Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

A competent choice for the UN

Despite the undemocratic selection process, Portugal's Antnio Guterres is the most deserving candidate among the contenders

On 5 October, members of the UN 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 13 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 the most deserving candidate among the contenders. As the only candidate recommended by the UNSC to the UN general assembly, his formal endorsement by the 193 members of the assembly is a foregone conclusion.

This democratic deficit notwithstanding, the selection process was noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, following a general assembly 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 greater transparency and vetting of candidates.

All 13 contenders were formally nominated by their respective governments. Following their nomination, all the candidates presented vision statements and were subjected to unprecedented public hearings by members. The process also relegated to the dustbin the old UNSC practice of surreptitiously proposing candidates without them being formally nominated or publicly examined.

Second, traditionally, the secretary general’s appointment has been determined by rotating geographical criteria. For instance, the previous secretary general (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 Eastern Europe’s turn. 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.

Finally, the contest also saw an unprecedented seven women candidates—more than twice the number of women considered for the post in the 70-year history of the UN. 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 geographical criteria, and greater women’s participation are evolutionary steps that merely make 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. 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 secretary general (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-scenes political exigencies and deals, particularly among the five permanent (P5) UNSC members, that made him a unanimous choice.

Given the lacklustre and maladroit tenure of Ban Ki-moon, perhaps one of the weakest secretary generals, selected by the P5 behind closed doors, there was an impetus to have a strong, independent, able leader 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 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 all-powerful department of political affairs (the UN’s policy analysis and implementation branch) and the department of peacekeeping operations (which commands a budget of over $8 billion and more than 100,000 troops) to Russia and China, respectively. US 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 made—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 difficult 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 professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation.

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