Saturday, October 29, 2016
The Other 2016 Election
EVEN WITH ALL the media attention swallowed by the Trump/Clinton battle, there is amazingly little attention given to the selection of a new secretary-general to replace the retiring Ban Ki-moon. Making it even more remarkable is that, albeit by the opaque standards of previous elections, this is the most transparent in the 70-year history of the U.N., where the selection of the world’s “secular pope” has traditionally been carried out in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms.
It is perhaps a blessing that both Trump and Clinton are too preoccupied to pay much attention to the secretary-generalship issue, as their influence on that election is unlikely to be constructive. It was, after all, Clinton’s close comrade-in-arms Madeleine Albright who used American veto power to ensure that Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the only Arab ever to hold the position, was not allowed a second term, and whose imperious attitude to the organization led to perennial tensions with even close U.S. allies.
Surprisingly, Trump has been too busy with populist xenophobia about Mexicans to bother about the U.N. It has not been one of his targets so far. It would seem that his supporters were a natural constituency for those who used to believe that UNESCO World Heritage sites in the U.S. were a U.N. land grab and potential bases for black helicopters to take over the country. Maybe looking for Mexicans and Muslims under the bed has diverted their attention—but, in any case, Trump’s nose for business would remind him that much of his shaky real estate empire in Manhattan would be adversely affected if the United Nations and its high rent diplomats were to quit. He built the ugly Trump Tower directly opposite the U.N. to cater to them, after all—and even offered his services as developer to Kofi Annan to refurbish the old U.N. HQ.
In any case, another president has intervened in a significant way. Danish Social Democrat leader Mogens Lykketoft was elected last year as president of the General Assembly, and as a few of his predecessors occasionally did, he decided to make his mark since his term coincided with the selection of the secretary-general. Although in practice it is overlooked, under strict diplomatic protocol the U.N. president counts as a head of state, with 21-gun salutes and all that, while the secretary-general officially is merely ranked as the equivalent of a foreign minister!
The actual power to nominate is still firmly in the hands of the Security Council.
In the real world, however, the secretary-general is there for at least one, and—except in the case of Boutros-Ghali—for two terms, while the presidency rotates annually. Lykketoft has made his mark on posterity by getting the Security Council to agree to a more transparent secretary-general selection process. With most of the membership backing him, he secured the Security Council’s agreement to make public the names and qualifications of the candidates and to present them to the whole membership of the United Nations.
That work was backed up by the various foundations and NGOs around the U.N., and meetings were held in New York and around the world for candidates to strut their stuff in front of diplomats, academics and human rights supporters, while governments and PR firms touted their candidacies.
Transparency has its limits, however. The actual power to nominate is still firmly in the hands of the Security Council, and thus subject to the veto power of any or all of the five permanent members. There have been three straw polls, with the last taking place at the end of the August, in which the Council’s 15 members record whether they would “encourage,” “discourage” or have no opinion about the various candidates. Under the official procedure, the president of the Security Council merely informs the General Assembly president that the poll has taken place—without sharing the results. Absurdly, most or all of the Council members immediately rush and tell the press what the voting results are. It is a secret ballot, leaving participants in the dark about whether the “discourage” votes imply a veto coming down the line.
Complicating the already arcane process are underlying presumptions, none of which are actual rules. Firstly, the East European group has never had a secretary-general and claims it is their turn. Against that is the reality that the group is a Cold War hangover, most of whose members have either joined or applied to join the European Union. However, Moscow, not traditionally favorable to the rotation principle—or indeed to the often anti-Russian governments of its former clients—has become more sympathetic to the idea, not least since several of the candidates were brought up and groomed in the Communist era and tend to pay attention to what Vladimir Putin would tell them. These are, of course, unlikely to attract enthusiastic support from the Western veto holders.
