The future leader of the United Nations

At the end of 2016, Ban Ki-Moon will step down as Secretary General of the United Nations. The former Korean Foreign Minister has led the intergovernmental organisation for nearly a decade, and will now hand over the reigns.

This blog post explores the contenders looking to take over the job that was described by Franklin D Roosevelt as the “world’s moderator”. For the first time, the UN has endeavoured to increase transparency into proceedings, meaning that those putting themselves forwards have had to lay out their plans for leadership. As part of this, three of the eleven official candidates took part in a debate in London. Hosted by the Guardian, I attended with more than a thousand others. The ideas that were discussed during this debate — as well as the visions and experiences of the other candidates in the running — are laid out below.

The United Nations office in Geneva

First off, what does the General Secretary do?

The UN charter is actually quite vague about the General Secretary position, but the essence is captured by the UN’s online description:

Equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO, the Secretary-General is a symbol of United Nations ideals and a spokesperson for the interests of the world’s peoples, in particular the poor and vulnerable among them.

Because of the vague nature of the role, successive Secretary Generals have approached it in their own way. Kofi Annan was very much an activist, regularly speaking out in a personal capacity and using his position as a loudspeaker. Ban Ki-Moon, by comparison, has been much more reserved, acting as a facilitator rather than challenger. With the power and presitge that being Secretary General gives, the next incumbent has the chance to shape the United Nations — and the state of development around the world — for years to come.

Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan, current and former Secretary Generals respectively

And who can stand?

Technically, there aren’t many rules governing who is allowed to stand to be the new Secretary General. But the process of being selected means that having the right background, network, experience and vision are all crucial.

Initially, a candidate has to be nominated by their country. The eventual incumbent then has to be selected by the General Assembly at the UN. The General Assembly is the main decision making body of the UN, and each country has one, equal vote. This means that a candidate from a country which has poor diplomatic relations with much of the world — at the extreme end, a North Korean or Iranian, for example — is unlikely to receive widespread support here.

To complicate matters, they also have to have the recommendation of the Security Council. The Security Council is a further body of the UN, charged specifically with maintaining international peace and security. It is made up of a group of 10 non-permanent members, who change every couple of years, and 5 permanent members — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia. Each of these five members have a veto over any Security Council resolution — and through this, an effective veto over whoever the next Secretary General is. In the past, with wrangling done behind the scenes rather than in public, the General Assembly has taken the recommendation of the Security Council on each occasion.

But beyond that, it can be anyone?

Yes and no. The rules on appointees are loose, but the precedent is not. The Secretary General appointee is always multi-lingual, with extensive international experience. The job has never gone to a former Head of State or Head of Government, however, and tends instead to be given to former Foreign Ministers (like Ban Ki-Moon) or internal UN candidates (like Kofi Annan). With a number of former Heads of State in the running, it will be interesting to see what impact this has.

There is an informal system of regional rotation within the UN — and with the past four Secretary Generals coming from Peru, Egypt, Ghana and, presently, South Korea, the sense is that the next pick will come from Eastern Europe. This is reflected in the candidate list, although there are a couple of outliers from Western Europe and Oceania. The wide range of controversial issues in the Eastern Europe at the moment — refugees, Russian aggression and sanctions and the rise of right-wing movements — means that any candidate from the region will have to negotiate these carefully in order to avoid ruling themselves out.

A ‘blue helmet’, worn by UN peacekeepers

In addition, there are widespread calls for a female Secretary General — the previous eight incumbents all having been men. Five of the eleven candidates are women, while a number of the male candidates have pledged to appoint female deputy Secretary Generals should they be appointed.

And finally, the balance of power between America and Russia (both permanent members of the UN Security Council) often proves vital in these votes. So the end candidate is likely to be someone who offends neither, but is not so close to one that the other feels perturbed. A balancing act is certainly required.

So who are the candidates?

There are a couple of clear front-runners (odds courtesy of, but as Ban Ki-Moon was far from a favourite last time round, even those with longer odds are worth looking at.

