In Hindsight: Voting for a Secretary-General
The Security Council is beginning to turn its attention to the task of selecting the next Secretary-General. In contrast to previous appointments, following the adoption of General Assembly resolution 69/321 on 11 September 2015, and the 15 December 2015 joint letter from the Council and General Assembly presidents, a more clearly defined process of nomination is in place this year, along with greater involvement of the General Assembly. In mid-April, the General Assembly held three days of hearings with the nine candidates who had been formally nominated, and further hearings are expected in early June. The activity in the General Assembly appears to have prompted Council members to begin informal discussions on the next steps for the Council in the Secretary-General appointment process.
The UN Charter provides little guidance on the process. Article 97 of the UN Charter simply says that “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”. Rule 48 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure states that the Council’s recommendation to the General Assembly “be discussed and decided at a private meeting”. There has therefore been room for innovation in how this recommendation is arrived at. Only on one occasion was the Council unable to agree, culminating in the General Assembly voting to reappoint Secretary-General Trygve Lie (Norway) without a Council recommendation.
A key step in the process is the establishment of a list of candidates. In the past, the genesis of the list of candidates was quite opaque. The first three Secretaries-General— Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden) and U Thant (Burma)—emerged from an ad hoc process where candidates were suggested by P5 members, with the US and the USSR putting forward most of the candidates. Generally, names of potential candidates were floated during informal discussions, followed by formal votes in a private meeting. This decision is deemed a matter of substance which under Article 27 (3) of the Charter requires “an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of permanent members”. If no candidate garnered enough votes or received a veto, the process would continue until a candidate acceptable to all P5 members emerged. For example, when Lie resigned in November 1952, the first four candidates to be voted on either did not receive enough votes or were vetoed. Four more candidates were proposed with only one, Dag Hammarskjöld, being acceptable to the Soviet Union, and therefore put to a final vote.
A significant innovation in the selection process was made as a result of the deadlock in 1981 between Kurt Waldheim (Austria), who after serving two terms as Secretary-General had chosen to run for an unprecedented third term, and Salim Salim (Tanzania), who had been endorsed by the Organisation of African Unity. In 1971, China had vetoed Waldheim twice, before abstaining during the third formal vote which led to Waldheim being appointed Secretary-General. It had also vetoed Waldheim in the first round of votes for his reelection in 1976 but moved to an abstention in the second ballot. In 1981, China used its veto to block Waldheim, supporting Salim Salim, who was also blocked by Western veto. This led to 16 inconclusive ballots. Finally, Ambassador Olara Otunnu (Uganda), who was Council president in December, persuaded the two candidates to step aside and devised a way to determine which new candidates would not be vetoed by any of the P5. The permanent members were given a blue survey form with a list of nine new candidates and asked to indicate which ones they would “discourage”. All 15 members were given a white form with the list of names and asked to indicate which candidates they would “encourage”. Using this system the Council identified Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru) as generally acceptable, and he went forward to be elected Secretary-General in a formal vote on 11 December.
This informal survey of members’ opinion developed into a system of “straw polls” that has been used in every subsequent election.
The 1991 election saw an evolution of the straw poll system with colour-coded ballot papers being used to differentiate between permanent and elected members in the same poll. For the first time, a regional claim was made on the position: by Africa, with the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) endorsing six candidates. In the first straw polls held on 21 October, all 15 members were given a list of names and asked to indicate with an “x” those they wished to support. A blank ballot paper allowed members to add new candidates. At the second straw poll, names newly suggested in the first poll were first voted on, followed by individual ballots for the combined list of names, which included several non-African candidates. Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) and Bernard Chidzero (Zimbabwe) emerged as the leading candidates. Following an undifferentiated third straw poll, in order to determine if there would be a veto, in the fourth round permanent members were given a red ballot sheet and elected members a white one. Having established that neither of the leading candidates was opposed by any of the P5, the Council proceeded to vote formally on each of the two candidates, with Boutros-Ghali emerging as the victor.
Five years later, following two straw polls where he was the only candidate, Boutros-Ghali was formally vetoed by the US. This led to four new African candidates entering the race. In the first round of straw polling held on 10 December 1996, Kofi Annan (Ghana), then Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, and Amara Essy (Côte d’Ivoire) each received a high number of favourable votes. A second round, held on the same day, where colour-coded ballots were used, revealed that a permanent member, generally believed to be France, was opposing Kofi Annan, and two other permanent members opposed Essy. The veto against Annan was sustained until—after seven rounds of straw polls—Annan had the support of all fourteen other members, and the veto was then dropped.
Straw polls were used again in 2006, but this time with the addition of an abstention or “no opinion” option. Ban Ki-moon (Republic of Korea) was selected after four straw polls, with colour-coded ballots used in the last of these. Although Ban had received one “discourage” vote in the first three straw polls, in the fourth, which used colour-coded ballots, he received 14 “encourage” votes and one “no opinion” from an elected member.
While an unwritten understanding had developed over the years with regard to the selection process, the first attempt to create written guidelines was in 1996. Ambassador Nugroho Wisnumurti (Indonesia), at the start of his term as president of the Council in November 1996, submitted a note which came to be known as the “Wisnumurti Guidelines”. They set out general principles, the legal/procedural basis and the decision-making process, using colour-coded straw polls. It also spelt out that candidates needed to be submitted by member states and that the final decision would take place in a private meeting. These guidelines have formed the backbone of the Secretary-General selection process ever since. With the innovations in the selection process this year, members are aware that the Wisnumurti Guidelines need to be amended.
Thus, the Council has continuously revised its practice according to circumstances. Key issues which Council members will need to decide in this year’s context include the timing of its decision-making; whether following the hearings in the General Assembly the Council will itself meet candidates, and if so in what format; and whether to operate the straw ballot process as in the past, including colour-coded ballots to identify possible vetoes.