Highlight 30/2021 – The election of the UN Secretary General. Can we still hope in a more democratic and fair selection process?
Annalisa Baruffi, 18 November 2021
The new Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, began his mandate on 1 January 2017. For the first time, the selection process took place in a transparent and open way. In 2021, looking back at this experience, we wonder what remains from the new rules.
The UN Charter gives the General Assembly the responsibility of appointing the Secretary General by recommendation of the Security Council. However, until 2016, the General Assembly had played a purely formal role, limiting itself to ratifying the decision of the Security Council. In view of the election of the new Secretary General in 2016, a more transparent, open, and inclusive selection process was foreseen. The absence of effective leadership risked compromising the UN capacity to preserve world peace and security. The General Assembly and the Security Council defined specific criteria to be used by the Member States in making their proposals. The names of candidates were publicized, and candidates were asked to present their CVs and mission statements. Candidates were required to make proposals for their future mandate, present their workplan in the office and their vision on the challenges that the future Secretary General may encounter. They were also invited to answer to video statements coming from civil society and interviews with the media were foreseen. The new selection process led to 13 candidates, among which 7 were women.
The reform process was strongly promoted by civil society. It was at the origin of the movement « 1 for 7 million: find the best UN leader« . The campaign in support of the reform was signed by more than 750 organizations, mainly NGOs, and 170 million people around the world. The movement, born in 2014, is still active today and asks Member States to address 5 key issues:
- Clarity on the requirements for nomination
- A longer, non-renewable term for future Secretaries-General
- Multiple candidates to be put to the General Assembly
- End to back room deals and monopolies on top jobs
- The oath of office
The reform introduced in 2015 marked a point in favor of the United Nations. The transparency of the selection process reduced the possibilities of making choices solely based on the political interests of States with greater power within the Security Council. Power was redistributed and the General Assembly, the representative body of all Member States, took back its decision-making role.
Despite the progress made so far, some improvements still need to be made. Although public hearings were organized, little importance was given to them. Furthermore, the UN took a step back with the renewal of the Secretary General in 2021. There were 6 self-candidacies, but these were not formally supported by any Member State. There was only one official candidate, Antonio Guterres. No hearings or debates were held, and no competitive election took place. No detailed evaluation was carried out on the quality of Antonio Guterres’ work during his first mandate. The renewal of the current Secretary General mandate was taken for granted. Once again, the United Nations missed the chance to demonstrate its will to ensure transparency and accountability. The innovative selection process launched in 2016, however imperfect, was full of good promises. The United Nations seemed willing to affirm the principles of democracy and equity within its organization. Today, those promises do not seem to have brought a real change of culture in the United Nations. We cannot predict whether the process undertaken in 2016 will be revitalized in the next election, or whether everything will stay the same. If we wish to achieve the former, the identification of candidates must take place well in advance. Cooperation with civil society is essential in identifying the best candidates and in keeping public attention high. If we want the election of the next UN Secretary General to be democratic, transparent, and truly competitive, it is time to act and start building the road to 2026.
Annalisa Baruffi, The election of the UN Secretray General. Can we still hope in a more democratic and fair selection process?, Highlight 30/2021, available at www.meig.ch
The views expressed in the MEIG Highlights are personal to the author and neither reflect the positions of the MEIG Programme nor those of the University of Geneva.