The favourites

Helen Clark, Former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current administrator of the UN Development Program (UNDP) (Confirmed as standing, 3/1 odds on winning)
For some time, Clark has been considered a frontrunner in the race. With strong experience both of national and international politics, as well as of the inner workings of one of the most significant UN institutions, the UNDP, Clark’s resume ticks a lot of the right boxes. At recent open presentations, Clark is said to have impressed the audience significantly. But there have been reports of an autocratic approach and deep cuts enacted to change the structure of UNDP which may not sit well with a role that requires delicate diplomacy.

Vuk Jeremic, Former President of the UN General Assembly and former Serbian Foreign Minister (Confirmed, 5/1)
Prickly, combative and straight-talking, Jeremic has emphasised the need to engage youth movements around the world to help create a future that they can buy into. To do this, he wants to put climate change at the core of the UN’s work, as well as to more transparently and effectively manage emergencies and mobilise resources for disasters, along with (controversially) a more proactive and professional peacekeeping force. He has laid out a 53 point plan, something that he referred to frequently during the Guardian event, which he wants to act as a kind of manifesto of promises to which he can be held. Currently at short odds, but may prove too abrasive for some in the Security Council to agree to.

Irina Bokova, Current Director-General of UNESCO (Confirmed, 6/1)
Recently profile by the Guardian (here), Bokova declares a belief in “a common humanity through culture and heritage”; unsurprising, given her commitment to preserving the world’s great heritage sites. Bokova, a Bulgarian national, points at culture as being key to achieving the development goals set for the next fifteen years, as well as to tackling extremism and terrorism. Bokova has also emphasised a need to review the UN approach to the least developed countries, particularly in relation to the SDG agenda. Internationally, Bokova is seen as closer to Russia than America, which could prove a sticking point.

(from far left) Helen Clark, Vuk Jeremic, Irina Bokova

Kristalina Georgieva, Current Vice-President of the European Commission and former EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid (Not yet confirmed, 7/1)
Another Bulgarian, Georgieva is yet to declare for the race but is widely expected to contend. With a financial background, including a stint as World Bank director for Russia, she may end up being a strong compromise candidate when the US and Russia are going tit-for-tat. She lacks diplomatic and UN experience at the highest level, however, while her lack of French may stand against her.

Antonio Guterres, Former Prime Minister of Portugal and former UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) (Confirmed, 8/1)
Guterres, a well known figure from his role as head of UNHCR, has focussed on making the UN brand trustworthy again. After scandals like the exploitative actions of UN peacekeepers in places such as the Central African Republic, this is a strong promise. Speaking at the Guardian event in London, Guterres played the role of the elder statesman, describing how he sees the role of Secretary General as an “honest broker”, determined to find political solutions to the humanitarian problems the world faces. He has a warmth and passion in his ideas, with stories about the plight (and indeed resilience) of refugee families frequent and touching.

Dalia Grybauskaite, Current President of Lithuania (Not yet confirmed, 9/1)
The first female President of Lithuania, and the first President of Lithuania to have been re-elected a second time, Grybauskaite is referred to as the “iron lady”, Grybauskaite openly cites Thatcher as a role model and last year made a speech declaring that “the UN must be adapted to the realities of the 21st century”, which many thought was posturing for a campaign for the Secretary General Position. In the first half of 2016, however, she has denied wanting to stand and has said her focus remains on the second term of her Presidency.

(from far left) Kristalina Georgieva, Antonio Guterres, Dalia Grybauskaite

The outsiders

Danilo Turk, Former President of Slovenia and UN Assistant-Secretary for Political Affairs (Confirmed, 11/1)
Turk has fairly widespread support amongst Western nations, with a strong reputation for human rights advocacy and a background in international law. Conversely, this may end up playing against him, with human rights not a top priority in the eyes of a number of UN member states. Turk has also identified as a priority that the UN work more closely with other international organisations, with a key example being peacekeeping with the African Union.

Susana Malcorra, Former Foreign Minister of Argentina and former Chief of Staff for Ban Ki-Moon (Confirmed, no odds yet)
One of the most recent entrants, Malcorra comes with extensive experience, both within and outside of the UN. Widely respected, and with a background in the developing world, Malcorra would seem a very good candidate. There are only two things that stand in her way — the insistence amongst some nations of regional rotation, and an Eastern European candidate, and a possible reluctance of the British to vote for an Argentine candidate with the Falkland Islands issue rearing its head again recently.

