Global Policy Forum

UN Secretary General Selection Lacks Insight


By Ramesh Thakur *

Daily Yomiuri
November 7, 2006

The credentials and accomplishments of Ban Ki Moon, the next U.N. secretary general, are impressive. His candidacy was barely dented by last-minute allegations of financial inducements offered by Seoul to countries that just happen to be members of the U.N. Security Council.

Ban brings some major assets to the job. The United Nations' three big normative mandates are peace, development and human rights. The Korean Peninsula is one of the longest-standing unresolved conflicts confronting the international community, alongside the Cyprus, Kashmir and Palestinian conflicts.

As South Korea's foreign minister, Ban has been intimately involved in trying to manage the North Korean nuclear crisis and thus should be familiar to some of the key U.N. member countries such as China, Russia, the United States and Japan. Much of his professional life, in one way or another, has involved dealings with Washington, which is the United Nations' most critical member state. And part of his professional career was spent as his country's diplomat to the United Nations.

Moreover, and in the long run perhaps even more importantly, for the first time in its history the United Nations will be led by a secretary general from a country that has actually made the transition from poor to high-income and from an authoritarian to a democratic regime. South Korea's example of success in economic development is much more relevant to most U.N. member states than either those countries that have failed to make the transition or others that were already developed. While part of the explanation for South Korea's success lies in coercion, today it is a vibrant democracy as well as a dynamic economy.

Having said this, the process has also highlighted five areas of concern at national, regional, continental and global levels.

First, the procedure is so quaint that we really have no idea of the relative support for Ban and second place Shashi Tharoor of India in a head-to-head contest if electors had been forced to choose between the two, the normal method for competitive elections. The depth of support for Tharoor until the end, with one potential veto deciding his fate, proves his popularity and respect in the U.N. system: the intellectual flair and flamboyance to the bland Ban's solidity and substance as diplomatic manager. The "voting" process puts a premium on the most amiable and least offensive, not the most forceful and effective. Process shapes performance: choosing a weak leader allows the Big Five--the five permanent members on the Security Council--to scapegoat him for the United Nations' ineffectual performance, although the person can always grow into the job and surprise everyone. Dag Hammarskjold, the most successful of all secretaries general, is the best example.

The selection process is less satisfactory. Imagine if U.S. voters could tick yes boxes for both Republicans and Democrats, and whichever party got more votes won the presidency. This privileges breadth of support (mile wide) over depth (inch deep). It gives no indication of who would be the preferred candidate if the electors were forced to choose one from among several.

Second, it laid bare the inability of the Asians to caucus as a group and present a united candidate as Asia's choice. Their claim to the job was generally accepted, albeit only grudgingly by some. An Asian succeeds an African, but is he the one who commands the widest following in Asia? We shall never know. The Asian group at the United Nations remains less cohesive and coherent, and therefore collectively less influential in proportion to its numerical, demographic and economic weight, than the other regional groups.

Third, it raised questions about diplomacy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Thailand unilaterally announced a candidate whom ASEAN dutifully supported. Others from Southeast Asia, including some women, might have had better prospects. ASEAN never got around to making a group decision on either the best or the most winnable candidate from the region. The sense of dissatisfaction will remain, that for the once-in-40-years opportunity, the region failed to put forward its most impressive candidates.

Fourth, South Asia failed even to maintain a facade of regional unity. Sri Lanka already had a candidate whose prospects, as he himself conceded, were always slim. By supporting him based on regional solidarity, India could have earned credit in South Asia while showing a generous face to the rest of the world as a regional leader. An eventual loss would have had no negative repercussion for Delhi. By nominating Tharoor as its own, Delhi effectively sank Colombo's candidate, put its diplomatic prestige on the line, and lost.

India watchers question whether Delhi may not have antagonized an important neighbor by reaching for a prize that was almost certainly beyond its grasp all along. Had he won against the odds, Tharoor still could not have been seen to be India's man: so Delhi would have had no payoff. Tellingly, once its candidate withdrew, Colombo switched support to South Korea. India's regional diplomacy continues to be episodic and quixotic rather than strategic and coherent.

India was simultaneously claiming membership of the exclusive club of permanent membership of the Security Council while challenging the convention that nationals of permanent members cannot be the secretary general. None of the other serious contenders for permanent membership--Japan, Germany and Brazil--put up a candidate. Puzzled U.N. watchers believe the confused signals from Delhi may have jeopardized both goals. India's importance and influence ensured, paradoxically, that Tharoor would get substantial support but eventually fall short. He comes out of the experience with a more than creditable performance and head held high.

Tharoor's candidacy reportedly received only lukewarm support from the Indian Foreign Ministry. The quality of India's diplomacy was also strained by the lack of a full-time foreign minister for almost a year. For a country that aspires to great power status, what began as initial surprise had turned into major embarrassment. Last month, after an 11-month gap, the post was finally filled with the appointment of Pranab Mukherjee. Had India thought ahead strategically, they might have considered making Tharoor foreign minister a year in advance of the election of the U.N. secretary general to give him the necessary gravitas, global exposure and political experience.

Finally, the process highlights the impotence of the General Assembly vis-a-vis the Security Council. The selection process is not spelled out in the U.N. Charter, but was adopted by the General Assembly in 1946. It could adopt a new resolution requiring the Security Council to submit a short list of three candidates, and the General Assembly makes the final choice. If the Security Council demurs, the process could be reversed: the General Assembly shortlists and the Security Council decides. Yet a third way could be found of substantial General Assembly input into the selection beyond rubber-stamping the Security Council's choice whose overriding motto is: First offend no permanent member.

This poses a really serious question. The secretary general is the world's top diplomat and the embodiment of the international interest. In an age of democratic legitimacy, why should the overwhelming bulk of the world's countries and people accept him as "their" representative when they had neither voice nor vote in his selection? If the General Assembly fails to assert its corporate interest, it cannot forever fault the Security Council for a power grab.

Another significant change would be to change the tenure to one nonrenewable term of seven years. This would obviate the need for a person seeking re-election being excessively deferential to the Security Council, especially the Big Five, in consequence.

Most importantly, perhaps from now on the chief executives of all international organizations--the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as the United Nations--could be chosen on grounds of the most competent and best qualified regardless of regional or national identity. And all, including the U.N. specialized agencies, funds and programs, could also be subject to a two-term limit, as is already the case with my own institution and the convention with the U.N. secretary general.

About the Author: Thakur, senior vice rector of the U.N. University in Tokyo, is author of "The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect" (Cambridge University Press). These are his personal views.

More Information on UN Reform
More Information on Management and Secretary General Reform
More Information on Reform of the Security Council's Working Methods


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