India flavour of season as UN secretary general hopefuls vie for global support

United Nations, April 17 (IANS) With the shroud of secrecy partially lifted for the first time from the process of electing the next UN secretary general, the nine candidates are taking their case to the world and seeking out influencers like India.

Each of the nine candidates spent two hours presenting their vision for the UN before the 193-member General Assembly over three days beginning last Tuesday and subjected themselves to a grilling from not only diplomats but also from ordinary citizens picked by civil society organisations.

Under the spotlight of democracy, the candidates vying to succeed Ban Ki-moon, who completes his second term at the end of this year, are reaching beyond the Security Council’s five permanent members (P5) to meeting with diplomats individually and in groups.

According to diplomatic sources, six of them have so far met with India’s Permanent Representative, Syed Akbaruddin, some of them visiting him at the Indian mission.

A diplomatic source said they are meeting Akabaruddin individually and have been in touch with officials in New Delhi because they think India is a “significant influencer” of opinion at the UN.

With the Security Council expected to begin considering the nominations in July, it is likely that some more candidates may join the fray. If they do, another round of candidate meetings will be held.

In the 70 years of the UN, all the eight secretaries general were essentially picked by the P5 – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – and the General Assembly merely rubber-stamped the choice. Although the veto-wielding P5 will continue to have the ultimate say, it could still be different this time.

“The Security Council will now have the public to answer to if it fails to put merit before political convenience in its decision later this year,” said Natalie Samarasinghe, the executive director of United Nations Association – UK and the co-founder of 1 for 7 Billion, a campaign for opening up the election process.

“It was easy to select the lowest-denominator candidate when meetings were taking place behind closed doors, but the element of public scrutiny that has now emerged …has thrown a spotlight on to the proceedings,” Samarasinghe added.

“The General Assembly will no longer be simply a rubber stamp for the P5 governments’ very, very flawed selection process,” explained William R. Pace, the executive director of the Institute for Global Policy.

“The P5 and the Security Council will make their recommendation; but for the first time in the 70 years of the United Nations, the General Assembly will know who have been nominated, what are their qualifications, what are their visions of the job, how they respond to open hearings and questioning,” Pace added.

And the world is watching: according to the UN more than 222,000 people have watched the candidate meetings online. The opening up of the process is an achievement of General Assembly president Mogens Lykketoft, who described it as a potential “game-changer” for the way the elections are held.

Diplomats IANS spoke to said that having the candidates face the entire UN in election campaign-style meetings did put some limitations on the Security Council by restricting the choice to them. It cannot ignore the candidates who performed really well and it cannot at the last minute bring in “a dark horse in the race” who hasn’t gone through this process, they said.

“To that extent most diplomats feel that this is a process that has been good, it is open and transparent, it has provided every member state some role or the other,” said one ambassador.

Some of the candidates also participated in public fora in New York organised outside the UN by the International Peace Institute and by a group made up of the United Kingdom UN Association, the Guardian newspaper and the New America Foundation, where they spoke to citizens and answered their questions.

At the General Assembly candidates meetings, the members of the G4 – Brazil, Germany, India and Japan – which campaign together for Security Council reforms and mutually support each other for permanent Council seats – rotated questioning the candidates.

Akbaruddin raised the terrorism issue with two of the candidates when it was his turn. Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said that terrorism is a major issue on his agenda. The UN has to focus more on terrorism, he said, particularly preventing violent extremism before it metamorphosises into terrorism.

Guterres said that one of the reasons that the UN has not been able to effectively tackle terrorism is the absence of a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). India has been pushing for such a global treaty to fight terrorism, but the initiative has languished for about 20 years because of differences over defining terrorism and terrorists.

Srgjan Kerim, a former president of the General Assembly and a former foreign minister of Macedonia, was asked by Akbaruddin about the CCIT. He replied that it should have been there when he was the president of the General Assembly in 2007 and that he had been keen to have it adopted then.

When Akbaruddin asked Guterres about Security Council reform, the other subject of importance to India, he would not be pinned down on specific changes saying it was for the members to decide.

When other candidates were asked about lt by other G4 members or in public forums they either ignored it or were evasive. For example, Natalia Gherman, the former Moldova foreign minister, said at the International Peace Institute forum that the secretary general’s role would be to help the member nations make an informed decision on Council reforms and facilitate unity in the General Assembly and the Council.

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, who is now the head of the UN Development Programme was the keynote speaker at B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary celebrations at the UN on Wednesday in the middle of the candidate sessions. Sources familiar with the event organisation said that it had nothing to do with her candidature as it had not been announced when she was invited to the meeting as a development expert and an advocate of empowerment of women and the downtrodden.

The nine candidates – four of them women – represent a wide range of experience. In the overlapping offices that they hold or have held at various times, two have been prime ministers, three have headed or now head UN organisations, six have been or are now foreign ministers and one has been the president of the General Assembly.

Seven of them are from Eastern Europe. Under the tradition of geographic rotation of the secretary general’s office, it is now the the turn of Europe and East Europeans have staked their claim because all the three previous Europeans have been from the West.

There is also a groundswell of public opinion for electing a woman to the office and for the first time women are contesting.

The other candidates are former Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian who is the director general of Unesco; Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic; Montenegro foreign minister Igor Lukcsic; former Croatian foreign minister Vesna Pusic, and former Slovenian president Danilo Turk.

(Arul Louis can be reached at arul.l@ians.in)

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