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Observing change at the United Nations

Change at the UN usually proceeds at a glacial pace, but our Programme Officer Tom Brookes observes that over the past 18 months, the status quo appears to be slowly changing.

UN Security Council (Credit: UN Photo / Rick Bajornas)
UN Security Council (Credit: UN Photo / Rick Bajornas)

We are entering the final stretch in the race for two of the most important jobs in the world. The US Presidential election is followed intensely worldwide. Choosing the next Secretary-General of the United Nations receives only a fraction of the attention, although its global implications are just as significant, and deserves just as much scrutiny.

The selection of the Secretary-General has previously been a process shrouded in secrecy, and, ultimately, decision-making lies under the almost complete control of the five permanent members (the P5) of the Security Council: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. This opaque process is entirely at odds with the way in which the UN Secretary-General has come to be seen by many, as a spokesperson for – and representative of - the world’s peoples, with the responsibility to uphold their interests and aspirations. The post requires real leadership and moral authority, yet the post has lacked even a job description, let alone a fully transparent recruitment process.

Our proposals for a stronger UN

Reforming the selection process is one of four reforms that The Elders have been pushing for since the launch of the ‘Strengthening the UN’ initiative at the Munich Security Conference in February 2015. The Elders have also put forward a compromise model for expanding the UN Security Council, proposed that the P5 agree a code of conduct on veto restraint, and argued that the Security Council should give more opportunities for civil society groups to be heard through greater use of informal “Arria formula” meetings.

Over the course of the past 18 months, The Elders have been highly encouraged by the response to these proposals, and in particular to efforts to reform the selection of the Secretary-General. The Elders’ ideas, alongside those of other supportive campaigns such as the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, have fed into growing discontent from UN member states at the lack of basic transparency or inclusivity in the process.

Three Elders - Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Ernesto Zedillo - have participated in meetings at UNHQ in New York on the selection process over the past year organised by the ACT group of countries (a grouping of small and medium-sized states from around the world who have taken a lead in pressing for reform). It has been highly encouraging to see the strong level of support for The Elders’ proposals expressed by member states at these meetings and the real desire to change the process this year.

Signs of progress

This pressure resulted on 15 December 2015 in the publication of an unprecedented letter by the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council to formally initiate the selection process. For the first time, we now have public lists of candidates who are running, and all of these candidates have participated in public hearings in the General Assembly, which has allowed member states to question and scrutinise each candidate’s record and vision for leading the UN. This has also led to unprecedented media scrutiny of candidates’ previous records, which has helped significantly to increase the transparency of the process and thus changed the dynamics of the race.

The P5 will still make the final decision on who becomes Secretary-General, but as the President of the General Assembly has pointed out, it has been readily apparent which candidates have been the poorest performers in the public hearings. Even if these changes do not lead to the best possible Secretary-General candidate being selected, as The Elders fervently wish, the new process ought to make it far harder for the Security Council to nominate weak or pliant candidates for the position.

A stronger, more independent Secretary-General

The Elders also believe that further changes are important to ensure that the next Secretary-General has the independence and authority to be able to always act in the interests of the global community, and is not subject to undue influence from the P5. This is why The Elders are supporting calls for the next Secretary-General to be appointed to a single, longer term in office, rather than the two five-year terms that has become the convention. If the next Secretary-General has only one term in office, this will prevent him or her (we favour having a female Secretary-General this time but believe merit should be the primary consideration) from being constrained by the need to get the support of the P5 to run for re-election.

Change at the UN usually proceeds at a glacial pace as vested interests tend to block progress on those reforms that may appear logical, even obvious, to outsiders. But if the next Secretary-General is someone with courage and independence, someone capable of taking the lead on strengthening the UN’s central responsibility for keeping the peace and preventing the outbreak of conflicts around the world, the foundation stone for real reform will have been laid.

Our Work | A UN 'fit for purpose'

Strengthening the UN

The UN has served the peoples for almost 70 years, but in the 21st century it needs fundamental changes.

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