The Next UN Secretary-General: Change or Continuity?


The UN Secretary General is a world moderator – described officially as “equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO”. The first UN Secretary General, Trygve Lie, described it simply as “the most difficult job in the world”, and there is a new selection of hopefuls vying for the position.

Eight candidates are running to replace current UNSG Ban Ki-Moon upon the end of his term in January 2017. The successful candidate is likely to be female and Eastern European in order to fulfill a mandate of diversity and regional rotation; but there is another important criteria to consider.

Last year was the 70th anniversary of the UN, and the opportunity to look back and reflect raised the urgent question of reform. Will the next UN leader be able to transform the complex and bureaucratic regime into an effective organization adapted for today’s global grievances?

Debate about UN reform has been ongoing since 1993, but those who have been awaiting a revolution might view this year’s election process as unprecedented hope for change.

Ongoing “auditions” to replace Ban Ki-Moon are being applauded for establishing “a new standard of transparency” that has been demanded for decades. Candidate interviews have been broadcasted worldwide with SG hopefuls addressing questions raised by the public via social media. The General Assembly, the most representative organ of the UN, will have a say by majority vote.

Although this represents a small and unique step toward democratizing the UN, creating real change remains a challenge.

The five permanent members (P5) still have veto power over any aspiring Secretary-General.

This is a major obstacle for anyone with a reform agenda. For example, in the last elections, Ban Ki-Moon’s main competitor was vetoed by the United States. India’s Shashi Tharoor was viewed unfavourably by the superpower, and years later U.S. Ambassador John Bolton revealed in his memoir that Tharoor’s candidacy broke “one of the UN’s unwritten conventions, namely that SGs should come from smaller fry [countries].” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly advised him, “I am not sure we want a strong secretary general.”

Essentially, this meant avoiding the election of another Kofi Annan.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan confronted national leaders with his plan for reform in 2005 (a year before the end of his term). He raised pressing issues such as development goals, terrorism, and humanitarian action, and suggested empowering the General Assembly and expanding the Security Council from 15 to 24 members.

He also explicitly stated that the Iraq war was illegal and critiqued the American notion of “preemptive self-defence”. Opposition towards state actions that he believed could lead to a breakdown of international order earned Mr. Annan a reputation for being a strong Secretary-General.

It is something the international community desperately needs, but the heads of the most powerful states certainly do not want.

How can one person represent 7 billion people? A difficult task in itself, it is made near impossible by the P5’s veto powers and the tensions that exist between them (especially the US and Russia). As Kofi Annan commented in 2015 in the context of the Syrian civil war, “In a situation where [member states] are divided, what can we do?”

The relatively marginal role of Secretary-General is rightly described as more “secretary” than “general”. Even if someone with a radical vision fills the vacancy, there will always be great limitations on his/her capacity to truly effect change, insofar as the realist paradigm continues to dominate.

Julie S.