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Wheeling and dealing to find a UN chief

By Harvey Morris | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2016-10-02 08:07

The prospect of a smooth transition has not been helped by the present poisonous atmosphere in the Security Council

This was the year the United Nations aimed to turn a corner in the process of selecting a new secretary-general, replacing secrecy with transparency and perhaps choosing the first woman to fill the post.

With the incumbent, South Korea's Ban Ki-moon, due to step down at the end of December after two five-year terms, the contest has perhaps unsurprisingly reverted to the closed-door wheeler-dealing and big power machinations that characterized previous elections for the top post.

The prospect of a smooth transition has not been helped by the present poisonous atmosphere in the 15-member Security Council, where tensions between Russia and the United States over the Syrian crisis have led to mutual recriminations and even walkouts.

In the latest of five straw polls of the Security Council on Sept 26, Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and UN high commissioner for refugees, emerged as the favorite in a field of nine but is still far from a shoo-in, given likely Russian opposition.

Under the United Nations' 71-year-old Charter, it is up to the full General Assembly of member states, a body that has grown in number from 51 to 193 since its foundation, to appoint a new "secretary-general".

The small print, however, makes clear that the appointment is subject to "the recommendation of the Security Council". In practice, that gives each of the five permanent members of the Council - China, France, Russia, Britain and the US - a veto to block any candidate it does not favor.

That power is not merely theoretical. In 1981, China repeatedly vetoed a third term for Austria's Kurt Waldheim, who otherwise enjoyed majority support, on the grounds that it was time to have a representative of the developing world at the helm of the world body.

Beijing has not publicly placed a bet on any specific candidate in this year's race. When Li Baodong, China's former ambassador to the UN, revisited his old stamping ground in New York in July, he diplomatically commented that the choice of Ban's successor would be "up to member states".

Russia is likely to favor a sympathetic Eastern European over Guterres, who is from a European Union and NATO state. The next secret vote in the Security Council will come in October, when Russia will assume its rotating presidency and be in a strong position to push the process forward.

The successful candidate to replace Ban will act as the UN's chief executive and operating officer as well as its spokesman and top diplomat. The actual job description is vague enough for each incumbent to have stamped his - so far not her - personality on a post that requires encouraging consensus in the face of frequent conflict. The post involves keeping the UN's agreed goals, on issues such as development and climate change, on track.

Under the arcane voting system in the Security Council, members cast a series of anonymous ballots to "encourage", "discourage" or express "no opinion" on each candidate. Guterres scored 12-2-1 in the Sept 26 poll.

The prospect of a woman filling the post is fading, with Susanna Malcorra, Argentine foreign minister and the leading woman candidate, scoring just 7-7-1 in the straw poll. The four top scorers were all men.

One rumored compromise is that Russia may drop its objections to Guterres if Vuk Jeremic, former Serbian foreign minister, or Bulgaria's Irina Bokova, director-general of UN cultural organization UNESCO, gets the deputy Secretary-general post.

Despite the characteristic opacity surrounding the election, there has been some progress this year. For the first time, candidates had to appear before the General Assembly and submit to a series of informal dialogues. For the first time, civil society organizations were given an opportunity to put questions to the candidates.

There is still a chance that an outsider will be brought in as a compromise candidate. But this time, he - or she - will also have to face questions from a General Assembly that represents all member states before the Security Council has its say.

The author is a veteran correspondent with spells at Reuters, the Independent and Financial Times, and has extensive knowledge of the Middle East. He contributed this article for China Daily.


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