kofi Annan, was from Africa.

Eastern Europe is hoping it will be its turn this year and has so far nominated six candidates - from Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro and Slovenia.

"There is nothing in writing, there is nothing set in stone that says the candidate and next secretary-general has to come from any specific region," cautioned Dan Thomas, spokesman for the president of the General Assembly.

A Secretary or a General?

The U.N. describes its top job as "equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO." Others have asked whether the job requires a secretary or a general.

With the world facing serious challenges -- including the largest displacement of civilians since World War II, the growing threat of global terrorism and effects of climate change – many diplomats say the organization needs a strong leader at the helm.

Those vying for the post include two current U.N. officials – the head of the U.N. Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Bulgarian Irina Bukova, and New Zealander Helen Clark, who runs the U.N. Development Program (UNDP). Clark was her country's prime minister for nearly a decade.

Former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres also is in the race. In December, he stepped down as the head of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). During his 10-year tenure, the agency went from coping with 38 million displaced persons globally to more than 60 million.

From Eastern Europe, there is former Slovenian president Danilo Türk, who also served as his country's U.N. ambassador in the 1990s and in a senior U.N. political post under Kofi Annan. The current foreign ministers of Croatia, Montenegro and Moldova also have been nominated, as has been Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia. He is a former foreign minister and was president of the U.N. General Assembly in 2007-2008.

The nominating process remains open. Slovakia is expected to put forward its foreign minister, Miroslav Lajcak, by the end of this month, and there has been wide speculation that Argentina will enter its foreign minister, Susana Malcorra. She resigned her post as chief of staff to Ban Ki-moon at the end of 2015 to become her nation's top diplomat. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd also is tipped to be a possible entrant.

"Gradually the generals are coming into the race," said one Security Council diplomat.


The informal dialogue in the General Assembly will give member states an opportunity to hear from the candidates, but the real decision making will happen in the U.N. Security Council.

The 15-nation council will review the candidates' credentials and, after a series of secret straw polls, will eliminate contenders until they come up with one name, which will be sent to the General Assembly for approval. That process is not likely to be easy, and the permanent five members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – are likely to have more influence on the outcome than their 10 non-permanent counterparts.

The contest will take several months, with a winner not likely to be confirmed until as late as November. The secretary-general-elect will then have to hurry to prepare to take over from Ban Ki-moon on January 1, 2017. There will be no shortage of crises and conflicts awaiting the new chief.

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