Global Policy Forum

Africa Endorses Asia’s Bid for Next UN Chief


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
March 2, 2006

The 53-member African Group at the United Nations, the second largest regional group after Asia, has formally expressed its collective support for an Asian as the next secretary-general of the world body. In a letter to the 54-member Asian Group, Ambassador Joe Robert Pemagbi of Sierra Leone, chairman of the African Group, says his Group has decided "to support the request that the next U.N. secretary-general be selected from an Asian country". The African Group's decision "is consistent with the longstanding principle of reciprocity and understanding which exists between the two groups", the letter said.

So far, the three officially declared Asian candidates are Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, a former U.N. under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs; Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai; and South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon. A fourth potential candidate is East Timorese Foreign Minister and Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, who admits he is weighing the possibility of running for the job, which falls vacant at the end of this year.

Both China and Russia, two veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, have indicated their support for an Asian as the next secretary-general. "Asian people haven't taken the important post for 35 years, and Asia is the most populous continent," says Liu Jianchao, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry. "We think the next secretary-general should be picked from Asian nations." Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been quoted as saying that Moscow "supports a candidate from Asia".

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said last month: "A lot of people have thrown up a lot of names, but in the real world the fact that the Asians have not had a secretary-general since U. Thant (of Burma) is of tremendous importance to China, and China will make damn sure it happens."

At a closed door meeting on U.N. reforms last month, a senior Chinese diplomat underlined three points: First, that Beijing fully subscribes to the principle of geographical rotation -- and that it was Asia's turn to field a candidate. Secondly, Asia, with over two billion people, should not have any problems coming up with a strong candidate -- either a man or a woman -- to head the world body. Thirdly, he asked whether it wouldn't be a good idea for the Security Council to come up with "a slate of Asian candidates", instead of just one, so that the General Assembly can vote for the most suitable candidate, making the process more democratic. But such a move could be shot down by other members of the Security Council -- particularly the United States -- unwilling to abdicate the power to recommend a single candidate for final approval by the General Assembly.

Since the inception of the United Nations nearly 60 years ago, the post of secretary-general has been held by three Europeans, one Asian, one Latin American and two from the African continent, primarily on the basis of geographical rotation. The post has been held by: Trygve Lie of Norway (1946-1953); Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden (1953-1961); U.Thant of Burma (1961-1971); Kurt Waldheim of Austria (1972-1981); Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru (1982-1991); and Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt (1992-1996). Kofi Annan, who is from Ghana, has been serving as U.N. chief since January 1997 and will end his two-term, 10-year tenure in December.

When the African Group decided to support Annan for a second five-year term in June 2001, the Asian Group supported that decision, even though it was Asia's turn to field a candidate. "When the African Group wanted a second term, we held back our candidates, thereby ensuring Annan's second, five-year term," a South Asian diplomat told IPS. "We appreciate the reciprocity." With a total of 107 votes, the two groups have more than half the majority in the 191-member General Assembly.

Although the Assembly has traditionally approved the candidate recommended by the 15-member Security Council, it can also refuse to act as a "rubber stamp". According to a "non-paper" prepared by the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations, the appointment of the secretary-general by the General Assembly "should not be regarded as an automatic or merely mechanical event". "The General Assembly must surely exercise its judgment in concluding that the person recommended by the Security Council merits appointment."

But the current practice "does not provide for any means -- formal or informal -- by which the General Assembly can develop knowledge about the candidate(s) sufficient to allow it to exercise that judgment in an informed and responsible way." When the Security Council remained deadlocked in 1950 over an additional five-year term to then Secretary-General Trygve Lie, the General Assembly stepped in to extend his term of office, without a recommendation from the Council. This was considered an exceptional case but has assumed relevance in the current political tug-of-war between the Security Council and the General Assembly, prompted mostly by the actions of U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, who held the rotating presidency of the Council in February.

Despite strong protests by the 132-member Group of 77 and the 114-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Bolton held two Council meetings, one on a U.N. audit report on procurement and management, and the other on sexual exploitation in U.N. peacekeeping. Both subjects were considered within the purview of the General Assembly, not the Security Council. The Group of 77 and NAM accused the Security Council of trying to "encroach" into General Assembly territory.

With five veto-wielding permanent members -- the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia -- the Security Council has always taken the lead in the selection process for the secretary-general over the last 60 years. The votes determining the appointment of a new secretary-general have come mostly from the five permanent members. In 1996, the United States displayed its veto power by casting the only negative vote against a second term for Boutros Boutros-Ghali, despite the fact that the remaining 14 members of the Security Council voted for the Egyptian. Even an overwhelming majority did not save Boutros-Ghali because of a single veto.

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