In a recent paper, Katie Laatikainen, Ph.D., professor, weighed in on the U.N.'s weighty decision-making process.

Katie Laatikainen, Ph.D.

Katie Laatikainen, Ph.D., Adelphi University professor and visiting professor at Tampere University, Finland

On August 29, 2016, the U.N. Security Council held its third straw poll on the current candidates seeking to replace Ban Ki-moon as the ninth secretary-general of the United Nations (UNSG). The ballots used in these straw polls do not differentiate between permanent and nonpermanent members, and they indicate only whether the Security Council members “encourage,” “discourage” or have “no opinion expressed” on the particular candidacies. For the third time, former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres led the balloting among the remaining 10 candidates. (Two candidates withdrew after minimal support in earlier straw polls.)

The most important criterion for selecting the UNSG has been competence and merit, but often UNSGs have been selected because they were the least objectionable to the 15 members of the Security Council. The UNSG is appointed by the U.N. General Assembly (all the members of the U.N.) upon the recommendation of the Security Council. In practice, this has meant that the members of the Security Council negotiated in secret and then presented a consensus candidate to the General Assembly, which has always approved the Council-recommended candidate. While there have been two UNSGs—Dag Hammarskjöld and Kofi Annan—who are notable for making an impact on the U.N. and the way things are done there, as well as for their independence from influential members of the Security Council, most UNSGs have been rather anodyne and uncontroversial in their approach.

This appointment process was meant to be different. There has been an influential campaign by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and U.N. watchers to make the selection process more open and transparent and less Security Council centered. Their demands to influence the process have been enthusiastically supported by the current president of the U.N. General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, as well as by the British, who sit on the Security Council (no threat of Brexit there). There have been a number of innovations this time around: All of the candidates have been asked to prepare a vision statement that is publicly available, to meet with the entirety of the U.N. membership in “informal dialogues” and to engage with civil society through a somewhat stilted, but nonetheless photogenic, effort to allow ordinary people to ask questions of the person who—uniquely in politics—“stands,” not for one constituency or people, but for all humanity. In July, there was even an American style town-hall meeting which allowed those who actually work for the U.N. to interact with the candidates hoping to lead the organization.

The momentum behind Guterres is in some respects surprising. A recurrent theme in this open process has been broad support for the principle of gender equality and the idea that it is, as Ban Ki-moon himself has said, “high time” for a woman to serve as UNSG, a position that requires independence, creativity, nearly Herculean negotiating skills and a limitless energy to handle the egos of those accustomed to ambassadorial privilege. Five of the remaining candidates are women, but only one, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, has been consistently among the top five in the straw polls. Further, the U.N. principle of geographic distribution suggests that the next UNSG should come from Eastern Europe, as the other regional groups have all had at least one person from their regions serve in this most exclusive of positions. (Western Europe has had three of the previous eight.)

In the end, however, while the effort to pry open the secretive process has partially succeeded, the “popular” criteria for the next UNSG (regional rotation, gender considerations) have at this point given way to the candidate who is most acceptable to the members of the Security Council. It appears that some of those members are utilizing the straw polls to “game” the process: Former Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák was ninth in the second straw poll conducted on August 5, 2016, but received the second-highest number of endorsements in the third straw poll. Traditionally the results of UNSC straw polls remain confidential, but part of the transparency campaign has been to keep information flowing. The public demand to know has been met with nearly immediate leaks of poll results.  The digital age inculcates a desire for immediate information and participation, but the choice of one for seven billion of us on this planet remains shrouded in the mysterious ways of the Security Council. Guterres is deeply respected and popular among both the diplomatic community and U.N. observers. His performance in the informal dialogues was very strong. Yet he lacks the two properties that tradition and public opinion value: He is neither from Eastern Europe nor a woman.

It seems very likely that the Security Council will recommend Guterres to the General Assembly for appointment by the end of October despite the campaign to appoint a woman or someone from Eastern Europe. While the new process has not fundamentally changed who selects the UNSG, it may be that the campaign has elevated the criteria of competence and merit in the selection process. Clearly these should be the most important criteria in the selection of the Secretary General so, in that regard, the overall process is an improvement even if the demands of civil society for a woman secretary-general are unfulfilled.

That is, of course, unless the General Assembly feels empowered to reject the recommendation of the Security Council. That would be a very interesting game changer indeed.

For further information, please contact:

Todd Wilson
Strategic Communications Director 
p – 516.237.8634
e –

Phone Number
More Info
Levermore Hall, 205
Search Menu