The next UN Secretary General should know how this bureaucracy works

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Sir David Richmond KBE, CMG [The Brazzaville Foundation]

Understanding how the UN bureaucracy works, and experience working with the five permanent members of the Security Council, should be the key criteria for choosing the next UN Secretary-General, writes Sir David Richmond.

Sir David Richmond KBE, CMG is the Chief Executive of the Brazzaville Foundation for Peace and Conservation.  He is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years’ experience in international affairs, including postings to the Middle East, New York for the UN, and Brussels for the EU, as well as senior positions at the Foreign Office in London. 

With the spotlight on the colourful and dramatic presidential campaign in the US, the process of selecting the world’s top diplomat may seem dull and opaque by comparison.

In the 71 years since the United Nations was formed, eight people have held what is possibly the world’s toughest job: the Secretary-General of the UN. The task of this individual is to head an unwieldy and sometimes dysfunctional bureaucracy while key decision-making powers are in the hands of the Security Council and the P5 whose rivalries often make rapid and effective action impossible.

Problems begin with the mechanism for choosing a new Secretary-General which encapsulates the UN’s own version of a catch-22. On the one hand, no Secretary-General can be effective if he or she (and so far, it has always been “he”) does not have the confidence of the P5 [the Five permanent members of the Security Council]. On the other hand, the appointment of a Secretary-General acceptable to the P5, each of whom wields vetoing power, often means finding a candidate that no member of the P5 thinks will rock the boat or damage their interests rather than choosing someone with the ability and courage to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. Almost inevitably, the key decisions are made behind closed doors.

Now, for the first time, some daylight is being shone on the process of choosing the Secretary -General. The UN General Assembly held three days of public sessions with the candidates in New York in April, and these were supplemented by a special candidates’ debate also held in New York – the first steps towards lifting the veil of secrecy.

Welcome though this is, there is still a long way to go. Another debate is being organised in London in June, but the private P5 discussions will resume thereafter.

Encouraging more public debate is a step forward, but other conventions also need to be challenged. Foremost among these is the unwritten rule that the Secretary-General is chosen from one of the UN’s regional groupings in strict rotation. The East Europeans (who point out that there has never been a Secretary-General from their region) believe it is their turn, although members of the Western European and Others Group are pressing their own claims. Given the importance of the job, the field of candidates should no longer be geographically limited. It is time to end regional rotation and open up the competition to the best candidates wherever they come from.

Nor should this any longer be an exclusively male club.  There is growing pressure from inside and outside the UN system for a woman to be the next Secretary-General. Choosing the best candidate for the job, regardless of gender, has to be the goal. Happily, some strong female candidates have emerged this time, even if it is far from a foregone conclusion that one of them will be selected.

As such, what qualities should we be looking for in the new Secretary-General? Most obviously the job requires leadership skills of the highest order, and for this reason the post has tended to go to politicians and senior government figures.

In this context, leadership has many facets. The new Secretary-General needs to be able not just to manage but also to reform the UN bureaucracy in New York. He or she also needs to try to make the various UN organisations, most of which are largely independent fiefdoms, work together more closely. This individual also needs to be able to work with and, where necessary, apply discreet pressure to the P5 to ensure that he or she can take initiative and have the necessary mandate to operate effectively. Finally, the new Secretary-General needs to recognise that the world that created the UN has changed and that the UN needs to change with it.

During my time as a British diplomat at the UN, I was involved in the discussions which led to the appointment of Kofi Annan as Secretary-General. For the first time, the choice of Secretary-General had fallen not on a former political leader but on someone from within the ranks of the UN Secretariat itself. It was seen as a surprising and possibly risky development. However, Kofi Annan proved an effective Secretary-General not only, in my view, because of his personal qualities, but also because of his understanding of how the UN bureaucracy worked and his experience in dealing with the P5. This time, four of the nine declared candidates have held leading positions within UN institutions [Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova, Portugal’s António Guterres, Slovenia’s Danilo Türk, Macedonia’s Srgjan Kerim}.

The greatest test facing the new Secretary-General is ensuring that the UN maintains its relevance in today’s world. Intra-state conflict and the rise of non-state actors like ISIS have largely replaced the conflicts between states that the UN was originally designed to resolve. Libya, Syria and Yemen have all shown how hard it is for the UN to perform its traditional mediating role. The UN will need to find new tools and techniques – though, as Syria has reminded us, P5 agreement continues to be an essential, although not always sufficient, condition for the UN to operate effectively.

Global threats such as climate change, terrorism and the spread of viruses like Zika and Ebola require solutions that cut across traditional state borders; the UN remains the one organisation that has the potential to deliver such solutions. However, it will not be able to do so unless it adapts. It needs to find ways for its various institutions to work together more efficiently, and to harness and engage with not just its member states, but an increasingly active and vocal civil society.

There is no alternative to the UN if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century. However, the institution must begin to change and adapt. No Secretary-General can transform the UN overnight, but it is time for the crucial first step: choosing the right Secretary-General.

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