It is often spoken of as the most difficult job in the world. And given the files that the next United Nations secretary general (SG) will take over on January 1, 2017, it is easy to see why: Appalling conflicts and human suffering in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Europe; violent extremism that is threatening us all; continued discrimination against women and girls; a worrying rise in xenophobia; over 800 million people struggling to escape extreme poverty; close to 60 million displaced around the world; a unique window of opportunity to address climate change and the sustainable development goals before it is too late; and an organisation that needs to adapt to the challenges and new goals the world is facing.
But to do so today, it must secure the best possible candidate through this year’s process of selection and appointment of the next SG. The UN’s most senior official should be both a secretary and a general, and more: A person with strong moral courage and integrity; he or she — and I do not see why the best candidate should not be a woman — must be a voice for the world’s most vulnerable people and embody the very ideals and purposes of the UN. The world’s top diplomat, the SG must use her independence, impartiality and good offices to prevent conflict, broker peace and stand up for human rights.
One might think, therefore, that the process for choosing the SG would be as vigorous, inclusive and transparent as possible. But to date this has not been the case. Previously, there has been no clarity on when the selection process actually started or, somewhat unbelievably, who was actually running for the job. Also, there has been no formal job description and no real opportunity for substantive and open engagement with the candidates — neither for the full UN membership nor the public. The result: Recommendations negotiated behind closed doors — primarily by the five permanent members of the Security Council — and a mostly symbolic appointment by the UN General Assembly. Therefore, SGs have, not always rightfully, been perceived to be beholden to the very powers that they must be most independent of.
But recent changes to the process, agreed to by all 193 members of the General Assembly, provide us with a genuine opportunity to make it more transparent, more robust, more inclusive and, ultimately, more effective. As president of that assembly, it is my job to ensure that those changes are implemented. So here’s what’s happening.
Last December, the president of the Security Council and I set the selection process in motion by issuing a call for candidates to be presented as early as possible. We also outlined the central features of the process.To date, seven candidates have been presented. But perhaps the greatest opportunity to truly break away from the past comes in the form of open dialogues — called “SG hearings” — that I will hold with the candidates from April 12 onwards. Each candidate is expected to present a vision statement on the challenges and opportunities facing the UN and the next SG. They will be questioned for two hours by the full UN membership as well as civil society. Each such dialogue will be streamed live online.
Of course, these innovations will not directly transform our world but they do have the potential to establish a new standard of transparency and inclusivity in international affairs. And they represent, I believe, a moment in history when the General Assembly — the world’s most representative and democratic decision-making body — reasserts itself.
So, please go online, participate on social media, make yourself heard and help us find the best possible candidate for the UN SG.