Global Policy Forum

Tussle for Top Job at UN Begins


By Kevin Rafferty*

Standard - China
February 22, 2006

The great power diplomatic struggle of the decade has already begun, in which China will have a chance to stamp its increasingly important global footprint. Although there are still 10 months before Kofi Annan finishes his second term as secretary general of the United Nations, that is a small time in the eternity it takes the world body to reach any conclusions.

The main rallying cry at least in Asia is, "It's Asia's turn," which China has also espoused. The only Asian to head the world body was the Burmese U Thant, way back from 1961 to 1971. Annan, a Ghanaian, has had the job for nearly 10 years and his predecessor was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Coptic Christian from Egypt, who did it for a single five-year term. Before him was a Peruvian, Javier Perez de Cuellar, who was preceded by the lamentable Kurt Waldheim who hid his Nazi past, Thant, and two Scandinavians.

Several declared and a few undeclared candidates are Asians, and it might seem fair that the world's biggest continent which houses more than half of the earth's population should have its turn again. But this attitude is dangerous - as if saying that the world's top diplomat should be chosen according to the principle of Buggins' turn.

Choosing the UN secretary general is more complex than other posts that come under the UN umbrella, such as the World Bank and the IMF, where the two biggest shareholders, the US and Europe, have effectively divided the spoils - thus allowing George W Bush to choose his neo-conservative buddy Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank, a job for which he had no obvious qualifications.

The secretary general is formally elected by the general assembly, on which each member country, from China with its 1.3 billion people, to small island territories with a few thousand people, has a seat and a vote. But the recommendation is made by the 15-member security council. This gives the five permanent members - China, France, Russia, the UK and US - the right to veto a candidate, so the horsetrading is intense and complicated and only made public through leaks.

Annan's predecessor Boutros Boutros-Ghali put his hat in the ring for a second term, but he had lost the confidence of the US. During the Cold War, the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union did a delicate dance looking for someone who would not offend them. The French will insist that the secretary general can speak French. China has quietly let it be known that it will want to have its say this time and will only vote for an Asian.

The biggest misfortune is that there are no rules for the job, there will be no advertisement and no open competition. Nor is there a job description. The problem is that none of the major powers wants the UN to be too strong or effective, but they would like to use it when it suits them.

The attitudes of all the major players to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein illustrated how all countries played fast and loose with the UN. George W Bush most obviously showed contempt. He was prepared, at the behest of Tony Blair to give the UN a chance to agree with him, but not to disagree or compromise. But France, whose businesses had benefited from orders from Saddam, and Russia, also played their own games using the UN as shelter. China has shown itself extremely careful not to upset any of its friends with whom it has cosy business relationships - witness Burma, the Sudan, and other African dictatorships which regularly torture human rights.

Any job can be seen in terms of efficiency and decorativeness, and being secretary general of the UN does not much have of either. The grand title is outweighed by grand responsibilities and blame when things go wrong, but little credit for solving the problems heaped upon the UN. There are no 21-gun salutes for the secretary general because he - or she - is only the head of a global secretariat that has no territory. It has armed forces, but they are not the secretary general's to command. Real power lies with the security council, whose reform has been fiercely resisted by the established powers.

Canada, this week put forward proposals for reform of the way Annan's successor will be chosen, including greater say by the general assembly, a job description and an opportunity for candidates to be interviewed before the selection is made. But John Bolton, Bush's apparachik at the UN, was opposed: he wants the decision made by the security council, of which he will be president during the voting.

If the powers were prepared to pick an experienced politician who might enhance the role of the UN, Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former president of Poland, stands head and shoulders above anyone else who has been mentioned. A former communist, he defeated Lech Walesa to be elected Poland's leader. In power, Kwasniewski redefined Poland's role and helped lift the economy out of its communist trough. During his first term, I watched him give a brilliant virtuoso performance in a speech and question and answer session: he mixed intelligence, wit, charm, humor and toughness in several languages.

On the surface, an Asian who has shown world leadership in peaceful economic development would have a lot to offer the UN. Unfortunately, each of the Asians already seeking the job is flawed. That may not matter to the powers seeking a lowest common denominator of someone who will offend none of them.

Surakiart Sathirathai, Thailand's deputy prime minister, was propelled into the lists by Thaksin Shinawatra, who was seeking cynical political advantage. His candidature has not been helped by the fact that he has no UN experience and former senior Thai ambassadors have opposed him. What should rule him out - but apparently does not - is that he is a member of a government whose commercial, as well as diplomatic relations, are helping to prop up the Burmese junta that is an affront to everything that the UN is supposed to stand for.

Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka is a consummate UN insider and well liked both in New York and Washington. But his country's own failure to solve its long-running civil war may count against him.

Ban Ki Moon, South Korea's foreign minister, has a lot of experience both in routine diplomacy and in tough negotiations, including, of course, the tricky North Korean nuclear issue. That is both his strength and his weakness with reactions from Beijing, Washington and Pyongyang to be considered.

Obvious problems with these three have led to growing murmurs that there are two candidates from Singapore in the wings. Kishore Mahbubani, former foreign secretary and ambassador to the UN and the US, would be the diplomatic option, an Indian in a predominantly Chinese population and the ultimate in suave diplomacy. But there are also suggestions that former prime minister now senior minister Goh Chok Tong would lend more political clout to the UN job and enhance Chinese pride at the same time.

About the Author: Kevin Rafferty is author of City on the Rocks: Hong Kong's uncertain future

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