The new head of the UN – a new era of transparency?
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The new head of the UN – a new era of transparency?

There’s a race going on right now at the UN to decide one of the most influential positions in the world. The bad news is only five people get to vote, but the good news is Donald Trump isn’t a candidate. 

I’m talking about the United Nations and the election of the new Secretary General (SG). And, much like the US presidential election, social media is playing an increasingly dominant role (albeit with less racist taco tweets).

Following pressure to open up the historically closed-door process, the UN will this time around give outsiders unprecedented access to proceedings.

The UN turned 70 last year and while there was cause to celebrate its many achievements, it must also face some tough questions about its relevance in the modern world. The selection of the new Secretary General (SG) will be a big part of this reform process.

So, for the first time ever, those with an internet connection will be able to watch-on as prospective SG’s face questioning from foreign delegates within the General Assembly.

“We are sailing into uncharted waters,” said U.N. General President Mogens Lykketoft about the new processes.


Nine candidates were put under the spotlight last month, they each had two hours to present a statement and take questions intended to uncover their principles and approaches to key issues.

The current Secretary General (SG), Ban Ki-moon, has held the role as Head of the United Nations Secretariat since 2007.

Previous SG’s were:

Kofi Annan (Ghana) 1997 to 2006;

Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt), 1992 to 1996;

Javier Pèrez de Cuèllar (Peru), 1982 to 1991;

Kurt Waldheim (Austria), 1972 to 1981;

U Thant (Burma, now Myanmar), 1961 to 1971;

Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), 1953 until his death in 1961;

Trygve Lie (Norway), 1946 to his resignation in November 1952.


This first round of questioning of the candidates was live streamed, with questions coming from a global audience through Twitter. For an organization in this business of borders and stability, this is a transformative move, and as Matthew Rycroft explains it’s not easy for everyone to accept.

“Some of my colleagues at the UN seemed shocked at the notion of an ordinary person with a smart phone having a say at public hearings on the biggest world stage. But this isn’t radical. It’s the UN catching up with reality.”

Demands for transparency rub up against the reality that the decision could very well be made behind closed doors. According to Article 97 of the Charter of the United Nations; “The Secretary General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

Remembering of course that within the Security Council the permanent five (P5) countries wield the power to veto any decision—which means there exists the potential for the vote to come down to only five individuals. This veto power is a key tenet of the UN Security Council and its amendment is likely the most debated topic surrounding the UN. But not to get off-track.

united nations main room, new york city

Ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand and administrator of the UN Development Project, Helen Clarke, has put in an authoritative pitch for the top job. Already renowned for her prowess on twitter, @HelenClarkUNDP, she launched a second account, @Helen4SG, so we can follow the progress directly.

Looking at diplomatic digital prowess closer to home, the Lowy Institute’s Danielle Cave dug into how the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) has engaged and evolved its capabilities. He wrote an oft cited blog post that zeroes in on a number of its shortcomings.

DFAT is an effective organization, but it has a lot of catching up to in the digital space, and it needs to move beyond PR to the much more challenging process of “digital diplomacy”.

But back to the UN;  Jim Della-Giacoma explains, the adoption of social media and video access is welcome, but it offers its own challenges with this latest event allowing little time for detailed questioning from the masses.

It’s hoped there will be more informal dialogues, offering more opportunities for the candidates to plead their cases. Notably absent at the first round was Australia’s Kevin Rudd, who’s own bid seems to be coming from the shadows, a fashion he’s familiar with.

His ambition is clear, but he’s not yet announced any official campaign to run—but there’s still time.

Foreign delegates were reported to be underwhelmed by the quality of the first round of candidates. There’ve been suggestions that the next SG may prove to not even be amongst this first group of nine that have so far put up their hands.

Kevin Rudd, should he run, may be facing high caliber opponents with Angela Merkel rumored to be a potential aspirant.

The UN has yet to have a woman hold the top job, so there’s pressure to elect its first female SG.

There’s similar pressure for representation from Eastern Europe, with a customary but non-binding custom of rotating the role around the regions of the world.

It’s not an election

Changes to the process this year highlight a broad shift from the previous processes through which the SG was selected. Alvaro de Soto explains that circa 1950, in the lead-up to Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden becoming SG in 1953, he was in fact tapped on the shoulder, he didn’t campaign, he was chosen.

However authoritarian this may seem, it meant the General Assembly got the SG they were looking for, and it saved aspirants from having to campaign. Being freed of the horse-trading required to succeed in a campaign, candidates were viewed as being better placed to maintain the independence that is so important in an SG. The UN Charter stipulates that an SG should not be swayed by the views of any one country.

“It has become a candidate-driven process.” De Soto says.

The process has become awkward, it is lurching towards becoming an election, which is contrary to the charter.

Maintaining the essence of the UN

So with a new leader comes hope of reform and evolution. Not to take anything away from the incumbent Ban Ki-moon. He’s been an effective leader, balancing that most difficult of high-wire acts between the Secretary and the General. But….(this feels like it was working up to contrasting statement)

Joseph Nye wrote last year, a staid breakdown of the unique nature of the United Nations. He describes the difficult role of the Secretary General, and that any outcomes are dependent on the UN’s members. The Secretary General has a soft-power role he explains; they must depend on persuasion in lieu of any tangible military power.

Nye lays out the unique nature of the UN as a global instrument, which makes it invaluable. “While the UN system is far from perfect, the world would be a poorer and more disorderly place without it.”

The weight of expectation will be upon the shoulders of the next SG, but so far we’re not much closer to getting a feel for who the front runners are. In a piece for the Lowy Institute Sarah Frankel suggests that while public hearings may be seen by some as a potential game changer, the lack of a clear favourite could very well see the Security Council reverting to take the choice upon themselves. And that may be no bad thing.


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