As the United Nations chooses its next Secretary General, Sophie Foreman from the Restless Development Global Policy & Practice team explains what that means, how it will happen, and why it is important.
This September, United Nations (UN) member states gather in New York, as they do every September, to discuss international matters, such as peace and security, at their General Assembly. This year there is to be a specific high-level meeting to address large movements of refugees and migrants. As the main policy-making organ of the UN, the annual sessions (this year marking the 71st) are a flurry of civil society and governmental activity.
But this year there is another thing that delegates will be whispering about in corridors and whisking contacts away for coffee to gather snippets of information on: the imminent UN Secretary-General (UNSG) election and the ongoing candidate race.
What is the UN Secretary-General?
The UNSG is the diplomat-advocate-civil servant-CEO hybrid who is supposed to symbolise the ideals of the UN and speak up for the poor and vulnerable in the world. So all in all, just your average 9-5 job! They have to walk the fine line between upholding the UN’s values but also taking into account the moral concerns of member states. While the UNSG plays a number of official roles their main role is often defined by the context of their time in office. Since 2007, our global cooperation efforts have been led by Ban Ki-moon (yes, that is him dancing with Gangnam Style singer and fellow South Korean, Psy) and now we are on the brink of finding out who will be the next international leader.
Ban Ki-moon’s time in office has seen:
- The signing of Agenda 2030, the sustainable development agenda that succeeds the Millennium Development Goals and presents us with the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, ambitious promises to end poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030
- The successful conclusion of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference which gave us the Paris Agreement, the first climate change agreement to commit all countries to cut carbon emission in order to limit the rise of global temperatures to two degrees Celsius.
- The creation of UN Women and – during his time as UNSG – the increase of women in senior management positions by 40%
- A big advocate for young people, Ban Ki-moon appointed the first ever dedicated UN Envoy on Youth, and named young people as ‘the torchbearers’ of the Global Goals.
“Young people will be the torch bearers of the next sustainable development agenda” – Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, 2015.
What are the racing rules and how is the UNSG elected?
While I love the idea of, and would certainly pay a lot of money to attend, an actual horse race in the UN, alas we will have to make do with a race of hoofless humans against the backdrop of UN meeting rooms.
This is how it happens:
- Firstly, the decision is (mainly) made behind closed doors.
- Then the Security Council – the five permanent members of China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, plus the 10 rotating members – hold a series of what is known as ‘straw polls’ with each of the 15 countries asked to provide their opinion on each candidate. They can either encourage a candidacy, discourage it, or declare no opinion.
- The votes are tallied and then the candidates are told the outcome. By the first straw poll results, we are already able to tell who are the strongest and weakest candidates.
- Some candidates drop out after the first few rounds, if they get a significant number of “discourages”, they know their chances of becoming UNSG don’t look great. This year, after the first two rounds of straw polls, two candidates have already withdrawn.
- As the numbers of candidates are reduced, the Security Council will eventually cast a deciding vote, with each permanent member having a veto.
- It will then be approved by a final vote at the General Assembly, with Member States essentially rubber stamping the Security Council decision.
- Currently, the plan is to have a new UNSG by October, for them to kick into action on January 1st.
Runners and riders
We have now received the results of the fourth straw poll and there are 10 hopefuls left vying to replace Ban Ki-moon. Member states have been open about preferring a female candidate and with Eastern Europe being the only region not yet to produce a UN Secretary-General, the expectation at the start of the race was that we might see a female UNSG from the region. However, Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian Director-General of UNESCO and the only candidate to meet both criterias, is now trailing in the polls while the hope of having a new female leader (from any UN member state) is starting to become a long shot.
Helen Clark, the former prime Minister of New Zealand and current head of UNDP, was a bookies’ early favourite, but despite her well established social media profile, is also trailing in the polls. A number of candidates who fared poorly in the latest straw poll will now be under pressure to drop out of the race. They include Moldova’s former foreign minister Natalia Gherman, and the UN’s former climate chief, Christiana Figueres. The previous three rounds of polls resulted in the candidates of Croatia Vesna Pusić and of Montenegro Igor Lukšić withdrawing from the race, and the front runners so far are:
Other high-ranking candidates still remaining include Srgjan Kerim, former Foreign Minister of FYR Macedonia, and previous President of the General Assembly, along with Irina Bokova.
So place your bets here for the, let’s face it, nail-biting race to become the next leader of the world UN. To stay updated follow #NextSG – the next straw poll will be on Monday 26th September so stay posted!