The second principle being invoked is that it is long overdue for a woman to take the position—which is, in abstract, entirely true. However, observation of the records of Margaret Thatcher, Albright, Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi in high office leads to questions about whether it follows that having a woman in office is good for women in general or the world—which leads to the final, and often overlooked, principle of the candidates’ competence and integrity.
Theoretically, the various hustings have allowed the candidates to demonstrate this to a watching world. The earnest assumption is that the Security Council members will have to take this into account when they make their final choice. But they have their ready-made excuses. A consistently clear front runner was the Portuguese former head of the U.N. refugee program, António Guterres, who has now managed to accrete several “discourages”—and one can be sure that the excuse is that Portugal is on the wrong end of Europe, and that he is male. On the other hand, one of the stars of the hustings was Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, a star of the Climate Change program, whom the audience clearly rated highly. But she has amassed a surprising number of “discourage” votes—the real reason being that she seems principled and outspoken, not least on issues like Climate Change, on which many member states are still shuffling their feet. And, of course, the excuse will be that while she is a woman, she is not Eastern European.
Other candidates have been amassing more and more negatives, and the field seems very volatile. If the Russians nixed Guterres, currently in second place is Slovakian diplomat Miroslav Lajčák, who has just surged from 10th place, implying some lobbying behind the scenes. A former communist party member now with EU credentials, he might bridge the gap. The runners up are Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian head of UNESCO, who seems to have Moscow’s tacit support based on close connections, and Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, whose vociferous opposition to Kosovar independence makes him unlikely to get Western support.
Bokova is close to the Russians, by family and upbringing, and has devoted her time at UNESCO to canvassing for the job, but the British and others are very suspicious of her sharp elbows and feel that her ambition led her to neglect her actual duties at UNESCO. But she is a woman, and she is Eastern European, so the question is how disgruntled they will be about her. She is certainly adroit, getting credit from the Non-Aligned Movement for allowing Palestinian membership in UNESCO on the agenda, while reassuring the Israelis (and their friends) that it had nothing to do with her!
As the process moves on, the polls will reveal whether the opposition to the various candidates goes as far as actual vetoes. Perhaps it is a blessing that so far the election is below the horizon for the various lobbies in Washington, since there are too many factors already complicating this process.
In the meantime, Ban Ki-moon is clearly in lame duck mode as far as the Moroccans are concerned. The Moroccans ritually abuse him in every speech, which is one thing. But the French and other Security Council members let them get away with it. Many of the MINURSO staff in Western Sahara have still not been allowed back into the country. The Moroccans and their French allies, with U.S. complicity, continue to fight off any attempts to include a human rights monitoring component in the mission, making it unique among U.N. missions.
As we go to press, there are signs that Morocco, emboldened by Franco-American acquiescence, is encroaching beyond the cease-fire line in the south, risking provocation with both Polisario and Mauritania. In an oblique way it shows the potential power of a secretary-general—if he (or she) is backed by significant powers. As Boutros-Ghali, exasperated with U.S.-backed mandates from the Security Council unaccompanied by any resources, complained, “I can do nothing. I have no army. I have no money. I have no experts. I am borrowing everything. If the member states don’t want it, what can I do?”
In his day, the only power in a position to provide support was the U.S., which would lead to palpitations in any secretary-general, whether it were Trump or Clinton in Washington. But the world has changed. Europe, even in its current disheveled state, China, even Russia, might be in a position to back an enterprising incumbent. Certainly Washington’s (and Congress’ and the Lobby’s) effective financial veto is not what it was.
But the new secretary-general will immediately cope with the impasse in Syria, where all the talk of a Brave New World of responsibilities to protect, collective concern for humanitarian law, and international action are going up in a firestorm stirred by cynical bystanders who are managing to give Levantine politics a bad time. Everyone’s enemy is someone’s friend, but the U.N. is supposed to be the enemy of inhumanity. And humanity has few friends in this fight. ◙
U.N. correspondent Ian Williams’ book Untold: the Real Story of the United Nations will be published by Just World Books in Spring 2017.