Selecting a UN Secretary-General Representing Humanity

Is the United Nations failing? What can we expect from the next UN next Secretary-General? The questions are many as the world body takes the center stage in the media in 2016?

I have served the United Nations under four UN Secretary-Generals - from Perez de Cuellar to Ban Ki moon. Working at the Headquarters in New York and Geneva, as well as in Africa, Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East, has provided a unique opportunity to understand the UN's politics, bureaucracy and actual operations in crisis-countries. After nearly three decades, I have come to the conclusion that the world body is not failing. Rather, the United Nations has yet to attain its potential. This makes the whole difference.

With the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and successive conventions, one can safely say that the United Nations was not established to find consensus around the lowest common denominator. It was created to inspire and mold consensus around the highest of human values. This is the potential of the United Nations - a timeless and universal vision, as envisaged by its founders.

The founders of the United Nations - emerging out of WWII and a painful era of war caused by power in its most ugly form - were motivated by a renewed sense of humanity. It was precisely in this spirit that the founders defined the potential of the United Nations.

70 years later - with record numbers of refugees and internally displaced forced to flee brutal armed conflicts affecting whole regions and, even, the world at large - we have similar choices to make once more.

Do we choose the will to power or the will to humanity?

The onus is laid at the feet of the United Nations Member States, particularly the Permanent Members of the Security Council, and we, the peoples of the world, especially those among us professing to be of service. We are the United Nations.

The odds of realizing the UN's vision depends on ourselves, or as the late UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, phrased it: "When will people stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it is as a drawing they made themselves?"

Dag Hammarskjold, whom John F. Kennedy hailed as the greatest statesman of 20th century, also noted that, "Our work for peace must begin within the private world of each one of us. To build a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just. And how can we fight for liberty, if we are not free in our own minds?"

Indeed, whenever we take decisions and actions that are driven by a will to humanity, we tend to move forward and advance the vision and principles of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. But, when we are guided by the will to power, the reverse rings true. This logic of cause and effect applies in all matters of the UN, large or small.

This leads us to the fundamental question in selecting the next Secretary-General: is she or he predominantly driven by humanity or by power. It is an essential question, because this will have a detrimental impact on the United Nations ability to advance towards its vision.

I have seen the tug of war between humanity and power again and again in the UN. Sometimes humanity has prevailed with rewards for the affected people and nations, for which the UN deserves much more credit than it gets. Other times power has prevailed with people condemned to prolonged suffering, for which responsible individuals have not been held to account.

But this does not make the whole Organization a failure, or "Just because a few drops are dirty does not mean that the whole ocean is dirty," to paraphrase Gandhi. However, it does reconfirm the need to carefully screen and seek out those candidates who genuinely and consistently represent leadership motivated by humanity.

How is this to be done?

One of the founders of the United Nations, the late Ambassador Archie Mackenzie who was part of the UK delegation in San Francisco in 1945 (and whom I had the privilege to meet in New York City in 2003), said in his book Faith in Diplomacy, A Memoir (p. 204 Cause Book, Grosvenor Book, 2002): "The UN needs a moral and spiritual dynamic to help it deal with such basic human weaknesses as hatred, cynicism, corruption and egotism, and to enable it to tap into a higher source of wisdom."

It requires deep-seated humanity to grasp the essence of his message. It demands an extraordinary sense of humanity to translate it into action across a whole organization. Such trait cannot be distilled from a CV, alone, but is manifested in a consistent display of wisdom, compassion, courage and humility. These are, the characteristic that will be decisive in charting our collective way in the 21st century towards the potential of the United Nations, or, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Our chief want is someone who inspires us to be what we know we could be."

Logically, only a leader of great humanity will have the capacity, sophistication and moral authority to advance the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and lead the Organization that was specifically created to represent the conscience of all humanity. Only such a leader can effectively serve as a catalyst for uniting Member States around the values of the United Nations. The reverse would seem too irrational of a thought to even entertain.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not an impossible task. It has been done in the past, and it can be done again. So, the question is rather whether we will get a Secretary-General able to elevate us to a new level of humanity so urgently needed today? Or will we get one driven by power, and thus unable to lift up the human family and the United Nations? These are considerations that ought to be made when assessing the UN SG candidates against the requirements, which are not merely formal, but also require a certain character of depth.

The open consultations with the candidates in the General Assembly are helpful insofar that the selection process is finally moving towards transparency. But these public forms of campaigning have limited value if these are only meant to assess formal requirements. The appointment of profoundly great leadership often have little to do with campaigning, alone. We also need to remember our history, and measure the candidates in the light of great leadership models, such as Dag Hammarskjold, and those of his ilk.

This kind of leadership can be found on the soils of all UN Member States, not least in the history of the five permanent UN Security Council Members, who have the final say on the selection of the UN Secretary-General. As they begin the straw-poll on 21 July, may they not lose sight of their own role-models for humanity, nor the great potential of the United Nations.
Yasmine Sherif is a lawyer and UN veteran with over 25 years of global experience, including in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Cambodia, Sudan and the Middle East, as well as in UN Headquarters. She is the author of The Case for Humanity: An Extraordinary Session with a foreword by Nobel Prize Laureate, José Ramos-Horta. The Case for Humanity: An Extraordinary Session is now a best-seller at the UN Bookshop in New York City and is also available on and select bookstores.