How to choose the next UN Secretary General the right way

If the UN wants a powerful, international advocate at its helm, like Kofi Annan and Dag Hammarskjöld once were, it needs to take ensure the Security Council does not have full control over the selection process

By: /
October 26, 2015
The United Nations headquarters building is pictured though a window with the UN logo in the foreground in the Manhattan borough of New York August 15, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

On Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, UN Secretary-General (SG) Ban Ki-moon (2007–16) formally invited Iran to participate in that week’s scheduled talks on the Syrian conflict in Montreaux, Switzerland. The U.S., U.K. and main Syrian opposition group reacted with public expressions of anger. By Monday, Ban had rescinded the invitation. On Tuesday, Russia’s Foreign Minister (and former UN ambassador) Sergey Lavrov said Ban’s decision to disinvite Iran was a mistake that would damage the UN’s image. How foolish the decision looks now!

The more troubling point is just what the two major Western powers thought they would gain long-term by rubbing the SG’s nose in the dirt of humiliation that put the world’s only truly global diplomat very publicly in his proper place.

The contrasting book-end comes from an incident involving SG Dag Hammarskjöld (1953–61). In the midst of the international crisis du jour, during a break in the Security Council debate, he was asked by Ambassador Sir Pierson Dixon to make a statement supporting the British position. Hammarskjöld refused. Sir Pierson told him “there is something called political sense.” Stressing each syllable, Hammarskjöld replied: ‘‘And there is something called integrity” and walked away. Such an exchange is unimaginable today. The closest in recent times was Kofi Annan pointing out, correctly, that the 2003 Iraq war was illegal under the UN Charter.

Great powers need organizing principles of foreign policy, Hillary Clinton reminds us. Similarly, great SGs need a guiding vision for the exercise of international civil authority. Hammarskjöld and Annan were the two best SGs who broadened and stretched the UN’s executive authority based on creative interpretations of Charter clauses and the force of their personalities. The institution of peacekeeping, by now the defining UN engagement with armed conflicts, is a good example of interpreting the Charter — which does not contain the word — creatively. Anticipating J.K. Rowling’s famous platform number 9¾ for the Hogwarts Express, Hammarskjöld located peacekeeping in Chapter VI½ of the Charter. 

Hammarskjöld and Annan combined pragmatism and humility with a guiding vision of progress and solidarity rooted in deep humanism. A central challenge both had to contend with, with mixed success, is how to define their office in relation to the prickly five permanent members of the Security Council (P5). When they ran into fierce opposition from one of the P5, both received ringing affirmation from a broad cross-section of the membership in the General Assembly. 

This provides the key clue as to how the SG can once again be made a servant of the international community instead of a puppet of the P5 dancing to their tune. They want a pliant SG, someone who is proof against every occasion of the larger kind.

What the world needs instead is a powerful advocate for the international interest and an effective coordinator of expectations for managing the global commons, who can transcend the national interest in addressing collective action problems like climate change. This requires major changes to how the SG is selected and the terms and conditions of office. Calls for change are being spearheaded by the 27-member ACT (Accountability, Coherence and Transparency) and 1 for 7 Billion civil society groupings, and some prominent former political leaders, including Annan, called “The Elders.”

The Charter says “the Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Thus the appointing authority is the Assembly, not the Council. But in a resolution adopted on Jan. 24 1946, the Assembly called for only one nominee from the Council. The Council’s choice requires the affirmative votes of nine of the 15 members, including the concurring votes of the P5. That is, the decision is subject to a P5 veto. A simple majority of those present and voting, by secret ballot and without debate on the nomination, is held in the Assembly.

The Assembly has never rejected the Council-recommended candidate. In requiring only one candidate instead of a slate, the Assembly gave up an appointing power whose importance grew considerably in the following decades. The Assembly can and should reclaim a co-equal role by rescinding the 1946 resolution and ask for a minimum of three and a maximum of five candidates. Otherwise the SG will remain deferential to the Council over the collective interests and preferences of the broader membership.

Another long-standing reform initiative has called for a single seven-year term to provide stability and take away the possibility of the SG’s actions being influenced by calculations of a second term. More transparency, consultations and merit-based decisions would ensue if candidates were to be nominated by a specified deadline and participated in open hearings in the Assembly. To date the principle of rotation by continents has dominated the choice of SG. In 2006, the Assembly added the criterion of gender equality. Based on a combination of these two criteria, the strongest candidates in 2016 should be central and eastern European women, as no woman or eastern European has been chosen to date.

The P5 will fight tooth and nail to protect, preserve and perpetuate every last vestige of their privileges. The General Assembly should use the few powers it has to reassert authority. The judges of the World Court, for example, are chosen by both bodies (without the veto in play). In the few cases where elections were stalemated by differences between the two, ultimately the Assembly’s choice prevailed. 

On Sept. 11, the General Assembly adopted a resolution incorporating some of the key changes discussed. The Assembly and Council presidents are requested to invite states to submit candidacies and the membership to be kept apprised of the list; the selection criteria to be formulated should include highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity; proven leadership and managerial abilities; extensive experience in international relations; and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills. Women nominees are to be encouraged and the Assembly will organize informal dialogues with the candidates.

The call for a slate of candidates fell though. The Assembly should make a point of rejecting the Council’s recommendation until this change is agreed and then, but only then, further underline its power by appointing someone to one seven-year term (that is solely the Assembly’s prerogative). These changes can be effected without Charter amendment. If the Assembly fails to act, member states should quit complaining: time to put up or shut up.

Also in the series

As the United Nations turns 70 on Oct. 24, we look at some of the more pressing areas in need of reform and increased support within the institution — from the refugee system and peacekeeping operations to how secretaries general and security council members are selected.

Stephen Lewis

In conversation with Stephen Lewis, the United Nations’ sharpest critic and greatest champion

True to form, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN speaks frankly about making the organization fairer and more efficient, its greatest successes and its most worrying failures.


The UN at 70: A return of Canada, the Peacekeeper

Contributing personnel and technology can improve Canada’s standing with the U.S. and the international community, all the while helping to modernize peacekeeping operations 


Why the UN must do away with unpaid internships

While the United Nations supports ‘the right to just and favourable remuneration’ and fights inequality, it leads the pack in reinforcing a system that rewards elites.


How ‘refugee’ became a bad word and how to reclaim it

The international refugee system, under the leadership of the UNHCR, is in crisis. It’s time for either a drastic restructuring or alternative where refugees are part of policymaking.


Is cyber peace possible?

There is an urgent need for global rules around state conduct in cyberspace. But, building new norms is a slow and complicated process — is the UN up for the task?