Thalif Deen

UN: When Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden was elected the second secretary-general of the United Nations on the first day of April in 1953, he was neither a declared candidate nor did he lobby for the then-coveted job. As former UN Under-Secretary-General Brian Urquhart of Britain recounts the story, Hammarskjold thought perhaps "it was an April Fool’s joke".

Nearly 28 years later, when Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru was elected the world body’s fifth secretary-general in December 1981, he was also a total outsider – and not even a rumoured candidate for the job. Perez de Cuellar was vacationing in a remote beach house somewhere in Latin America the day the former UN under-secretary-general was elected chief administrative officer of the United Nations.

When one of his colleagues at the UN Secretariat called him to convey the good news, recalls former Assistant Secretary-General Samir Sanbar, Perez de Cuellar thought it was "a joke".

But the election of a secretary-general is now a more politically-serious issue – at least judging by the growing intensity of the current election campaign that will culminate in the appointment of a new U.N. chief before December, when the present incumbent Kofi Annan completes his second five-year term.

Since Asia says it has a regional claim to the job, the only three declared candidates so far are former UN 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.

According to the UN charter, "the secretary-general shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council". And the 15-member Security Council plays a key role because it has traditionally nominated only a single candidate, with perhaps one exception when the first secretary-general, Trygve Lie of Norway, was re-elected by the General Assembly, without a recommendation by the Security Council.

The most decisive role, however, is played by the five permanent members (P-5) – namely the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia – who can exercise their vetoes to eliminate candidates, with the General Assembly (currently with 191 member states) acting only as a "rubber stamp" to approve the final candidate.

As part of the reform of the U.N. system, there is a cry for more transparency in the election process and for a more positive role for the General Assembly, the highest policy-making body at the United Nations.

Ambassador Allan Rock, Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations, told delegates Wednesday that the process by which member states select the person to fill that singular role has always been "ill-defined and has usually been opaque".

"No list of qualifications is agreed. No formal screening takes place," he said. Moreover, the General Assembly is asked to declare itself on the nominated candidate without the benefit of relevant information or even informal consultations.

"The candidate’s vision for the U.N.’s future remains unexamined, and there is no established way for member states to develop a sense of the candidate’s skills in key areas like communication and political leadership," Rock said.

And the General Assembly does little more than politely ratify a decision effectively made by the Security Council, leaving little scope for a considered decision about whether or not the candidate should be appointed, he pointed out.

As one of the countries leading a campaign for a procedural change in the election of the secretary-general, Canada has made several proposals, including a widest possible search for the "most attractive and best qualified candidate"; regional distribution and gender equality; and a single five- or seven-year term, thereby ruling out a second term for the U.N. chief.

"By ruling out a second term, member states would remove any basis for suggestion that the secretary-general’s conduct was influenced by expectations of re-appointment," Rock argued.

"Canada understands that it would be difficult if not impossible to implement this year all of the changes we have proposed. But we believe it is very important that we make a start. Past discussions about changes in the process have produced very little progress," he added.

Meanwhile, a coalition of 14 national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has sent a letter to all 15 members of the Security Council calling for procedural changes in the selection of the secretary-general.

"In the past years, international organizations, including the United Nations, have developed basic procedural mechanisms to enhance the transparency and accountability of international high-level appointments," the letter said.

In light of these developments, civil society groups have become increasingly concerned with the lack of progress in adopting similar standards for the selection of the U.N.’s top official, the NGOs said. "We note that many governments share this concern."

The coalition – which includes the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy, Equality Now, Third World Network, Amnesty International, Social Watch, Women’s Environment and Development Organization and Global Policy Forum – is asking the United Nations to establish a formal set of candidate qualifications to guide member states in putting forward candidates.

Some of the qualifications for the secretary-general include: a comprehensive understanding of and demonstrated commitment to the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter, including, but not limited to, international law and multilateralism; and also a comprehensive understanding of and demonstrated commitment to the three pillars of the U.N. system: peace and security, development and human rights.

Additionally, candidates should also have extensive experience with the U.N. system or other complex international organizations; diplomatic skills and demonstrated vision and leadership; multicultural understanding and gender sensitivity; and proven openness to working with civil society and other relevant stakeholders.

At a press conference Monday, James A. Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, said that in a choice as important as the election of the U.N. secretary-general, there had to be standards and procedures.

"It must be an open and accountable process," he told reporters. Paul said that selection in the past was very much in the hands of the permanent Security Council members, the P-5.

"We want them to stand aside and allow a more open and accountable process. It was time for the P-5 to stop their monopoly on the process," Paul said.

He also pointed out that the problems of the selection of the secretary-general itself mirrored the wider problems of the selection of senior staff and leaders of United Nations agencies and programmes.-Inter Press Service