Global Policy Forum

Asians Remain Divided Over Top UN Job


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
May 4, 2006

With growing new support for an Asian as the next secretary-general of the United Nations, there is a possibility of new candidates joining the race -- perhaps from India, Indonesia, East Timor and maybe even Japan.

The 114-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the largest single political coalition at the United Nations, has joined the 54-member Asian Group and the 53-member African Group in declaring its public support for an Asian as the new chief administrative officer of the world body, come January 2007. In a letter to NAM members, the current chair, Ambassador Hamidon Ali of Malaysia, said last week that "the Non-Aligned Movement at its meeting at the ambassadorial level has decided that the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations, who will succeed Kofi Annan of Ghana, shall be selected from a state member of the Organization (NAM) from the Asian region."

The three declared Asian candidates so far are: former Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka; Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai; and South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon. Even though South Korea is part of the Asian Group at the United Nations, the NAM decision rules out support for the South Korean candidate because Seoul is not a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Meanwhile, the election of the new secretary-general may also be indirectly linked to an even more frantic race for another coveted prize at the United Nations: a permanent seat on the 15-member Security Council. Currently, four countries -- India, Japan, Germany and Brazil, known as the Group of Four -- have been relentlessly knocking at the Security Council door for new permanent seats, five of which are now held by the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia.

But those four new seats seem so elusive -- primarily because of the sharp division among the 191 member states -- that the proposal for an expansion of the Security Council has hit a virtual dead-end. What do you do when that prized permanent seat in the Security Council remains outside one's grasp?

The two Asian contenders for that seat -- namely India and Japan -- may be looking for a seat elsewhere: a seat now held by the outgoing secretary-general. Publicly, the Japanese have said they are not interested in the job despite the fact that Asia's regional claim to the job has been endorsed by three powerful groups at the United Nations. Unless the veto-powered U.S. keeps pushing for an Eastern European, the next secretary-general should be from Asia, a claim also endorsed by the veto-wielding Chinese.

"The Japanese are still focused on a permanent seat in the Security Council and are hopeful they can pull it off -- if not in the company of India, Germany and Brazil, at least on their own political steam," says a longtime Asian diplomat. But if they do eventually give up hopes for a Security Council seat before the end of the year, will they decide to stake their claims for the job of secretary-general?

According to a time-honored tradition -- but not reflected in the U.N. charter -- the job of secretary-general should not be held by any of the world's major political or economic powers, thereby ruling out countries such as the United States, Japan, China, Germany, France, Russia and Britain. As a result, former incumbents have come from Norway (Trygve Lie), Sweden (Dag Hammarskjold), Burma (U. Thant), Austria (Kurt Waldheim), Peru (Javier Perez de Cuellar), Egypt (Boutros Boutros-Ghali) and Ghana (Annan).

But that tradition can be broken because it is not cast in stone. Japan, which is the second largest contributor to the U.N.'s regular budget, accounting for about 20 percent of the funds, has been exceptionally aggressive in demanding high-level jobs in a donor-driven world body.

But the Japanese are also conscious of the fact that if China has plans to veto Japan's permanent membership in the Security Council, the Chinese can also wield that same veto against a Japanese becoming secretary-general. If Japan is ruled out, what of India?

The first shot was fired last month by a former Indian diplomat who has served both in New York and Washington. In an article in an Indian newspaper, ex-Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan laid out a possible scenario, perhaps reflecting the unannounced views of the upper echelons of the Indian foreign service. In flying a political balloon, he singled out current under-secretary-general for Public Information, Shashi Tharoor, the highest-ranking Indian in the Secretariat, as a possible candidate.

So far, India has not publicly committed itself to any of the three declared Asian candidates. "The dilemma for India is not about finding a suitable candidate to put forward," writes Sreenivasan. "It is about the incompatibility between seeking a candidature and aspiring to become a permanent member." In its quest for a permanent seat in the Security Council, India's major problem is to secure a two-thirds majority in the 191-member General Assembly.

"But since that does not seem to be in the realm of possibility," argues Sreenivasan, "we should not give up the option of putting up a candidate for the post of secretary-general." Since India has been cozying up to the U.S. with its nuclear deal -- and more importantly, with its open criticism of Iran's nuclear ambitions -- "the U.S. is not likely to veto an Indian," predicts Sreenivasan. But the unknown factor is the Chinese veto. Although China has continuously re-affirmed its support for an Asian as the next U.N. chief, it may have second thoughts about an Indian secretary-general, particularly at a time when Washington is strengthening its relationship with India as a political and military counterweight to China.

Ramesh Thakur, a senior vice-rector of the Tokyo-based U.N. University, points out that there is no guarantee that the post of secretary-general will go to an Asian, although the general sentiment in U.N. circles is in favour of an Asian. "China has indicated strong support for the idea, and of course may veto any non-Asian candidate," said Thakur in a newspaper article last month. But this will not suffice if Asians cannot unite behind one candidate, or at least agree on a common strategy, he said.

One such strategy could be to seek general agreement in advance that the choice will be limited to Asian candidates, but as many candidates as desired may be nominated. Last week, East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, also a 1996 Nobel Peace laureate, said he is yet to decide whether he will run for the job. "One hesitation is a personal one," he said. "Do I really want to commit five years to a seven-day-week, 24-hour job?" Ramos-Horta also said he has "personal obligations" to his home country where he played a leading role in the two decades old fight for independence from neighboring Indonesia.

Since there is no love lost between East Timor and its former colonial master Indonesia, there is speculation at the United Nations that Indonesian Foreign Minister Noer Hassan Wirajuda may throw his hat in the ring -- if and when Ramos-Horta decides to run. "This could be a purely tactical move to undermine Ramos-Horta's candidacy," says a Southeast Asian diplomat.

Thakur points out that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has already given group support to the Thai candidate. And there is no Northeast Asian counterpart that could campaign for the South Korean.

But why hasn't the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation joined forces to provide collective support to Dhanapala, the candidate from its own region, especially as South Asia has never had a secretary-general? he asked. "Are South Asians really so jealous of each other that they would like all internal candidates to fail and someone else succeed, perhaps even a non-Asian? Outsiders will surely respect South Asia more for mounting a united campaign, even if this does not lead to success."

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