A tale of an election and a selection


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Unless the P5 recognize that a weak and inept leader challenges their own legitimacy, the UN will be encumbered by a powerless leader writes WPS Sidhu

This year will witness at least two leadership transitions of great international significance, including for India. The first is the election of the 45th president of the US and the second is the selection of the ninth secretary general of the United Nations (UN). While the former has the world agog, not least because of the antics of a buffoon with a bouffant, the latter has barely registered in national capitals let alone among the common public—not least because most have not even heard of the candidates. And thereby hangs a tale.

Global interest in the US presidential election is driven primarily by the perception that the victor—as the chief executive of the largest economy and as the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military—will, doubtless, be the dominant and most influential leader in the world. The world’s fascination is also facilitated by the openness of the process, which allows almost anyone to follow the entertaining twists and turns of the campaign trail with relish.

In contrast, there is little interest in the selection of the UN secretary general (UNSG), who is perceived merely as a bureaucrat-in-chief of the secretariat or as the commander of all UN peacekeeping, with little or no political, economic or military influence, let alone clout.

In reality, however, the UN today commands significant military and economic assets. As part of its peacekeeping and police missions, the UN fields over 100,000 women and men in uniform, making the UNSG the commander of the second largest globally deployed military force—after the US.

In addition, the UNSG has the ability to raise significant funds and has to manage an annual budget of over $13 billion (including the $8.27 billion for UN peacekeeping), which is more than the average gross domestic product of nearly a third of the UN members.

Finally, the UNSG has to lead a 40,000-plus strong international bureaucracy and an increasingly complex organization that deals with and informs on issues as varied as peace and security, development, human rights, drugs and crime, disarmament, humanitarian assistance, refugees and even outer space.

Despite this growing role of the UNSG, the selection process is so opaque, byzantine and undemocratic that it is even more difficult to comprehend than the arcane, though theatrical, process to elect the pope. And it inevitably results in a weak appointee.

Indeed, the selection of the current UNSG—Ban Ki-moon, perhaps one of the weakest incumbents—was entirely determined by the unelected five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council behind closed doors. His name was then presented to the UN General Assembly—which represents all members—who merely rubber-stamped the decision. Indeed, the Assembly has never rejected any UNSG candidate selected by the Council.

In recognition of this disconnect between the growing role of the UNSG and the unrepresentative selection process, the Assembly in a recent resolution invited members to “present candidates with proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations and strong diplomatic, communications and multilingual skills”.

Under the new system, seven candidates—including three women—have formally announced their intention to run, with several others expected to throw their hat in the ring. The Assembly now intends to hold meetings where members can interview the candidates. However, unlike the US election, there will be no public campaign or debates or a formal vote to elect the next UNSG.

This is at best an evolutionary step that merely makes the process somewhat more open and transparent; the Council will still have the last word. Unless the P5 recognize that a weak and inept leader at the helm challenges their own legitimacy in the Council as well as the existence of the organization, the UN will be encumbered by a powerless leader rather than one that it deserves. That will not be the case after the US election, whatever the outcome.

This article first appeared in  Mint on March 1, 2016. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.