Change is Necessary: Selection of the UN Secretary-General 2016

As we ring in the new year on the first day of 2017, a new Secretary-General of the United Nations will take over the position vacated by the well-respected Ban Ki-moon, and his name is António Guterres. Nearing the end of Ban’s second five-year term, the time has come for a fresh perspective on world politics and a new vision for the United Nations. Of the individuals up for selection, no matter who was chosen, the United Nations was certain to have an individual leading it who will remain devoted to upholding the mandates of the organization to best of their ability. Such has been evident among the eight prior office holders and if history proves true, things are not likely to change in 2016.

However, there is more to this position than meets the eye. Regardless of the fact that there have been no major issues with respect to job fulfillment by the eight individuals who have held the position since 1945, consideration must be taken as to the efficiency and legitimacy with which the selection process is carried out. Critics of the Security Council have called for a redesigned selection process, and at the same time widened the scope of a much larger discussion to refurbish the Council entirely, something that has been an ongoing theme of the UN for decades now.

The Security Council is a product of the international political structure circa 1945, and is to this day controlled by the five allied nations who ended up victorious in the Second World War. Thus, the individuals calling for reform are not wrong in their beliefs as to the modern relevancy of such an institution and its questionable influence on international politics. With the selection process for the new Secretary-General recently completed, there can be no better opportunity to analyze the make up of the Security Council, and look at exactly why it is now inefficient and undemocratic.

Article 97 of the UN Charter outlines the selection process of the Secretary-General, which includes a number of major drawbacks. Directly quoting the text, the Secretary-General is “appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” However, despite the fact that the Security Council is supposed to only have recommendation powers, it has in practice been the main decision maker in the appointment process, and the General Assembly’s approval is nothing more than a formality.

Selection of the Secretary-General largely lies in the hands of the P5 (five permanent Security Council members) because of the veto power that they hold. Herein lies the root of all problems within the Security Council. This authority diminishes the value of the votes held by the ten non-permanent members. More concerning, however, is the problem of retaliation among the P5 that results from wielding the veto. For example, it was rumoured that Russia would veto the newly appointed Secretary-General, Mr. António Guterres, the former Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995-2002, when the official vote took place in a secret ballot on October 5th. Russia’s reasoning was that it is time for an Eastern European to hold the position. In the final straw poll, Guterres received only two “discourage” votes which meant that if one was from Russia, it would upset the four other permanent members who would likely have retaliated by vetoing Russia’s ideal candidates. To further the hypothetical, suppose the candidate received fourteen affirmative votes but one negative Security Council vote, from the viewpoint of the other countries this would greatly reduce the purpose of voting at all.

One can see that such tactics make this process unnecessarily more difficult than it would be without the veto power. Not only is the voting power of the ten non-permanent members greatly reduced, but the list of candidates to choose from must become gratuitously longer than it should be.

From this, we can come to the realization that candidates will be required to carry out extensive lip service and backdoor negotiation to the permanent members if they are likely to succeed. Although it is the first time that the campaign for this position has required that candidates conduct interviews with the General Assembly and address the media, this really does nothing to address the problem of what may be going on behind closed doors between the candidates and the P5 members.

It is clear that this current process drags the upstanding political position of the United Nations through the mud. When candidates are competing against a veto that can immediately eliminate them from contention, it lays the stage for trickery and deception, characteristics that the United Nations cannot be connected with. The latest claims of such behaviour were a false Twitter account in Guterres’ name stating that he had secured Moscow’s support for his selection. To avoid such a reputation from sticking, the United Nations should remove the veto-wielding power from the permanent nations and ultimately consider which of the P5 nations should be replaced to reflect the modern political stage.

As one must now recognize, the selection process for this position is largely based on custom rather than stipulation. There is no rule listing the order of the regions from which the next office holder must come, or even the exact length of the term. However, the UN does encourage variety along with equal opportunity, and based on the tone of the proceedings, it seemed that there was great encouragement to have the first woman hold the position in its history. In addition, there has never been an Eastern European who has held the position, which explains why six of the nine remaining candidates were from the region. Neither of those characteristics are applicable to the Portuguese Secretary-General elect; however, he is the first Western European to hold the position since the former President of Austria, Kurt Waldheim, who served from 1972 to 1981.

In the end, if the candidate who won was not António Guterres, you can be sure that the voices of critics to the Security Council would have grown even louder. The process was undemocratic, they would have argued, as the individual who was the best person for the job fell victim to an unfair practice. Unfortunately, none of this matters this time around. Guterres was the one who found a way to win the game by playing under the current rules, regardless of the opinions of his critics. Nevertheless, the point left unaddressed will only arise again as Guterres’ successors are selected. Whoever best utilizes the rules shall be rewarded, but if such rules require lip service and backroom negotiation, then the rules do not represent the values of the United Nations and should be changed.

The featured image is public domain.