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A Secretary-General to represent all the world's peoples

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Speaking at a debate at UN headquarters in New York, Mary Robinson outlined three proposals to strengthen the role of Secretary-General.

Thank you very much and good morning. I am always delighted to be under the jurisdiction of Switzerland, having spent several years working in Geneva. I would like to thank the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency group (ACT) for inviting me to speak on behalf of The Elders about the selection of the next UN Secretary-General. As an influential group of 27 countries representing all regions of the world, ACT has an important role to play in strengthening the work of the UN. It is very encouraging, given that it is only your second anniversary. I commend the group for the strong paper it has already published, which we have just heard an account of, on the Secretary-General selection process.

The fundamental role of the Secretary-General is to uphold the interests and aspirations of all the world’s peoples. This requires leadership of the highest calibre, and demands a person with moral authority who can advocate for the poor and the marginalised as well as the management skills required at this huge and complex organisation.

In today’s world, it is not just unwise, but morally inexcusable to allow the process to remain as it stands – the prerogative of just five countries who follow a process that is weak, opaque and, perhaps, even irrational. The Elders are therefore calling upon all member states to actively support a more transparent and democratic process, and help ensure that the best candidate is selected in 2016 to succeed Ban Ki-moon the following January.

To understand what needs to change, we must ask not just what kind of leadership we want, but what kind of United Nations we will need to tackle the great challenges we face – from climate change, which as you know I am deeply involved in on a daily basis, to refugee crises on an unprecedented scale to extremism in all its forms.

The UN is the place for nations to come together; so it is crucial that all states, no matter how large or small, feel that they have a say in the important decisions that are being made. This is why the General Assembly’s role must be expanded in the selection process.

ACT’s proposals go a long way towards making the process more democratic. However, we at The Elders would like to encourage ACT and indeed all those in favour of change – and I believe that is the vast majority of states - to be bolder still.

Candidates should put forward platforms, so that the entire world knows what priorities, as well as qualifications, they would bring to the job. There should be early hearings with candidates in both the General Assembly and the Security Council. And a joint letter by the Presidents of these bodies, as have been mentioned, should open the call for nominating candidates. In our opinion, it is vital that the letter is sent this year to give sufficient time for the General Assembly to properly scrutinise candidates.

The Secretary-General is often considered to be the representative of, and spokesperson for, all the world’s peoples. We therefore need to recognise this in the way we construct the process. In an open call for names, why not give an opportunity for civil society groups to engage with the process and make recommendations of candidates? Civil society has already demonstrated its interest through its strong support for the 1 for 7 Billion campaign,which Bill Pace will speak about.

The Elders believe it would be helpful if the Security Council were to submit more than one name to the General Assembly. This would give the General Assembly a real choice and decision-making power. The General Assembly would of course have the responsibility to exercise this power wisely, and ought not to be driven largely by narrow considerations of regional rotation, which would limit the choice and may prevent the best qualified person getting the job. I am aware of the geographical rotation issue, but do not think it should be a dominant one in the selection process.

We should not forget the message this change from past practice would send out: every state across the world will have the chance to help decide who should represent the world’s peoples. In my opinion, the Security Council should not shy away from examining this possibility.

Democratisation is not just about being inclusive. It is equally about ensuring that the Secretary-General is seen by all as legitimate and independent. ACT has therefore been right to focus on increasing transparency. It is unacceptable that the selection process for such an important position can be made without a formal timetable or any public indication of how or when the key decisions are made. Names of formal candidates should be published, and there should be public briefings by the Security Council as the process unfolds.

These procedures have become standard practice for appointments to other high-level positions with global responsibilities, whether in the world of business or international organisations. There is no coherent argument against doing the same for the job of UN Secretary-General. We would therefore encourage member states to do their utmost to ensure that a strong resolution tackling these issues is passed in September, through the Ad-hoc Working Group on Revitalisation of the General Assembly.

Above all, however, I would say that we need a Secretary-General who is independent and not beholden to the interests of individual member states.

To help achieve this, all the Elders believe strongly that the Secretary-General should serve only one term in office. This should be a longer term than at present, perhaps seven years, so that he or she – and we very much hope the next Secretary-General is a woman - does not spend the latter part of the first term running for re-election for the second term.

