Time for Eastern Europe to shine at the United Nations

A new secretary general from Eastern Europe would bring a global view much-needed in the UN.

United Nations General Assembly [AFP]
United Nations General Assembly [AFP]

As the race for the next secretary general of the United Nations heats up, speculation continues to mount on who will secure the top job.

The next secretary general will take over the leadership reins of an organisation rocked by indignity, hypocrisy and Byzantine administration. These problems are only compounded by the opaque nature and growing distrust of the organisation.

Many have criticised the secrecy and mysterious nature of the selection process for the secretary general.

Report condemns UN’s handling of aid to Syria

Normally the UN Security Council makes a “recommendation” for the next secretary general to the 193-member UN General Assembly.

Traditionally, the General Assembly does not hold a public vote but instead reaches consensus by applause.

Calls for transparency

There is now more pressure than ever before for this process to be more transparent and accountable.

It looks like the selection process of the next secretary general will be slightly different. For the first time the debate has spilled into the public.

READ MORE: Ukraine crisis – what’s the UN doing about it? 

Multiple candidates have been announced. They are under more scrutiny than ever before (although this is not saying very much).

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [EPA]
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [EPA]

In April, there was even a question and answer session between the General Assembly and prospective candidates.

While the Q & A session was a step forward in terms of transparency, it was rightly criticised for failing to address the most difficult and pressing issues facing the world.

For example, in 800 questions put to the candidates nobody asked how each candidate would address the problems in Syria.

Of the eight people who have held the position of UN secretary general over the past seven decades, all have been men and none have been from Eastern Europe. This is very likely to change.

Of the eight people who have held the position of UN secretary general over the past seven decades, all have been men and none have been from Eastern Europe.


An Eastern European woman?

Out of the 11 official candidates, five are women. There is a strong movement led by the UK, but also with the backing of various advocacy groups, to select a woman as the next secretary general.  

Custom says that the next secretary general should come from Eastern Europe. (Out of the five official candidates that are women, three are from that region.)

Although this is an unwritten rule, and many disagree with this notion, there is some merit to this argument.

It is true that the secretary general has been selected on an informal geographical rota and that Eastern Europe appears to have been neglected.

In fact, this isn’t a phenomenon unique to the UN.

The Eastern European region has been all but ignored for international top jobs since the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. When NATO selected its most recent secretary general, there was hope he or she would come from Eastern Europe. Instead a Nordic man was selected … for the second time in a row.

READ MORE: The West needs to keep NATO’s door open to new members

A solid candidate from Eastern Europe would bring a global view much needed in the UN. Eastern Europe shares many of the problems that much of the world faces in the 21st century such as building stable civil societies, promoting economic growth, and transitioning to democracy.


Better get united

If Eastern Europeans want to send someone to fill the top job at the UN they need to start getting serious about it. Only a few official candidates have the attributes and the experience required to be the next secretary general.

Furthermore, the region needs to unite behind one or two good candidates. Infighting and squabbling among various candidates form the region will only weaken Eastern Europe’s chances of filling the billet.

Perhaps what is happening in Bulgaria is the best example of this. The government has nominated Irina Bokova, the first woman and first Eastern European to be director general of UNESCO, as Bulgaria’s official candidate. She is said to be among the favourites to succeed Ban Ki-moon.

Infighting and squabbling among various candidates form the region will only weaken Eastern Europe's chances of filling the billet.


Yet behind the scenes another Bulgarian, EU Commission vice president Kristalina Georgieva, is aggressively lobbying for nomination by another Eastern European country.

Although she has no serious chance of succeeding, her suggested candidacy has led to infighting that has distracted from the overall selection process and seriously weakened the chances for the region.

Major reform

The UN is in need of major reform. It desperately needs a secretary general that can bring accountability, transparency and ethical leadership to the job.

It also needs a secretary general who can deliver a new era of transparency, trust building, and relevancy for the organisation. 

From whistleblowing cover-ups to UN peacekeepers from France, Chad and Equatorial Guinea molesting children in the Central African Republic, the UN has been rocked by scandal after scandal.

There is also a perception, based in reality, that the UN cannot do anything meaningful to solve many of the world’s major problems such as Syria or famine in sub-Saharan Africa.

This could change with the right candidate.

The candidate that is ultimately selected should be the best and most capable available for the job regardless of gender or region.

But with all the talent in Eastern Europe, it should be its moment to shine. The region should unite behind one solid candidate. The sooner the region does this the better.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.