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UN race over before it begins

June 01, 2021 17:24 IST
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The race for the UN secretary-general for 2022-2027 is already over and another term for Antonio Guterres is a foregone conclusion, observes Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

IMAGE: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at a news conference in Moscow, May 12, 2021. Photograph: Maxim Shemeto/Reuters

The selection of the United Nations secretary-general by the UN Security Council before a nomination is sent to the General Assembly for approval has been rightly compared to the Papal Conclave, whose decision is known only when the white smoke emanates from a special chimney placed on the roof of the Sistine Chapel.

No one knows of the criteria used, calculations made or voting record and it is the burnt ballots that produce the smoke. But this time it appears that the white smoke has appeared over the UN headquarters even before the Conclave began.

The process of electing the next secretary-general for the next five-year term has been initiated when the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council addressed a joint letter to the member States, inviting them to nominate candidates.

The letter said that the position of the secretary-general is one of great importance that requires the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity, and a firm commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

It stressed that candidates should have proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills.

The unwritten criteria that nominees should be from small, neutral countries, speak French and be pliable have not been mentioned.

IMAGE: Indo-Canadian Arora Akanksha is bidding to be the UN's next secretary-general. Photograph: Kind courtesy, Arora Akanksha/Twitter

The UN Charter devotes just 16 words to the appointment of the secretary-general.

Article 97 of the Charter states: 'The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.'

But over the years, a number of ground rules and procedures have been devised to make the selection fair and smooth.

Among them are terms and conditions of employment and length of the term of office.

It has also declared that it would be desirable for the Security Council to recommend only one candidate for the consideration of the General Assembly.

The most significant evolution in this process took place within the Council, as it introduced the use of straw polls to determine the viability of candidates ahead of a formal vote.

Since 1997, members of the General Assembly have discussed several proposals aimed at improving the transparency and inclusivity of the selection process and finding a role for the wider membership of the UN, but these discussions led to no change in the process.

On the last occasion, which culminated in the selection of Antonio Guterres, a new framework for a more transparent process was followed in which an unprecedented public dialogue with the candidates that tested a broad set of skills, providing the UN membership as well as a global audience with an insight into the thinking of candidates and how they presented themselves in front of a large audience.

But the modalities in the Council -- straw polls and a private meeting to vote on the recommendation -- were not much different from past selection processes.

But the environment created by the preceding transparent process in the General Assembly must have impacted the Council's decision-making.

All said and done, the rules and conventions for electing a UN secretary-general developed over the years are designed to give the permanent members a free hand to make a choice.

If the five permanent members agree on a candidate, no rules, conventions or precedents will stand in the way.

Till that happens, various procedures are used to eliminate candidates.

Even the fundamental principle of geographic rotation was violated when Antonio Guterres was elected.

It was generally believed that since neither East Europeans nor women had ever served as UNSG, an East European lady would be an ideal choice.

A record number of women and East Europeans joined the fray. But the choice did not fall on any of the East European candidates, men or women.

West Europe already had its share, but the Portuguese got the East European turn.

Another established tradition is that every secretary-general gets two terms of five years each.

One exception was Egypt's Boutrous Ghali, who was denied a second term by a US veto even though he had the support of the other fourteen members.

On the strength of this tradition, Antonio Guterres confirmed that he will be seeking a second five-year term and Portugal has endorsed him in February 2021, before the formal invitation was issued.

Moreover, support has been extended to him by the five permanent members of the Security Council and the Nonaligned Movement, among others.

In the circumstances, another term for Antonio Guterres is a foregone conclusion.

IMAGE: Rosalia Arteaga, former president of Ecuador. Photograph: Kind courtesy, Rosalia Arteaga/Twitter

However, the proper procedure for the election of the secretary-general is being followed by the Secretariat. Nominations have been formally invited.

Accordingly, two candidates have offered their services. One is a Canadian citizen of Indian origin, Arora Akanksha, audit coordinator for the United Nations Development Programme.

On February 17, 2021, Arora formally applied for the position, saying 'We are not living up to our purpose or our promise. We are failing those we are here to serve.'

She believes that the UN is wasteful and paternalistic and that the organisation is not accomplishing its mission.

She has taken leave of absence from her work at the UNDP to work on the campaign, which she describes as a 'David and Goliath' story. She has no endorsement of any member nation so far.

The other is Rosalia Arteaga, who was President of Ecuador for a few days in 1997.

Neither of them is credible and the other candidates are holding back because of the emerging consensus in favour of another term for Guterres.

The tradition of two terms for every secretary-general makes it difficult to rotate the position among member states.

When Shashi Tharoor withdrew from the race for the UN secretary-general in the face of two possible vetoes, many thought that he could try next time without realising that the next time would come only fifty years later when Asia gets a chance to put up a candidate.

In fact, a justification for India endorsing his candidature was that it would be a shame if India did not have a candidate when the rare turn of Asia came up even though he had no chance to win except by a miracle.

A suggestion has been made to fix a single seven-year term for future appointees, but it has not gained traction so far.

Since the effective criterion for giving a second term to a secretary-general is the satisfaction of the permanent members, Guterres has already won with the endorsement by the five.

Barring a dramatic turn of events, the race for the secretary-general for 2022-2027 is already over and there will be no surprises in the functioning of the United Nations and the reform of the Security Council will remain stalled.

Ambassador T P Sreenivasan (IFS 1967) is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA.
A frequent contributor to, you can read his fascinating columns here.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/

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