UN drops secrecy in contest for next secretary general but some say a backroom deal could still prevail.
New York – For the first time in the United Nations’ 70-year history, candidates have taken part in public questioning by foreign delegates.
Representatives from the 193 member states were eager at Thursday’s session to know their stance on pressing issues, including the refugee crisis, the future of peacekeeping missions, gender equality, the economic impact of sanctions, peace talks in the Middle East, and implementing the ambitious 2030 Agenda.
The world is changing rapidly as it faces a surge of transnational conflicts, poverty and inequality, the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and dwindling resources in the least developed countries.
One person – the leader of the UN – is supposed to represent the interests of all seven billion people on our planet.
But with a torrent of crises spanning the globe and calls for an overhaul of the UN getting louder amid several scandals, it will not be an easy job.
Nine people think they are up to the task and want to succeed Ban Ki-moon as secretary general, whose second five-year term ends on December 31.
“For the most difficult job in the world we now have the most difficult job interview of the world,” said Mogens Lykketoft, the president of the General Assembly.
Over the course of three days from April 12 to 14, each candidate was given two hours each to speak in front of a crowded General Assembly.
People from 70 countries also submitted more than 1,000 questions on social media under #UNSGcandidates.
“We are sailing into uncharted waters here,” Lykketoft said.
The televised debate is meant to make the selection more transparent, inclusive and unbiased. This public scrutiny is also intended to hold the future leader accountable to promises made during the candidacy.
The change ends the UN member states’ long-felt frustration that the five permanent members of the Security Council – the US, Britain, France, China and Russia – held sole power over selecting the secretary-general, which they did behind closed doors – until today.
Since 1946, there have been eight men at the helm of the supranational institution. Many states are calling for a female secretary-general. Now four candidates are women.
Traditionally, the job of the world’s top diplomat is rotated regionally. Russia and Eastern Europe argue that it is now their turn, as there has never been a leader from their region.
Seven candidates are from Eastern Europe, increasing the odds.
The Middle East is a top priority for all candidates.
They were asked to outline their plans for the decades-long Palestine-Israel conflict.
Helen Clark from New Zealand, the current head of the UN Development Programme, said: “It’s a source of enormous sadness for me that it’s gone on my whole lifetime without a solution.”
She pledged to do anything she can to help the Palestinian people.
“We should feel guilty as long as we don’t have a solution. The two-state-solution must be implemented, however, with Israel as an integral part of it. As long as Israel is part of the problem, and not part of the solution, I doubt that we will have a solution,” candidate Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia echoed Clark’s stance on Palestinian independence.
Most contenders promised to address terrorism’s root causes. Clark insisted that she would be firm on religious tolerance, arguing: “Muslim communities are often the subject of marginalisation and stereotyping. We have to look at what drives recruitment for extremism.
“We have to create positive choices in marginalised communities. The youth often don’t have a lot of positive choices, but plenty of negative ones. They can become jihadists and traffickers of goods and people.”
Syria was at the forefront of the discussion and many criticised the fact that a divided and deadlocked Security Council hindered assertive action in 2011, when Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution on human-rights abuses and violence in the country.
Vesna Pusi, from Croatia, however, believes in Staffan de Mistura, special envoy to Syria, who realised that in order to achieve a ceasefire he has to involve all sides.
Worldwide, 60 million people have left their home involuntarily, fleeing armed conflicts, poverty and climate change. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have passed along the Balkan Route, most of whom travelled through Turkey.
“These people were refugees coming from a country that was not helped in time,” Pusi said.
In a separate event outside the UN headquarters, four of the candidates – Igor Luksi, from Montenegro; Danilo Turk, of Slovenia; Pusi; and Natalia Gherman, from Moldova – took part in a hustings on April 13, facing questions from the public and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), also a first.
A second hustings will be held in London on June 3.
During the hustings, comparisons were drawn between this race and the simultaneously unfolding US presidential elections – the outcome of which could also have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications.
Luksi, who is seen as the underdog candidate, jokingly asked: “Do we need to make the UN great again?”
He said “the UN not only needs new faces, it also needs new approaches” and disclosed that he has so far spent 35,000 euros ($39,400) on his campaign, financed by Montenegro’s state budget.
All candidates agreed on one issue – the need for improvement within the UN.
“There’s been some detachment between the UN and the people,” Luksi said.
“We need to fight to make the UN relevant.”
Many have said that it has lost touch with the public, that it is slow, inefficient, outdated and opaque.
Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal and former UN high commissioner for refugees, admitted that there are “too many meetings with too many people, with too little results”.
The UN is currently embroiled in two major scandals. The UN is being sued for causing the largest cholera epidemic in modern times.
In late 2010 – just a few months after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti – 770,000 people were infected with cholera and 9,200 died.
UN peacekeepers from Nepal supposedly brought the disease into the country. The whistle-blower Anders Kompass exposed a sexual assault scandal by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.
Gherman, from Moldova, said: “It undermines our efforts and our reputation. We have to make sure that the perpetrators face justice and we should collectively help the victims of such abuses. Member states also have the responsibility to train future personnel so that these abuses never occur again.”
However, despite the public debates, under Article 97 of the UN charter, the so-called P-5 still have the final say on who will replace Ban.
The Security Council, which will start the discussions this summer, is expected to make its decision by September.
It is not required to choose the candidate with the highest endorsement from other member states.
“This is one of the most open and frank discussions about the UN and also its shortcomings. The UN is only as strong as the 193 members can agree on. That’s both a virtue and a flaw,” Ulla Oestergaard, deputy spokesman of the president of the General Assembly, told Al Jazeera.
The last candidate to speak at the debate, Kerim said: “What we are responsible for here is the destiny of all seven billion people. We live in a world of globalisation, but we still don’t share the same values.”