How Not to Select the Best UN Secretary-General

On 11 September, the five permanent members (P5) of the 15-member United Nations Security Council, under pressure from the broader membership of the 193-member Organization, accepted an intrusive role for the General Assembly, in which all members are represented, in the selection of the Secretary-General (SG), heretofore handled in zealous secrecy by the Security Council. Candidates for SG will be invited world-wide, and the full membership will be able to examine those candidates and their CVs in real time. There is the prospect of public grilling of aspirants.

No doubt the Council's handling of its Charter mandate has been erratic over the decades, and an oligarchic aroma surrounds this small body in which the same five allies who designed the post-World War II order seventy years ago retain the power of veto on war/ peace issues and on who can be Secretary-General. But the Assembly has misdiagnosed the problem, and the solutions it proposes could well take the UN in the wrong direction.

The choice of UNSG is governed by Article 97 of the UN Charter in just seventeen words: "The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council." To be recommended, a prospective Secretary-General must receive the votes of 9 members of the Council and no vetoes. Thus the Charter provides for two distinct stages: The Security Council, a principal organ of the UN, is responsible for the first, the selection of the proposed SG. The General Assembly, also a principal organ, has the second, the power of appointment. In 1946 the Assembly asked the Council to recommend a single person, and to handle the matter privately. So it has been since.

The Assembly's 11 September resolution provides for the Presidents of the Council and the Assembly to jointly invite candidate nominations on the basis of a list of criteria: proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations and strong diplomatic and multilingual skills, among others. Assembly members are to be kept current on candidates and their CVs. The resolution envisages the entire Assembly examining and interviewing candidates in an open process.

Even though the required majority and the veto power remain unchanged, the UN is entering unmapped territory, but even at this early stage, it is clear that the Assembly's intrusion into the Council's territory is potentially disruptive. The membership at large, unbound by the omertà that governs private deliberations of the Council, will have the ability to embarrass or inhibit potential candidates, or nominating members, or both.

In early years P5 members went out of their way to look for a suitable person who would gain favor with the remaining members. Their most notable success was the second SG, Dag Hammarskjold, then the Swedish Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, who famously learned that the Council was about to recommend him to the General Assembly after it had decided to do so. Hammarskjold, known to at least three of the P5, was a man of exceptional integrity and independence, and coming from a neutral country, proved acceptable to the USSR. He fast learned to fill the vacuum left by the Council's shortcomings, and blazed a trail for his successors. He played an essential role at a time when the collegiality between the P5 -the fulcrum on which rested the collective security system embodied in the Charter- was deeply strained.

But starting in the 1970s the Council and the P5 stopped searching, leaving the initiative to governments putting forward candidates which it simply submit to secret ballots until one dodged vetoes and gathered the requisite majority. Procedural innovations introduced later had nothing to do with character, qualifications or other substantive considerations.

The Council's opacity can be annoying, but no more so than, say, the selection of the CEO of a major corporation or the head of a large foundation, nor was there ever a paucity of candidates. The problem presented by the uneven quality of incumbents lies not in the opaque manner in which the Council discharges its responsibility under Article 97 or in the lack of candidates, but in the abdication of the initiative by the Council. It no longer attempts to seek the right person proactively, or even perform due diligence. By relinquishing the initiative to those who seek the position, the Council has shirked its responsibility. It has only itself to blame for the assault on its powers and prerogatives to which it succumbed on 11 September.

In light of the Charter and the development of the office of Secretary-General since, there is something jarring about encouraging candidates to seek the position, then sitting in judgment between them. It has become a candidate-driven process. The pitfalls are many. If you sew candidates you will reap campaigns. If they campaign, competing candidates will be expected to make promises in exchange for support and, even if they don't, the suspicion that they did will linger and affect his independence.

Article 100 of the Charter bars attempts to influence the SG or his staff in the discharge of their duties, and prohibits them from soliciting or accepting such attempts. Thus by choosing the SG among those who may have made deals in the process, the Council and the person chosen will find themselves under suspicion of transgressing the Charter even before the oath of office is taken. Combine candidacies and campaigns with intrusive public scrutiny and you have a process that greatly resembles an election - which under the Charter the selection and appointment of the SG most certainly is not.

Moreover, the actions promoted by the Assembly reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the office. There are in fact solid reasons for the Council, and hence the P5, to play a preponderant role in the selection and to do so away from public glare or intrusion.

Under Article 1 of the Charter the maintenance of international peace and security is the first purpose of the UN - arguably its raison d'être. The Council is the primary organ responsible in that field. The practice of recent decades has shown that the capacity of the Council to discharge this responsibility can be best realized only when the SG has the ability and character not only to work closely with it but to keep himself, as necessary, at a certain remove so as to act to fill in when the Council finds itself at loggerheads.

It shouldn't surprise us that SGs chosen to date, though not always optimal, have mostly been persons with substantial experience in diplomacy - a field of endeavour which, as the origin of its name -the folded paper- reveals, is best conducted out of the limelight. But the Assembly's words, "extensive experience in international relations," don't begin to describe what is needed. Public grillings of candidates may bring out the skills of a successful politician or communicator or CEO. But they won't tell us whether the candidate has the temperamental profile, the empathetic skills, the coolness of mind and the experience of performing diplomacy of that rarefied kind: the third party role in solving conflict. I can't imagine Hammarskjold, that very private man and a consummate practitioner of a quintessentially private craft, competing for the position, leave alone submitting to a public grilling.

Another very private man, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the fifth SG, led the UN through the most spectacular string of peacemaking successes in its history, between mid 1988 and late 1991. He also had in common with Hammarskjold that he did not campaign for the position and it is doubtful that he would have submitted to the procedure that is now envisaged.

On 13 May 1986, in a lecture at Oxford University entitled "The Role of the Secretary-General," summed up his views: "(I)mpartiality is the heart and soul of the office of Secretary-General...(it) must remain untainted by any feeling of indebtedness to governments which may have supported his appointment...I therefore suggest that we should re-establish the healthy convention that no person should ever be a candidate, declared or undeclared, for this office. It is a post that should come unsought to a qualified person. However impeccable a person's integrity may be, he cannot in fact retain the necessary independence if he proclaims his candidacy and conducts a kind of election campaign, overt or covert...If it was a firm rule that such persons or their governments should go no further than answering enquiries about their availability this would, I am sure, reinforce the moral authority which any Secretary-General must have."

Disregarding this declaration of independence, or perhaps because of it, in October of the same year the P5 ambassadors, in what was perhaps their first joint démarche since the 1940s, asked Pérez de Cuéllar, who never sought to be SG and didn't want to serve more than 5 years, to accept a second 5-year term.

There is nothing in the Assembly resolution that would prevent the Security Council from taking up Pérez de Cuéllar's suggestion and undertake a serious and systematic search for a well-qualified person without awaiting the submission of candidates. They could even invite people under consideration for private discussions. I suspect most members of the Assembly joined in the pressure on the Council, specially the P5, to give them a rap on the knuckles. If they are seen to act, even privately, the pressure will be off, and that is at it should be.