The Appointment of the UN Secretary-General: Looking Back to Look Ahead

On 12 June 2015, Dr. Abiodun Williams, President of The Hague Institute for Global Justice and former Chair ofACUNS, took part in an ACUNS workshop panel looking at the appointment of past Secretaries-General of the United Nations (UN). The workshop panel aimed to extract lessons from these past experiences, in the context of the current debate on the appointment of a new Secretary-General in 2016.

Looking at past appointment processes, the panelists identified a recurring tension between the political realities of international relations and the drive for increased democratic legitimacy. In light of the ongoing 1 for 7 Billion Campaign, which seeks to introduce “higher standards of transparency and accountability” to the upcoming appointment process, the panel’s analysis is more relevant than ever.

Ms. Ellen Jenny Ravndal, PhD Candidate at St Anthony’s College, University of Oxford, spoke about the appointment process of UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie (1946 – 1952). She emphasized the fact that, as this was the first appointment process for the position and the UN Charter gave little guidance on the matter, the rules of the process were made up on the ground. Importantly, only one candidate would be put forward by the Security Council, to be appointed by the General Assembly, and no public debate took place. This is very different from the approach favored today, with civil society encouraging popular involvement in the process. Ms. Ravndal also pointed out that the criteria for the appointment were based mostly on political considerations, such as geographical representation in light of the holders of other important positions, rather than the personal attributes or qualifications of the candidates. That being said, it was considered important to appoint someone who was a statesman, rather than a career diplomat. The individuals put forward by the Security Council shared many features: all being male, most being European and most having been ambassadors in Washington DC. Ms. Ravndal pointed out that, while Trygve Lie was not the favored contender of any Security Council member, he was ultimately appointed as the least objectionable option.

Prof. Dr. Manuel Fröhlich, Professor at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, explored the appointment process of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (1953 – 1961). He commented that, as with the first appointment process, the political acceptability of the Secretary-General was seen as more important than his aptitude for the job. Once again, the process was dominated by private meetings of the Security Council and informal consultations between its five permanent members. Dag Hammarskjöld was an unlikely contender given his professional experience, which did not include ambassadorial experience. He is reported as stating that he did not think he would be nominated and that he would be unlikely to accept the position if it were offered to him. However, after the Security Council emphasized to him how the interests of world peace would be served by his acceptance, he was persuaded to take up the role. He is now widely viewed as the quintessential example of what a Secretary-General should be.

Dr. Bernard Firestone, Dean at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Hofstra University, looked at the appointment of Secretary-General U Thant (1961 – 1971), following the untimely death of his predecessor. This set of circumstances meant that the usual process of lobbying and drawing up a list of contenders was disrupted. Amid Soviet calls to replace the deceased Secretary General with a troika, thereby weakening the office, there were constitutional questions about the role to be played by the General Assembly. Consequently, the non-aligned states had the opportunity to play a decisive role in how these constitutional questions would be resolved. They settled on having an acting Secretary-General, appointed by the General Assembly on a recommendation by the Security Council, and supported by a group of advisors. The number and role of the advisors were left to be decided by the Secretary-General. Unusually, U Thant was supported by a majority in the Security Council and not the five permanent members alone. However, not at all unusually, the process was again defined by backroom deals and power politics, in a bid to find the lowest common denominator who would be acceptable to the relevant states. Nevertheless, the new Secretary-General, in his interaction with his advisors and the performance of his duties, did not accept anything that would weaken the office he held.

Prof. Kent Kille, Professor at The College of Wooster, spoke about the appointment of Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim (1972 –1981). Prof. Kille argued that Waldheim was exceptional in that he actively pursued the appointment; once in office, he actively campaigned to be re-appointed, leaving a leadership vacuum in his wake. He was therefore seen as subservient to the Security Council and more preoccupied with the prestige of the role than with fulfilling his mandate as Secretary-General. As a result, he took a managerial approach to the role and was sensitive to the needs of powerful states, who could play a role in his re-appointment. Prof. Kille argued that Waldheim’s personal career aspirations hindered his effectiveness as a Secretary-General.

Mr. Alvaro de Soto, from the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, looked at the appointment of Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar (1982 – 1991). He began by questioning the wisdom of the current drive for a more electoral approach to the appointment of a Secretary-General, considering the widely held opinion that Secretaries-General who actively pursued the role (such as Waldheim) were less effective than those who were more reluctant to be appointed (such as Hammarskjöld). Mr. de Soto suggested that the drafters of the UN Charter explicitly intended the process not to be an electoral one, as they used the word “appointment” for the Secretary-General, but used the word “election” for other offices. For his part, Perez de Cuellar did not actively seek the role and, while in office, he avoided the limelight in favor of working effectively behind the scenes. He highlighted the importance of the impartiality of the Secretary-General, which would be compromised by him having to campaign for the job and therefore win favor with those appointing him. Perez de Cuellar used his reluctance to accept a second term in office as an effective bargaining tool to convince the great powers to deal with a major issue of the era – the Iran-Iraq conflict. Mr. de Soto therefore argued that the appointment of the Secretary-General should be guided by the notion that wanting the role too much should be a ground for the disqualification of a contender.

Dr. Abiodun Williams then concluded the presentations by exploring the appointment process of Secretary-General Kofi Annan (1997 – 2006). He argued that Annan was appointed partly because of what he was, an excellent manager with vast UN experience, and partly because of what he was not. Annan was seen as the complete opposite to his predecessor, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992 – 1996), who had been perceived as arrogant and as having a disregard for US sensitivities. In contrast, Annan was modest, restrained and conciliatory – more secretary than general. In addition, geographical representation was once again an important factor, as Annan was from the same continent as his predecessor, and was therefore able to keep the role in the region for (at least) Boutros-Ghali’s expected 10 year term. Furthermore, Annan’s appointment was exceptional in that he was the first career civil servant to be chosen for the role. Although cultivating good relationships with the Security Council members allowed him to do his job more effectively, this also hindered his credibility with other states, who viewed his connections, with the US in particular, as problematic. In retrospect, Annan’s first term in office was marked by a general era of good feeling about the UN. Dr. Williams also briefly addressed the appointment of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (2007 – 2016), noting that it marked a return to the established pattern of geographical representation and of looking outside the UN system for contenders. In addition, his appointment was marked by the active role of the South Korean government.

The panel’s presentations were followed by a fruitful debate, involving members of the audience. The panel’s presentations and debate highlighted various lessons, drawn from the past, which can inform the selection process of Secretaries-General in 2016 and beyond. Firstly, while the democratic process has many important advantages, the appointment of a Secretary-General may be less amenable to an electoral process, where candidates campaign for the position.

Instead, the Security Council should proactively seek and recommend qualified candidates for the role, rather than turning to a process of elimination based on political considerations alone. This therefore raises questions about the desirability of calls to democratize the appointment process. Secondly, looking at the successes and challenges of past Secretaries-General, it seems that the ideal successor would combine excellent qualifications and experience, an ability to build effective working relationships with member states and a positive public image.

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