In Hindsight: A New Process for Selecting a New Secretary-General
On 13 October, António Guterres was appointed as the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations. The General Assembly has appointed eight other Secretaries-General, but the road to this decision was a very different one from previous years, when the selection of the Secretary-General was opaque and tightly controlled by the permanent members. This time, active involvement of civil society and members of the General Assembly in insisting on greater transparency and a more clearly defined selection process led to substantial changes that allowed both the General Assembly and elected members of the Security Council to play significant roles in the process.
Resolution 69/321 adopted by the General Assembly in September 2015 called for the Security Council and General Assembly presidents to start the Secretary-General appointment process through a joint letter. The Security Council’s initial involvement in the selection process was in discussing the joint letter in November 2015 during the UK’s presidency. This was the beginning of an unusual collaborative process between the Council and the General Assembly—albeit one that was not without its tensions. After about a month of discussion among Council members and several revised drafts, which included inputs from the Office of the President of the General Assembly, the joint letter was issued on 15 December 2015.
As part of a more clearly defined process, the presidents of the Council and the General Assembly jointly notified member states when candidates were formally nominated by circulating letters from the nominating countries. The curriculum vitae of each candidate, along with vision statements on how they would address the most pressing issues facing the UN, were posted on a dedicated webpage set up by the president of the General Assembly. This more open selection process saw the largest field of candidates formally nominated, with eight from Eastern Europe, the region which was laying claim to the position, and seven women, more than double the total number of women candidates who had ever before made it to the ballot. The candidates were: Irina Bokova (Bulgaria), Helen Clark (New Zealand), Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica), Kristalina Georgieva (Bulgaria), Natalia Gherman (Moldova), António Guterres (Portugal), Vuk Jeremić (Serbia), Srgjan Kerim (former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), Miroslav Lajčák (Slovakia), Igor Lukšić (Montenegro), Susana Malcorra (Argentina), Vesna Pusić (Croatia) and Danilo Türk (Slovenia).
The most significant change to the selection process was the participation of all the candidates in the informal dialogue sessions, generally referred to as hearings, in the General Assembly. Hearings for the first nine candidates were held in April, and for the four later candidates shortly after they were nominated, in June, July and October respectively. Candidates were thus exposed to the larger membership, as well as to a worldwide audience through the UN webcasts, as well as a Global Townhall meeting organised by the President of the General Assembly in July and broadcast live on Al Jazeera TV, in which ten candidates participated. This transparency is in stark contrast to the early decades of the selection of the Secretary-General, where there was no public record of who was being considered for the position, and names were simply suggested, almost always by permanent members. These hearings provided an insight into member states’ expectations of the next Secretary-General, as well as an opportunity to assess the approach of each candidate to the challenges facing the UN. In addition, for the first time all Council members met with each candidate in an informal setting, allowing them further interaction. While considerations of realpolitik were presumably not absent in the selection process, it seems that exposure to the candidates in these different settings was a key factor in shaping Council members’ positions.
In the first three months of the year, the Council appeared content to await the General Assembly’s initial role in the selection process. However, since April, Council members, including in particular the elected members, began discussing the Council’s next steps that would follow the General Assembly hearings. Council members had informal discussions on the issue either at the monthly breakfasts attended by permanent representatives to discuss the programme of work, or as an “any other business” item in consultations. There was also a series of meetings among the ten elected members, as well as meetings among smaller groups of Council members who had taken a particular interest in this issue, such as the UK, or who had upcoming presidencies. Japan, Malaysia and New Zealand were keenly aware that they were going to be president of the Council in months where the straw polls were likely to be conducted. Several papers on the procedure of the selection process were circulated. Egypt and Spain produced a paper on informal guidelines for the process, and Russia circulated a paper on the procedure for straw polls. In early June, soon after it took on the Council presidency, France circulated a comprehensive paper on the procedure for the 2016 selection process, which included an annex on the practice related to straw polls. Although there seemed to be agreement that straw polls would follow the same process as the 2006 election, there were questions about the timing of the first straw polls and when to move to colour-coded ballots to reveal the votes and potential vetoes of permanent members.
Eventually, between 21 July and 5 October, six straw polls were held, with the first five being undifferentiated between permanent and elected members, and the final one colour-coded. While the straw polls were conducted as secret ballots with members either “encouraging”, “discouraging” or expressing “no opinion”, the results were promptly and widely publicised in the media. It was therefore clear that there was one candidate—Guterres—who was the clear leader in every straw poll, receiving no “discourages” in the first straw poll and either two or three thereafter. Moreover, Guterres was the only candidate who was consistently receiving the nine or more votes needed in a formal vote. Several elected members pushed for not moving to colour-coded straw polls early, and it appears that this may have given elected members the opportunity to shape the process more strongly than if colour-coded ballots had been used early on. The five undifferentiated straw polls showed that there was a front runner with the consistent support of at least twelve members, and in the sixth colour-coded ballot no permanent member voted to “discourage” him. There were few withdrawals during the polls, with only three candidates—Pusić, Lukšić and Figueres—taking themselves out of the race after the first, second and fourth straw polls respectively.
At the start of the selection process there had been some concern among elected members that a weak candidate might be chosen as a result of the competing vetoes of the permanent members. It is a testimony to the success of a more open process that the candidate who was finally selected was indeed the one whom the majority of Council members, influenced by the views of non-members after the General Assembly hearings, had seen as the strongest. Following the sixth straw poll, US Ambassador Samantha Power gave voice to these sentiments when she attributed the agreement of the Council on Guterres as the candidate they would recommend to the General Assembly to “… a much more transparent process, where I think the General Assembly’s will and the kind of zeitgeist out of the General Assembly’s sessions actually translated also into results in the many straw polls that led up to today.”