By Tucker Jones
September 12, 2014
Though the election is still years away, politicians are already declaring their candidacy for one of the world’s most powerful jobs. In autumn 2016, both domestic and international politics will play a significant role in the eventual victory of one candidate. I am talking, of course, about the October 2016 elections for the Secretary General of the United Nations, and not about a certain national election scheduled to take place the month after.
The UN Secretary General’s role is, according to the UN Charter, to “be the chief administrative officer of the Organization” (Chapter XV, Article 97). Aside from administration, Article 99 states “[t]he Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” In practice, the Secretary General is the voice of the UN and the “international community,” and the problems that (s)he chooses to focus on receive significant attention worldwide. The position lacks in hard power (e.g. [s]he cannot move troops), but the more subtle soft powers of the Secretary General, such as the ability to set the agenda of the UN Security Council, contribute to the Secretary General being one of the most powerful diplomats in the world.
The selection process works through a nomination-confirmation system. The UN Security Council nominates a candidate, who is then officially appointed by the UN General Assembly in a majority vote. Because the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) each have veto power in the Security Council, they also have a veto in appointing the Secretary General.
The UN member states are divided up into five cultural-geographic groups. These blocs divide up the seats in smaller committees, such as the UN Security Council, and also rotate the UN General Assembly Presidency, with each bloc holding the Presidency once every five years. Starting in the 1970s, the UN Secretary General has also rotated through the geographic blocs. But historically, the distribution has not been even. The Western European and Others Group (WEOG) has held the position for seven five-year terms, followed by the Asia-Pacific Group with four terms, the African Group with three terms, and the Latin American and Caribbean Group with two terms. The Eastern European Group has never had a Secretary General.
The tradition of rotating the position of Secretary General was reinforced in the 2006 election, when China openly threatened to veto any candidate who was not from the Asia-Pacific Group, ensuring that power would pass to that bloc. Russia may make the same threat in the 2016 election, guaranteeing the Eastern European Group its first Secretary General. Even without the threat of a Russian veto, the other blocs may recognize that it is the Eastern European Group’s turn.
The prospect of an Eastern European Secretary General would have been laughable throughout the Cold War, but today it’s a possibility. Countries in this bloc range from Western-style democracies, such as the Czech Republic, to strong-man authoritarian states, such as Belarus. Somewhere between the two extremes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council may find a candidate acceptable to all. But the recent crisis in Ukraine has forced most members of the Eastern European bloc to choose between quiet complacency or loud declarations against Russian aggression. No matter what choice a country takes, either the West or the Russians may retaliate with a veto in the elections.
If the crisis in Ukraine is resolved, or at least results in a long-standing ceasefire, before early 2015, then an Eastern European Secretary General is a real possibility. Otherwise it will be hard to find a candidate that has sufficiently condemned the Russians to please the US while not excessively condemning the Russians and falling victim to their veto.
If the Eastern European bloc doesn’t provide a viable candidate, then the Western Europe and Others Group (WEOG) is next up in the rotation. But WEOG has held the position of UN Secretary General for nearly half the lifetime of the United Nations itself. A compromise candidate may emerge from the African or Latin American and Caribbean blocs, someone far enough away from the current crisis in Ukraine to avoid being collateral damage.
The following is a list of several declared and likely candidates, their biographies, and a brief analysis of which ones are at risk for a veto from one or more of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Candidates from Eastern Europe
Vuk Jeremic, Serbia
Vuk Jeremic was the Foreign Minister of Serbia from 2007 until 2012, when he began to serve his one-year term as the President of the General Assembly of the UN. His fight to earn that seat polarized the Eastern European bloc: Lithuania had indicated since 2004 that it would vie for that spot. Traditionally, member states of each bloc come to a consensus behind the scenes and then unanimously present their candidate, who is then unanimously approved by the rest of the UNGA. But Jeremic upended this tradition when he ran directly against Lithuanian diplomat Dalius Cekuolis, taking the mostly-ceremonial position of President of the UNGA.
In Serbia it is an open secret that Jeremic has his eye on the position of Secretary General, and there is no one else from Serbia with either the ambition or the international profile to run. But he will certainly not be the unanimous choice of the Eastern Europe bloc. Further, Jeremic’s decision not to recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia guarantees that his campaign will end with a veto at the hands of the United States, possibly joined by France and the UK. However, this is unlikely to deter Jeremic from running.
Danilo Turk, Slovenia
At the beginning of this year, the Slovenian government endorsed former President of Slovenia (2007-2012) Danilo Turk as their candidate for Secretary General. He has extensive ties to the United Nations: from 1992 until 2000 he was the Permanent Representative from Slovenia to the UN, serving twice as President of the Security Council; and from 2000 until 2005 he was the UN Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs. Turk has a strong legal background, and he co-wrote the section of the Slovenian Constitution dealing with Human Rights.
Jan Kubis, Slovakia
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appointed Jan Kubis as the Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in 2011. From 1999 until 2005 he was the Secretary General of the OSCE, and from 2006 until 2009 the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Slovakia. He has significant expertise in Central Asia, having spent time with the UN in Tajikistan in 1998 and 1999. He is a capable administrator and has already survived one appointment process without being vetoed, so it’s likely that he could pass a second.
Irina Bokova, Bulgaria
Though she was Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister for only a few months in 1996-1997, Irina Bokova has since risen to international prominence, in 2009 becoming the first woman and first Eastern European Director-General of UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Her family had strong ties to the Bulgarian Communist Party, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall Bokova disavowed the party, becoming a democrat with a particular interest in multiculturalism.
Bokova’s experience leading UNESCO, however, may prove not to be an asset,. Under her leadership, in 2011, UNESCO voted to include Palestine as a member state, prompting the United States and Israel to cut off funding to the organization. Two years later, UNESCO suspended the US and Israel’s voting rights. The situation further deteriorated when in early 2014 UNESCO postponed a cultural exhibition in Paris called “People, Book, Land — The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land” at the request of a group of Arab states, citing concerns that the exhibition “could impact negatively on the peace process and current negotiations underway in the Middle East.” The US may associate Bokova with this controversial decision, or may decide that she is too vulnerable to pressure from certain political blocs, and decide to veto her candidacy.
Helen Clark, New Zealand
After serving as Prime Minister of New Zealand for nearly a decade between 1999 and 2008, Helen Clark has led the UN Development Program since 2009. She is a highly capable administrator, and home of the controversies from her time as Prime Minister are significant enough to derail her run. Clark has not openly declared her candidacy, but current New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has declared that, should she choose to run, the New Zealand government will support her bid. However, countries outside of the Western European and Others Group may not take so kindly to another WEOGer as the UN Secretary General. Opposition to her bid will mostly be because of the resistance of other regional blocs to another WEOG candidate, not because of Clark’s personal politics.