Global Policy Forum

UN Secretary General Unbound


By Branislav Gosovic

Inter Press Service
September 2006

The UN General Assembly is electing the seventh Secretary-General (SG). Given the pressures to which the UN is subjected, and the current threats to the very character and underlying values of the international system, the election is of great significance. The UNSG is the only world leader mandated to champion global common interests and public purpose. The SG heads the Secretariat -- the brain and motor of the organisation, the repository of institutional memory and continuity. The UN Charter bestows on the UNSG the unique opportunity to project ''peaceful power'' in the world arena, guided by the principles and purposes of the UN.

However, unipolarity and ''pensee unique'', seeking global hegemony, have put serious constraints on the SG and the Secretariat and reduced the policy space for their action. Furthermore, North-driven reforms supposedly intended to give greater discretionary authority to the SG risk facilitating unilateral political and administrative influence over the Secretariat.

The Assembly thus faces a dual challenge. The first is to elect as the SG a person with a profound moral and political commitment to the UN's mission and principles as well as the knowledge, skills, experience, and political outlook needed to inspire and lead the organisation. This could prove difficult because in the Security Council's backroom process, dominated by the five permanent members, some favour personalities likely to be compliant with certain centres of power.

Measures are thus needed to democratise the process and increase the role of the General Assembly in the election of the SG. The first step would be eliminating the Security Council veto over re-election of the incumbent, which would give the SG greater latitude for action during his first term and free him from having to make commitments to the big powers to avoid getting vetoed.

No matter how strong the personal qualities, once elected the UNSG would find it difficult to succeed unless provided with appropriate tools and support, while easing current constraints that ensnare the incumbent in multiplying tasks and growing management cum administrative duties.

The second challenge for UNGA is thus to begin considering ways to create an enabling environment for leadership by the Secretary-General. Frequently proposed measures include:

- Providing adequate funding to facilitate the undertaking of tasks and continuous institutional development needed to cope with an expanding and diversifying agenda;

- Placing at the SG's disposal a well-staffed and funded and substantively strong Secretariat, composed of a highly-qualified, motivated staff that is creative and genuinely committed to internationalism and representative of the diversity of the global community;

- Restoring policy and substantive responsibility to the UN in key economic areas including money, trade and finance, science and technology, transnational corporations, and creating the institutional and intellectual capacity necessary for the UN to play an effective role in shaping multilateral policies and globalisation processes;

- Ensuring that the UN is free from conditionalities set by major contributors by reducing the role of voluntary funding, setting a ceiling for individual country contributions to the regular budget, and introducing automatic sources of finance by taxing the use of global commons and certain global economic transactions, in combination with appropriate intergovernmental control of expenditures;

- Expanding the SG's latitude for action, for example, to place items on the agendas of the UN General Assembly and Security Council; seek advisory opinions from the International Court of Justice; borrow funds for specified crises; and coordinate the policies of UN specialised agencies.

An issue that needs to be addressed concerns the impacts and demands on the Secretariat --the UNSG office in particular-- from the host country government and political environment. UNGA action is needed, including possibly moving the UN headquarters to another location.

It is also essential that the SG not focus predominantly on crisis management and administrative matters. A crucial task involves building durable foundations for peace and international cooperation by providing leadership in bridging the widening gaps between the North and the South. This calls for partiality, advocacy, and full engagement on pressing global, systemic issues.

To serve as an agent of progressive change, the UNSG needs to lead in the generation of ideas and global strategies; raise international awareness of key global issues; and promote consensus-building, international law, and the basic principles of UN Charter, including the now-challenged principle of universality.

The above suggestions may sound illusory given the headlock some have on the organisation. Yet, they are in the interest of the entire international community, including those very few who will oppose them adamantly. The status quo dictated by power realities is not cast in stone. It can be changed with perseverance and global public awareness and action. Representing the moral and political force of the overwhelming majority of humankind, the South looks to the UN in its quest for change and a better world. It has a vital role to play through the UNGA electing Secretaries-General with the intellectual capacity and global vision needed to confront the challenges facing the international community and in particular developing countries.

Equally important, with the support of civil society and the like-minded North, the South will need to protect the multilateral character of the UN Secretariat -- the only permanent multilateral structure with a universal, holistic task -- from efforts to reduce it to a merely administrative/management function and make it serve the interests of a few powerful actors. It will need to press for greatly strengthening the Secretariat and so provide the Secretary-General with institutional support inter alia to contribute to evolving democratic forms of multilateral statecraft and global governance, one of the key challenges in the new century.

More Information on UN Reform
More Information on Management and Secretary General Reform


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