ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Selecting the Next UN Secretary General

Because of the post-Volcker report push for major management reforms of the UN, the lingering rancour of the failure of major reforms and the domineering role of the US, the election of the next UN secretary general may not run true to past precedents.

Selecting the Next UNSecretary General

Because of the post-Volcker report push for major management reforms of the UN, the lingering rancour of the failure of major reforms and the domineering role of the US, the election of the next UN secretary general may not run true to

past precedents.


he establishment of a secretariat headed by a chief executive converts ad hoc intergovernmental conferences into an international organisation. The secretariat of the United Nations (UN) is the most tangible evidence of the continuous existence of the international organisation. The chief administrative officer of the secretariat is the secretary general (SG) of the UN. He (we are yet to be graced with a woman SG), not the president or prime minister of any member state, is the personification of the international interest.

The origins of the office, both in its administrative and symbolic roles, lie in the League of Nations. The status, authority and powers of the SG are derived chiefly from the clauses of the UN Charter, but depend also invariably on the skills and personality of the incumbent and the state of relations among the major powers of the world. While some framers of the UN Charter wanted to restrict the SG’s role to the traditional apolitical model of the head of a civil service, obedient and deferential to the political masters, others argued for a more clearly political and activist conception. In the end, both conceptions found expression in the Charter, though they do not necessarily cohabit all that easily.

The SG is required to be a politician, diplomat and international civil servant rolled into one. He both symbolises and represents the UN. He is elected to office as an individual, not as the representative of a government or a region; yet the regions demand “their” turn at the office. In an organisation of, by and for states, he must have the backing of almost all but owe no allegiance to none. Is the SG the 193rd member state of the UN, or the 16th member of the security council?

In order to maximise his influence and expand his role, the SG must cultivate five key constituencies: his own staff; member states who constitute the voting majority in the general assembly (GA); those who contribute the necessary financial and human resources for UN activities and operations; those who control the security council (SC), in particular, the five permanent members (P5), and in particular, the US (P1); and global civil society.

Selection Procedure

The process of selecting SG has been haphazard. The UN Charter has just one brief sentence on the selection process: “The Secretary General shall be appointed by the general assembly upon the recommendation of the security council” (Article 97). “Appointment” supposedly stresses the administrative function, while “election” would have suggested a more clearly political role.

In its first session, on January 24, 1946, the GA adopted Resolution I/11 which formulated, elaborated and clarified a few details.1 The first SG would be appointed for five years, with the possibility for another five-year term. The council was requested to forward only one nomination to the assembly. Nomination by the council, to be discussed only in private meetings and to be voted by secret ballot, would require the affirmative votes of seven of the 11 members (since changed to nine of 15 after the expansion of the council in 1965), including the concurring votes of the permanent members. A simple majority of those present and voting, by secret ballot and without debate on the nomination, would be sufficient in the GA voting.

The council vote being subject to veto by a permanent member changes the thrust from selecting someone who commands the widest following to one who is not unacceptable to any of the P5. The selection and reappointment procedure affects the substance of the SG’s conduct: he cannot afford to antagonise a single P5 member. Undue deference to the major powers by an SG is reinforced if the incumbent should be interested in reelection. Rosemary Righter notes that “In the history of the United Nations, not one UN secretary general has been appointed because he was expected to provide outstanding leadership”.2 As US ambassador Max Finger put it, member states want of their SG “excellence within the parameters of political reality”.3

Insider’s Story

The practice of conducting straw polls, begun in 1981, gives greater flexibility to the process, but only at the cost of transparency. All official meetings of the council, even those held in camera, require communiqués to be issued; straw polls do not, although leaks are quite common. India’s former ambassador to the UN, Chinmaya Gharekhan has provided an insider account of the selection process in the SC in 1991, when Boutros Boutros-Ghali was elected.4 As president of the council in October 1991, Gharekhan engaged in an intensive process of bilateral and informal consultations in order to whittle down the long list of aspiring candidates to a shortlist for serious deliberations by members of the council. Interestingly, names could be added or withdrawn at any stage, and even previously eliminated names could be reinserted at a later stage. In the initial stages, members voted in a straw poll that did not differentiate between the elected and permanent members of the council. In one integrated list with candidates’ names in one column, members could indicate support for a candidate by placing an “X” against the name in the second column. There was no provision for a negative vote or an abstention. The initial polls were held on October 21 and 25. The process got more intense in November, with differentiated votes (using different coloured ballots: red for the P5, white for others) by the elected and permanent members and the addition of negative and abstention categories of voting against each candidate’s name individually. Zimbabwe finance minister Bernard Chidzero and Egypt’s deputy prime minister Boutros-Ghali went back and forth in lead, without an indication of a negative vote for either by any

Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006 permanent member. Finally, on November 21, Boutros-Ghali came through with a vote of 11 yes, none against, and four abstentions. According to Gharekhan, the Americans and British were caught by surprise at the outcome. Boutros-Ghali was formally appointed by the GA on December 3, 1991, by acclamation, for a five-year term.

In paragraph 4(a), GA Resolution I/11 (1946) had stated that in the absence of any clause in the UN Charter on the subject, the GA and the SC “are free to modify the term of office of future secretaries general in the light of experience”. In para 4(c), the resolution empowered the GA to require a two-thirds instead of a simple majority in future. In Resolution 51/241 (August 22, 1997), the GA called for greater transparency in the selection process of the SG; asked for the duration of the term of appointment, “including the option of a single term”, to be considered before the appointment of “the next SG” (that is, since the phrasing carefully avoided “the next appointment”, the requirement would not apply to Kofi Annan’s reappointment if he sought and was granted a second term); for due regard to be given to regional rotation and gender equality; and for the president of the GA to consult with member states to identify potential candidates and forward their names to the SC (paragraphs 56–60).

Once in office, SGs are often criticised for administrative and management deficiencies. Yet the selection process places a premium on political and diplomatic skills, without which candidates would founder early in the process, much more than on management experience. And, it was his perceived anti-Americanism and policy differences, especially in relation to peacekeeping, that led Washington to veto a second term for Boutros-Ghali. Some of the built-in disadvantages of the office could be overcome by altering the term from five to seven years and making it nonrenewable. The procedure could also be exempted from the veto.

Washington’s Choice

During the cold war, the failure of the principal political organs to function as originally envisaged placed a disproportionate burden on the shoulders of the SG. As a result the office became one with little power but considerable influence. The burden of pacific settlement under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter as often as not fell on the office of the SG, and it was the SG who conceived the novel institution of UN peacekeeping operations and became the lynchpin of their management. Since the end of the cold war, the SG is looked to in many quarters almost as an alternative voice of dissent in a USdominated UN, when in fact, the cold war ended in a triumph of American values and destroyed many institutional checks on the exercise of US power globally.

The political environment in which Kofi Annan has had to operate is unique. No previous SG had to face the problem of a world of only one superpower. They had to operate by and large within the overall umbrella of the cold war bipolar world. The problems posed by this began to emerge during Boutros-Ghali’s term, but its scope and magnitude became apparent only after “9/11” and the triumph of the neoconservatives within the Washington policy community. Thus on the one hand, to many US neoconservatives, Annan represents an organisation that they loath, and they tried to use the oil-for-food scandal to discredit both the UN as an organisation and Annan personally. On the other hand, Annan has sometimes been seen as unduly accommodative of US concerns and interests. Critics recall that he became America’s choice for SG when Washington turned on Boutros-Ghali and decided to support Annan because in 1995, “as acting secretary general”, he had departed from Boutros-Ghali’s restraint and “authorised the NATO bombing of the Bosnian Serbs that paved the road to the Dayton Peace Agreement. That action, more than anything else, convinced American officials, including me, that he was the best possible person to lead the UN.”5

Yet elected members comprise a twothirds majority in the SC and developing countries form the overwhelming majority in the GA. They appointed him SG, and reappointed him unanimously, knowing he was Washington’s preferred choice. For them to demand courage of conviction on the SG’s part is to shift the burden of courageous decision-making solely on to his shoulders, when it should fall more properly on theirs.

