All five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States) skipped the first World Humanitarian Summit in May. The summit produced groundbreaking agreements on a range of humanitarian issues. However, expert opinions are mixed on how effective these changes will be, due to the absence of the permanent five (P5.)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was resolute. "The absence of these leaders from this meeting does not provide an excuse for inaction," he said. "They have a unique responsibility to pursue peace and stability, and to support the most vulnerable." However, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s last day in office is December 31, and his tenure is almost over; the election for his successor is already underway.
In the past, this process has been mostly private. But for the first time in the UN’s history, after strong accusations that the process is undemocratic, it is now going to be public. Official candidates are required to post a CV and a vision statement and to participate in public hearings.
The vague selection rules for the Secretary-General are contained in a single sentence in the UN’s Charter. The Security Council chooses the candidate, and the UN General Assembly confirms the selection with a vote. This means that any P5 member can block the appointment of a candidate. Critics contend that this selection process leads to the selection of the candidate that is the least objectionable to these countries.
Regional biases also play a role in selection. Traditionally, though not legally, there is a generally accepted regional rotation that informs selection. Next year is Eastern Europe’s “turn,” and currently seven out of the nine candidates are from that region. Some observers worry about conflicts over national rivalries, particularly between the United States and Russia.
There is also a movement to elect a female Secretary-General, supported by three dozen countries. “My perspective is that women bring a wider range of life experiences,” said candidate Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current head of UNDP. “All top positions globally, women should have an equal chance to compete for them.” Currently, four out of the nine candidates are women.
Influential advocacy groups call for further reform. Two stand out: The Elders, an organization of global leaders chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and 1 for 7 Billion, a civil society initiative of 750 non-governmental organizations. They have advocated for a single seven-year term for the Secretary-General instead of two five year terms, and they have pushed for the Security Council to provide the General Assembly with more than one candidate to vote on.
When considering reforms to the Security Council’s unique powers within the UN’s framework, it is important to remember the underlying rationale behind them. The UN’s failed predecessor, the League of Nations, was unable retain the world’s most powerful countries. Germany quit the League after the Nazis seized power, Japan quit following criticisms of their occupation of Manchuria, and the Soviet Union was expelled for attacking Finland. Indeed, the United States never joined the League of Nations, and it ended as the Second World War began, having failed at the task it was established to perform.
The United Nations has done better. It still exists after 70 years, and we have not had a Third World War. Ensuring the buy-in of the powerful, victorious nations of the Second World War was central to the UN’s initial existence. Though power dynamics have undoubtedly changed, the UN’s need for commitment from powerful nations never will. Democratizing the system is important, but it cannot be done hastily.
The Secretary-General is tasked with championing the fight against some of humanity’s most intractable problems: war, poverty, disease, climate change, gender inequality, and refugees. The next one must be skilled, not beholden to outside interests, and sympathetic to all the world’s peoples. How the Security Council decides to choose 2017’s Secretary-General remains to be seen, but their willingness to make the selection more transparent is encouraging.
Neil Browning is a public policy graduate student at Duke University.