Angela Merkel, Current Chancellor of Germany (Not yet confirmed, 11/1)
Merkel is the biggest name on the longlist, and has publicly denied any desire to take the UN top job. But at the height of the refugee crisis and when her job was looking most at risk, rumours spread that she might look to step down from her position in German politics before the next round of elections, with the Secretary General position one of the few that would propel her to a higher profile. With extensive international diplomatic experience, she would be sure to be well supported should she decide to throw her name in, though at present it looks unlikely.

(from far left) Danilo Turk, Susana Malcorra, Angela Merkel

Vesna Pusic, Current Deputy Speaker of the Croatian Parliament, Former Foreign Minister (Confirmed, 13/1)
Candid and straight forward, Pusic has based much of her vision on pointedly declaring that the UN is “flawed”. She has often quoted the UN’s widely criticised mission in Bosnia, where under-resourced UN peacekeepers were unable to stop the massacre going on around them. She says this pragmatic view on needing to reform the inner workings of the UN sets her aside from other candidates, as does her open support for LGBT rights — even in the face of Saudi Arabian dissent.

Mircea Geoana, Former Foreign Minister and former President of the Senate of Romania (Confirmed, 16/1)
Geoana has a plethora of diplomatic experience, having served in positions including Romania’s ambassador to the United States before becoming Foreign Minister of his country. Clashed a couple of years ago with his party, which led to his removal as President of the Senate, but remains well respected and has a good network of allies within the Security Council’s permanent members.

Igor Luksic, Former Prime Minister of Montenegro, Current Minister of Foreign Affairs (Confirmed, 17/1)
Luksic is the youngest of all the candidates to put themselves forward, and was at one stage the youngest Prime Minister in the world. Slightly less polished than might be expected, Luksic spoke with a sense of humour at the Guardian event. He appealed to optimism but struggled to answer some questions with any level of detail. Does not have the depth of international experience of other candidates and would be a surprise choice.

(from far left) Vesna Pusic, Mircea Geoana, Igor Luksic

The real long shots

Miroslav Lajčák, Current Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of Slovakia (Confirmed, 21/1)
An experienced diplomat, Lajčák has served as the EU’s Special Representative for Bosnia and within the European External Action Service. He played a major part in the conflict resolution negotiations in Ukraine, and he came close to becoming the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy — demonstrating strong European support. He has received Slovakia’s official nomination, but his country’s recent declaration that they would only take in Christian refugees will not have helped his candidacy.

Natalia Gherman, Former Acting and Deputy Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister of Moldova (Confirmed, 20/1)
Gherman has already secured Moldova’s support for her campaign, but remains a long shot. Having held many the country’s biggest political offices, her vision for the UN revolves around the organisation playing more of a facilitator role, engaging with more depth with specialised partners across spheres from the private sector to NGOs.

Srgjan Kerim, Former Foreign Minister of Macedonia (Confirmed, 21/1)
Kerim laid out a wide-ranging set of reforms, based around a more inclusive and efficient management of the UN. He has said he wants a more professional approach, with more concrete deadlines and targets on initiatives, and gender reforms to ensure that there is an equal distribution of men and women at senior levels in five years time. It would be a real surprise were he to be chosen, though.

Kevin Rudd, Former Prime Minister of Australia (Not yet confirmed, 34/1)
Another potential candidate who has not declared, Rudd is one of the most high profile candidates to have been touted. With a reputation of toughness and a strong network of international contacts, Rudd could be a contender. He is hamstrung, however, by the fact that Australia is only able to nominate one candidate, and Helen Clark looks to be in a good position to secure this.

(from left) Miroslav Lajčák, Natalia Gherman
(from left) Srgjan Kerim, Kevin Rudd

Okay, so what’s next?

Technically, there is no cut off point for entrants into the race, but the successor will probably be announced in August or September. There is speculation that the Security Council will hold its first straw poll at some stage in July, and if there is a general consensus on their recommendation the process may move quickly. If — as is more likely — there is disagreement, further rounds of campaigning and back-room deals will take place. The new Secretary General of the United Nations will take up her or his post at the turn of the year.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read more about the vision that each of the candidates is putting forward, the rather excellent 1 for 7 billion campaign publishes latest news and, where available, manifestos for each candidate.

The United Nations General Assembly
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