Finding the 1 for 7 Billion to lead the United Nations

This is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the Commonwealth Voices magazine.

Three years ago when we started the 1 for 7 Billion campaign for a fair, open and inclusive process to select the UN’s leader, many were skeptical. There was not, and never had been, even the basics of a recruitment process. No job advertisement. No timetable. No selection criteria, and little accountability or transparency in the vetting process.

This suited the powerful states that could dominate the Security Council, where recommendations on candidates are made, but it hardly lent itself to recruiting a highly-qualified leader capable of addressing the defining global problems of our time.

And it didn’t look good either. The (lack of) process was a significant drain on the UN’s credibility, stunting the Organisation and its leader irrespective of performance.

Over the next two years we built a broad coalition of NGOs and states. This resulted in a landmark decision in September 2015 providing the foundations of a recruitment process, including candidate hearings with questions from states and civil society in the General Assembly. Then President of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, described the campaign as “instrumental” in helping bring about this decision.

For the UN this was massive. Personalities competed to communicate aspirational visions for the Organisation. Candidates even went head to head at UNA-UK’s hustings events. UN watchers and member states were pinching themselves — it just isn’t normal to see the spotlight given to creative debate on the Organisation’s future.

Following the hearings, closed deliberations began in the Security Council. But it wasn’t quite business as usual. The secret straw polls were leaked and widely publicised.

Major powers had to weigh up the cost of ignoring the wider UN membership and public opinion. This time, putting politics above merit had consequences. In October, earlier than expected, the Security Council reached consensus on Antonio Guterres, with US ambassador Samantha Power linking the outcome to the new process, saying his ‘breakthrough’ moment had come when he put in a strong performance at his Assembly hearing.

The reforms helped avert the type of ‘race to the bottom’ scenario we’ve seen in the past and facilitated the appointment of an experienced candidate, widely seen as a strong choice and with a good track record on gender equality.

What next?

Having come through this process, Mr Guterres has greater legitimacy and mandate — much needed if he is to steer the UN’s ambitious agreements on development and climate change. More pressing though will be fresh energy to improve big-power relations and with it the UN’s ability to address conflict and humanitarian situations.

Capacity-wise we hope to see the proceeds also, as transparency and fairness are insisted upon for other senior appointments, both in the UN system and beyond.

Finally, there is the UN’s credibility. In a time of Brexit and Trump, with policy makers in many parts of the world questioning collective action in favour of narrow self-interest, international institutions can’t afford to look bad. The rules-based international system, that supports the vulnerable and that has brought stability and prosperity to many, is under threat.

The UN is only as effective as the trust placed in it by peoples and governments. It’s far from perfect, but it’s our best hope to for solutions to some of humanity’s hardest questions. We must all do our bit to sustain it.