Perhaps I do not need to remind most of those present in the room today, because it’s already in fact been mentioned, but it is worth recalling that the Charter does not address the length of the Secretary-General’s term. The current practice that the SG serves two five-year terms is only a convention that has developed over time.

The first Secretary-General, you may recall, Trygve Lie, was re-elected to a shorter, three-year second term in 1950, only because the Security Council could not agree on an alternative. Boutros Boutros-Ghali served only a single five-year term. Back in 1996 no less an authority on the UN than Sir Brian Urquhart, whom many remember as being a wonderful and wise voice (and in fact still is), recommended that to strengthen the independence of the Secretary-General – and thus his or her ability to take the right decision in moments of crisis – there should be only a single term of seven years. All this goes to show that the process is not set in stone.

We at The Elders feel it would be a very positive step if candidates to replace Ban Ki-moon (and I understand that there are quite a large number who are considering entering the race) were to voluntarily declare in advance that, if elected, they would only serve a single term. What a powerful message that would send! Others would be encouraged, and perhaps shamed, into following the example of their peers.

In this regard, I should emphasise that candidates should never offer high-level posts in return for political support. As we know, it has been an opaque process. It may be hard to eliminate entirely the horse-trading that inevitably goes on among powerful nations. But it is an unseemly practice that seriously undermines the reputation and effectiveness of the United Nations.

Just as all staff members are required to sign an oath, on appointment, not to accept political instructions from governments, each member state agrees under the Charter to, and I quote: ‘respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities’.

Of course, member states are rightly anxious that Secretary-Generals should over time represent a fair regional and gender balance. After eight male Secretary-Generals in a row, The Elders are very sympathetic to the idea that it is high time for a woman to be chosen. But if it turns out that the right candidate is a man, then so be it.

We cannot afford to settle for anything less than the best possible candidate when making such an important decision.

The next Secretary-General will face severe challenges in overcoming the divisions in the Security Council that have prevented effective and timely action to end conflicts, most painfully in Syria. When the Security Council fails to act, it undermines the world’s faith in the United Nations as the upholder of justice and peace, and gives confidence to autocrats around the world that they can commit horrific crimes and escape accountability. It is simply not acceptable that the highest organ of the United Nations responsible for peace and security should, due to reasons unrelated to the conflict concerned, block steps that could save so many lives.

I have seen the difference that the Security Council can make when it stands united and together, as happened in relation to the Great Lakes region, and specifically the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I worked as Special Envoy for the Great Lakes. East Timor is another example where a united Security Council helped to prevent significant violence, misery and suffering.

These success stories highlight the urgent need for the Security Council to find consensus even when it is difficult. Because however difficult a compromise might be for any individual country, the lives that can be saved will always be worth it.

The Elders reiterate the importance of upholding the doctrines of Responsibility to Protect and the newer ‘Rights up Front’ policy. We also support efforts by member states to secure an agreement on veto restraint in cases where mass atrocities are taking place. We believe this is incredibly important. The French initiative and the ACT group’s proposals are good examples of attempts to end abuse of the veto by members of the P-5.

However, we also recognise that no piece of paper, however well crafted, can make the Security Council take action in Syria, or resolve the conflict in Ukraine. That is why The Elders have focused on the need to encourage a new spirit of dialogue and collaboration. If a permanent member uses its veto against a resolution designed to prevent mass atrocities, that country should have an obligation to publicly explain its decision, and put forward its own proposals for protecting the threatened populations. And the remaining members of the Security Council must not abandon the search for compromise, or give up on saving the lives of an endangered population.

In this seventieth year of the United Nations, which has just been marked, it is important for us to recall the original reason for which it was founded. If we are to keep this founding spirit alive, we need to see real global leadership on the big issues affecting today’s world.

This requires strong concerted action from the permanent members. It will also require strong leadership from the next Secretary-General. That is why it is so important that we get the process of choosing a successor to Ban Ki-moon right this time. And it’s actually wonderful to be in a full room with people interested in UN reform. We really need UN reform now.

Thank you.

This speech was delivered by Mary Robinson at the panel discussion, Process of selection and appointment of the next Secretary-General, A call for ACTion, at the UN Headquarters, New York, Tuesday 30 June.

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