Corporate Struggle

The corporate struggle between the UN’s two premier political organs continues over the election of the next SG. The majority wish for a competent and effective SG traditionally runs afoul of the P5 desire to appoint a relatively weak and pliant candidate with whom they feel comfortable. The historical background makes it clear that if the GA fails to assert its constitutional rights as a co-equal selector, it cannot fairly continue to blame its resulting exclusion on the council’s obduracy.

In the first half of 2006, Canada and India took the lead in trying to reclaim a greater role for the broader membership and the GA. Canadians, unhappy at the lack of transparency and inclusiveness, pushed for entry points for other members to participate in the selection process before nomination of a single candidate by the council. They circulated a paper in February 2006 proposing that the selection should be anchored in agreed criteria and qualifications; a search committee should identify potential candidates, who should then be able to meet with all members of the GA, perhaps through regional groups; and the assembly and council presidents should organise informal events to explore the perspectives and positions of the candidates. India, arguing that the selection process turns the SG into a secretary of the council but a general to the assembly, suggested the more radical change of more than one nominee being forwarded by the council to the GA. Its push for more democratisation stalled with the decision to nominate Shashi Tharoor as an Indian candidate. The decision also effectively took India out of being an Asian powerbroker in the selection process alongside China and Japan.

In April, Malaysia, as chair of the Non-Aligned Movement Coordinating Bureau, communicated the formal position that the next SG should be selected from the Asian region (UN document S/2006/252, April 21). Although this was supported by Russia and China, London and Washington resisted, arguing in favour of the best candidate. Their objections would have been more persuasive if they had searched for the best candidates to lead the

Economic and Political Weekly

available from:

Churchgate Book Stall

Churchgate Station Opp Indian Merchants Chamber Churchgate Mumbai - 400 020

Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006

International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, instead of dividing these between a European and American. Around the time of the G-8 summit in July, George W Bush finally appeared to concede that international sentiment strongly favoured the next SG being Asian. The west Europeans have had six terms, Asia and Latin America two terms each, with none from eastern Europe.

The first indicative, non-binding straw poll was held on July 24. The 15 SC members had to mark ballot papers against “encourage”, “discourage” and “no opinion”. The “winner” was South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki-moon (with 12 positive votes, one negative vote and two abstentions), followed by UN undersecretary general Shashi Tharoor of India (10:2:3); Thai deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai (7:3:5); and ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka (5:6:4). Since the ballots were not colourcoded to distinguish between the permanent and rotating members, it was a futile exercise to work out who was in danger of being vetoed when the real vote takes place in October. While there was some pressure on the two lower ranked candidates to withdraw gracefully, the counterargument was that this was a self-indulgent vote where members did not have to face up to any responsibility for the choices indicated. Many people in New York believed that the next secretary general may not have declared his or her hand yet.6

The post of deputy SG was created as a result of Annan’s first reform report in 1997, and Louise Frechette was appointed as the first deputy SG in 1998. This raises the question as to whether in future there might not be teams of candidacies, as in US presidential elections, for the two posts of SG and deputy. This would allow member states a better opportunity to weigh up the balance of competing teams.

In sum, because of the new post of deputy SG, the post-Volcker Report push for major management reforms, the lingering rancour of the failure of major policy and structural reforms, and the dominant and domineering role of the US, the election of the next SG may not run true to past precedents.




1 For a succinct fact-sheet on the procedures, see ‘Appointment of a New Secretary General’,

Security Council Report, February 16, 2006; 4 Chinmaya R Gharekhan, ‘Up Close: An
2 available at Rosemary Righter, Utopia Lost: The United Nations and World Order, Twentieth Century Insider’s Story of the UN at Work’ and ‘How Ghali became Secretary General’, The Asian Age, June 23 and 25, 2006.
3 Fund Press, New York, 1995, p 270. Quoted by Brian E Urquhart and Erskine Childers, A World in Need of Leadership: Tomorrow’s United Nations, Dag Hammarsköld Foundation, Uppsala, 1990, p 18. See also the 5 6 Richard C Holbrooke (US ambassador to the UN, 1999-2001), ‘Kofi Annan’, Time, April 26, 2004, p 59. See Thalif Deen, ‘Despite Secret Poll, Race for UN Chief is Wide Open’, Asian Tribune,
revised edition published in 1996. July 26, 2006.

Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top