Panel Discussion on “Process of Selection and Appointment of the Next Secretary-General: A Call for ACTion,”

by Gabrielle Jorgensen, 30 June 2015

On 30 June 2015, the Accountability, Coherence, Transparency (ACT) group held a panel discussion on creating a more accountable, coherent, and transparent process for selecting the next Secretary General. Panelists included Ambassador Margus Kolga of Estonia, Ambassador Matthew Rycroft of the United Kingdom, Mary Robinson on behalf of the “Elders”—a group of eminent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela—and William Pace on behalf of the “1 for 7 Billion” civil society campaign.

In his opening statement, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Switzerland introduced the ACT group and provided an update on the efforts of ACT’s subgroups regarding the selection of the Secretary-General as well as other areas of Security Council working methods reform.

The ACT Group's Position

Ambassador Kolga of Estonia began by highlighting the important link between a clear, regulated selection process and the quality of consequential results. He reiterated ACT’s belief that all Member States are entitled to information about each stage of the selection process, and that greater transparency would enhance the credibility and trustworthiness of the office of Secretary-General. He then went on to explain ACT’s proposals for the selection procedure, which focus on the first two stages of the three-stage process involving nomination, selection, and appointment.

Overall, ACT supports a more concrete timeframe, with a clear beginning and estimated end date. Regarding nominations, the nomination process may be initiated by a joint letter of the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council, as these two institutions are both mentioned in Article 97 of the Charter. They should ultimately set a deadline for nominations but allow the process to be open to all Member States. At the close of the nomination stage, an official list of candidates should be circulated.

Regarding selection, ACT maintains that consultations should include the wider UN membership rather than be limited to the Security Council. Membership consultations may take place either in General Assembly meetings or within geographical group meetings. Security Council deliberations and consultations should be more open and transparent, with regular briefings to the wider membership to update them on deliberation progress. The ACT group also recommended Arria-formula meetings with candidates to ensure that all member states could make an informed decision about which candidates to support.

Kolga stressed that the process should be finalized early, with a suggestion of three months prior to the appointment. He also asserted that all serious candidates should meet certain leadership criteria, but that gender and geographic representation could also be taken into consideration. Finally, ACT welcomes the idea of introducing a single, longer term for the Secretary-General, but Kolga acknowledged arguments for both single- and two-term proposals.

The Position of the Elders

Mary Robinson, speaking on behalf of the Elders, commended ACT’s efforts to reform the Secretary-General selection process. The Elders assert that the position of the Secretary-General requires someone with both a moral authority, who can advocate for the poor and marginalized, as well as someone adept in management. Robinson referred to the need to reform the Secretary-General selection process as a moral issue, with the current system characterized by opacity and irrationality. She also said that because all member states should feel like they have a say in the selection process, the role of the General Assembly should be expanded.

Robinson expressed support for ACT’s proposals, but encouraged member states to be “bolder” and go further in their recommendations. The proposed joint letter from the Security Council and General Assembly presidents calling for candidate nominations should be sent this year to allow ample time for deliberation. The Elders also maintain that civil society should engage with the process and make recommendations for what it would like to see in a Secretary-General. The General Assembly has the responsibility of selecting the most qualified candidate without the strict constraints of geographical rotation. Most controversially, Robinson emphasized that the recommendation of more than one candidate by the Security Council would give the General Assembly actual decision-making power.

Robinson asserted that the Secretary-General should be seen by all as legitimate and independent, which can be achieved through more transparency. The Security Council should therefore have public briefings with Secretary-General candidates, as is already the case with many other high-level positions in other organizations.

The Elders believe strongly that the Secretary-General should only serve one, longer term, in order to avoid the bias and distraction of a reelection campaign; Robinson noted that the Charter does not specify term length. She suggested that candidates could voluntarily declare in advance for how many terms, and for how long, they will be seeking office. Robinson further stated that candidate for Secretary-General should not bend to political pressure from powerful nations, emphasizing that promises made by candidates in exchange for support seriously undermine the reputation of the UN. Robinson expressed support for a female Secretary-General but maintained that this need for representation should not sacrifice quality.

With regard to other issues addressed by the ACT group, Robinson raised the issue of the veto, observing that the Security Council should not block steps toward peace based on the interests of individual Member States. The Elders support the propositions on veto restraint in cases of mass atrocities, and believe that if a permanent member of the Security Council vetoes a proposal designed to prevent mass atrocities, it must publicly explain its veto and present an alternative solution.

