This year, the United Nations will choose its next secretary general. We need the best possible candidate for the job.
It is often spoken of as the most impossible job in the world.
And given the fact that the next secretary general will take over on January 1, 2017, it is easy to see why: appalling conflicts and human suffering in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Europe; violent extremism that is threatening us all; continued discrimination against women and girls; a worrying rise in xenophobia; over 800 million people struggling to escape extreme poverty; close to 60 million displaced around the world; a unique window-of-opportunity to address climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals before it is too late; and an Organization that needs to adapt to the challenges and new goals the world is facing.
In its 70-year history, the UN, for all its flaws, has demonstrated that it can rise to such challenges. But to do so today, it must secure the best possible candidate as its next secretary general.
The role of the secretary general
Many have suggested that the UN’s most senior official should either be a secretary or a general. This is too simplistic, for the secretary general must be both and more.
A person with strong moral courage and integrity; he or she – and I don’t see why the best candidate should not be a woman – must be a voice for the world’s most vulnerable people and embody the very ideals and purposes of the United Nations.
As the world’s top diplomat, the secretary general must use his/her independence, impartiality and good offices to prevent conflict, broker peace and stand up for human rights.
He/she should be a person with political stature and strong leadership skills – with the authority to bring to the attention of the UN Security Council any matter which in his/her opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.
As the chief administrative officer of the UN, the secretary general must create a culture of integrity, fairness, competence and efficiency right across the UN family and oversee a huge organization with a budget of approximately $10 billion, a staff of over 40,000 and 41 peace operations worldwide.
The secretary general must be a person with strong inter-personal and communication skills – able to navigate smoothly in our increasingly multi-polar world and drive a global transition to sustainable development.
An archaic selection process
One might think, therefore, that the process for choosing the secretary general would be as vigorous, inclusive and transparent as possible.
But, to date, this has not been the case.
Previously, there has been no clarity on when the selection process actually started or, somewhat unbelievably, who was actually running for the job. Also, there has been no formal job description and no real opportunity for substantive and open engagement with the candidates – neither for the full UN membership nor the public.
The result: Recommendations negotiated behind closed doors – primarily by the five permanent members of the Security Council; eight secretaries general, not one of whom has been female; and a mostly symbolic appointment by the UN General Assembly. Therefore, secretaries general have, not always rightfully, been perceived to be beholden to the very powers that they must be most independent of.
A better way to choose the next incumbent
The UN Charter is clear on the respective roles of the Security Council and the General Assembly in the selection and appointment process and this must be adhered to.
But recent changes to the process itself, agreed to by all 193 members of the General Assembly, provide us with a genuine opportunity to make it more transparent, more robust, more inclusive and ultimately, more effective.
As president of that Assembly, it is my job to ensure that those changes are implemented.
So here’s what’s happening.
Last December, the president of the Security Council and I set the selection process in motion by issuing a call for candidates to be presented as early as possible.
We outlined the central features of the process. We pointed out some of the key criteria for the position and, in light of seven decades of male dominance, we encouraged member states to present both female and male candidates.
To date, eight candidates have been presented and their biographies and related information are now publicly available on my website. (www.un.org/pga/70/sg/)
But perhaps the greatest opportunity to truly break from the past comes in the form of open dialogues that I will hold with the candidates. These dialogues – referred to by some as the SG hearings – will begin on April 12.
Each candidate is expected to prepare a vision statement on the challenges and opportunities facing the UN and the next secretary general. They will present themselves for two hours of questions from the full UN membership as well as from civil society and each dialogue will be streamed live online. The dialogues will continue with new candidates until the Security Council makes its recommendation. And I expect everyone who is serious about becoming the world’s next chief diplomat to engage openly and directly with the full UN membership and the people that he or she will ultimately serve.
An opportunity for change
Of course, these innovations will not directly transform our world and discussions continue on issues such as the length and renewability of the secretary general’s term and whether the General Assembly should vote on an appointment or not.
But they do have the potential to establish a new standard of transparency and inclusivity in international affairs. They can increase our chances of securing the best possible candidate to lead the United Nations. And they represent, I believe, a moment in history when the General Assembly – the world’s most representative and democratic decision-making body – reasserts itself.
Given the global challenges we face today, this could be a real game-changer.
So, please go online, participate on social media, make yourself heard and help us find the best possible candidate for the UN secretary general that our world needs.
(Mogens Lykketoft was elected last year as the president of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly. He has been the speaker of Denmark’s parliament and a minister. The views expressed are personal.)