Picking a Secretary-General May Never Be the Same Again

For the first time since its inception on October 24, 1945, the United Nations has opened up the selection process for secretary-general.

Until now, the secretary-general has been chosen in a relatively secretive process by the 193-member General Assembly on the recommendation of the 15-member Security Council, with little or no input from anybody else.

Last week, the process was thrown open to the public. Over four days, nine candidates for the office lined up to answer a total of about 800 questions that were put to them by ambassadors and advocacy groups. Almost all 193 U.N. member states took part, and over a quarter of a million people from 209 countries and territories watched some of the webcast.

The actual selection will remain in the hands of the Security Council and General Assembly, but the new question-and-answer sessions are already being hailed by some as the dawning of a new era of transparency.

Judging from excerpts from the transcripts and media reports, the Q&A was more like an audition for the high-profile post than a serious vetting, and nothing (thankfully) like the ferocious head-butting of this year’s U.S. presidential debates. Indeed, most of the things said were politically correct, platitudinous and unenlightening.

Take, for example, Danilo Türk, 64, Slovenia’s third president, who said, on the question of U.N. interventions: “There is no substitute for sound judgment for specific features of every specific situation. Interventions can go badly wrong, and non-interventions can go badly wrong.” Hardly anything left to say on the matter after that, is there?

Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said that the U.N. was so far unable to approve an “international convention on terrorism. That is why we lack some key instruments” in tackling terrorism. Translate “lack some” to “have none.”

The candidates, all of them brilliant over-achievers in politics and diplomacy, are presumably a lot less bland in real life. Their lackluster performance in the Q&A was explained neatly by the British Guardian:

“The difficulty facing all the candidates is how to sound as if they would be a strong and independent secretary-general without being so strong or so independent that they would challenge the interests of the major powers in the Security Council. As a result, most have opted for vagueness.”

Yet, here and there, an inkling of the candidate and her (most were women) future policies as secretary-general could be gleaned:

Like the revealing caveat about counter-terrorism from former Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim, who said it must be ensured that the more than one billion people who follow the Islamic faith are not offended by insisting that there is such a thing as Islamic terrorism.

And, of course, you can usually tell a lot about somebody by whom they praise. Igor Lukšić, 39, Montenegro’s former prime minister, told us all we need to know about his views of human rights when he praised the work of the U.N. Human Rights Council, while conceding that it struggles with money and logistics. Incremental progress is still progress, he said. Of course, that depends a great deal on one’s view of the UNHRC.

More importantly, though, for those who will actually choose the next secretary-general, is the candidate’s record. In most cases, there exists an official record of performance, eliminating a lot of the guesswork.

Take Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, for example. One of the top contenders, she has served as director-general of UNESCO since 2009, now in her second term. Just last week, the UNESCO over which she still presides denied the real history of Har HaBayis and the Kosel. The group’s executive board met in Paris Friday to adopt a resolution that referenced only the al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif. The Kosel area was referred to as the al-Buraq Plaza.

In 2014, Bokova came under withering criticism from the Jewish community when she postponed for five months an exhibit that depicted the ties of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, following a protest from the Arab states in UNESCO, who claimed it would harm the peace process.

The political résumé of the youngest of the hopefuls, 34-year-old Vuk Jeremic, may or may not help his cause. He was a leader of the Serbian youth movement that employed non-violent tactics against the regime of the notorious Slobodan Milošević. Certainly, an honorable credential. However, Jeremic’s advocacy of holding on to Kosovo has raised questions about his acceptability, though he insists that only peaceful, diplomatic means will be employed in that effort.

Nominations for the position can still be filed, so more fitting candidates may still come forward.

Critics of the U.N. have floated the name of former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, an individual who has a merry way of disposing with diplomatic niceties. “The Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference,” Bolton once said. He is, of course, right, but remains a highly unlikely candidate to be Ban-ki Moon’s successor.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin put it well: “Some people seem to be excited” by the proceedings, though he clearly wasn’t. “I think it might be useful. We’ll see,” he said.