Mrs. Robinson’s complete statement is also available online.

The United Kingdom

Ambassador Rycroft of the United Kingdom outlined three principles that the UK is committed to during the reform process. The first was equality, illustrated by Rycroft’s declaration that it is “high time” for a female Secretary-General. Rycroft and UK ambassadors around the world would encourage member states to nominate credible and capable female candidates. In raising the he second principle, predictability, Rycroft observed that the procedures to appoint the Secretary-General differed greatly from managerial practices in the private sector. The process must include clear deadlines and regular, predictable timetables. This predictability would allow time for proper consideration of the candidates’ merits. Speaking as a member of the P5, Rycroft also stressed the Security Council’s need for predictability throughout the process.

Finally, the UK reiterated the need for transparency. Candidates must be given the opportunity to present a vision for the role of Secretary-General in front of a large audience; civil society should be involved in the process and be able to scrutinize the qualifications of the candidates. Rycroft noted that the UK does not support the principle of regional rotation as a main criterion for selection, and the onus is therefore on regions who consider it to be their “turn” to present the best possible candidates. With regard to the General Assembly’s draft resolution on the revitalization of the General Assembly, which includes the appointment process for the Secretary-General, the UK appreciated its attempt to give more clarity to the selection process without amending the Charter. The UK disagreed with the statement made by the Elders that the Security Council should recommend more than one candidate to the General Assembly, stating that the time for transparency is earlier in the nomination process.

The 1 for 7 Billion Campaign

William Pace of 1 for 7 Billion argued that while reform efforts take time to finalize, these specific reform proposals have already been on the table for decades; it is now time to take bigger steps. For 1 for 7 Billion and many other NGOs, it is crucial to select a Secretary-General who prioritizes human rights and international justice. Under the current system, however, those issues will not be prioritized in the Secretary-General selection process.

Pace called for a single, longer term to prevent reelection campaigning and “buying influence,” and argued that the most highly qualified candidates have little chance of selection under the current system. When seeking re-election, Pace observed, candidates often feel obliged to make reciprocal agreements with members of the Security Council, exchanging Under Secretary-General positions in exchange for support. He suggested that the issue of a single term may require polling the general membership. Pace also addressed the issue of hearings with candidates for the position of Secretary-General, arguing that the Security Council may hold hearings with candidates, but they should be open, and that the General Assembly should hold hearings as well.

Pace stated that the General Assembly resolution from 1946 which outlines the procedure for recommendation by the Security Council is outdated, citing the provision describing the Secretary-General as a “man of eminence” as an example. He noted that the recommendation of only one candidate by the Security Council originates in this resolution, rather than in the UN Charter; Article 97 of the Charter only states that the Security Council will recommend and the General Assembly will appoint.

Questions and Answers

Following the presentations, there was an open question and answer period. The majority of questions were directed towards the permanent representative of the United Kingdom, seeking to clarify the UK’s position in light of its important role as a permanent member of the Security Council.

When asked whether the UK had ever considered geographic rotation as a criterion for candidacy, Rycroft replied that it was simply a matter of prioritization, and that the UK remains committed to selecting the very best possible candidate from as wide a selection pool as possible. He was then asked how such a large pool would be effectively narrowed down, to which Rycroft suggested that the Security Council could recommend a short list to the General Assembly for further consideration.

More detail was requested about how, in the UK’s view, civil society might engage in the selection process. Rycroft noted that Arria-formula meetings with candidates could include civil society as well as all member states. Rycroft stated that the UK planned to call an Arria-formula meeting for this purpose. Rycroft was also asked directly about a joint letter by the Presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council, to which he responded that the UK would support this proposal. In his remarks, Rycroft further mentioned that the UK had no formal position on the single term proposal, but that it was being “actively considered”.

When asked by a representative of the Canadian mission about search committees, Pace explained that 1 for 7 Billion had ruled them out in earlier discussions because they believed the General Assembly and Security Council would struggle to agree on the procedures before the appointment of the next Secretary-General.

Robinson expressed the need to use the ten non-permanent members of the Security Council to move the reform process along rather than the P5. When asked why the UN would benefit from a female Secretary-General, Robinson cited the need for a female role model and symbol of women’s empowerment. She also suggested that female candidates could have a different way of leading, through listening and inclusivity, that would reinvigorate the UN system. Robinson also made further remarks on the single term proposal, stating that at least one other permanent member of the Security Council was also open to a single term for the Secretary-General.

To view the complete event, please visit UN web TV.