United Nations Secretary-General Elections

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I’d been up since 5am completing an assignment when I got a message from a friend asking if I’d be interested in talking about the United Nations on a radio segment. Those who know me are very aware that I’m heavily involved in the Model United Nations circuit, as well as an avid follower of international relations and politics, and wouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that I said yes. When I asked for more information on what they wanted me to talk about, they replied, “Oh the new Secretary-General got elected this morning” – I was completely caught off guard. I was aware that the UN SG elections were happening but wasn’t expecting a result so soon, and neither was the rest of the world, with the exception of the fifteen ambassadors that approved the result. Now whilst I’d like to blame my own ignorance on my essay, looking back, I think I was far from the only one who was unaware. Here’s a little explanation of why this is somewhat big news.

For those of you wondering who is the Secretary-General and what do they do, Chapter XV of the United Nations Charter signed in 1945, and more specifically Article 97, states that the “Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. He shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organization.” Straight off the bat you’ll notice the masculine pronoun “he”, and yes, that is quoted directly from the Charter, but that’s another can of worms in itself. The Secretary-General, in short, is the face of the UN. They are elected for a five year period and are responsible for the UN as a global institution, as well as its progress, vision, and success (or lack thereof). Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past ten years, the soon-to-be-former UN SG is veteran Korean diplomat, Ban Ki-Moon. Ki-Moon was elected for two consecutive terms – from 2006 till 2016 – and his most notable achievements as UN SG include his reformation of Peacekeeping and Peacekeeper laws, leading the climate change and LGBTQIA debate in the UN, and playing a heavy role in stabilizing the conflict in the Middle-East.

In 1946, the UN General Assembly agreed that when electing a new UN SG, it would be best for the Security Council to proffer one candidate for the position before the Assembly. The Security Council would do this via a series of private meetings, and if a vote were ever to occur, formal or informal, it would be conducted by secret ballot. This procedure was put in place to avoid any public debate and criticism surrounding the next possible UN SG, thus allowing the successful candidate to not be stained or bogged down as a result of the campaign process. The system that the current Security Council operates on is based off a series of straw-polls, where each candidate is voted on by the committee. Once a candidate reaches the full required 15 votes of approval by the Security Council, they are put forth to an official, binding vote in the UN General Assembly. There, a two-thirds majority of all 193 member states, is necessary for the ratification of the UN SG candidate.

The 2016 campaign process started off with thirteen candidates, and no, Kevin Rudd was never one of them. The number dwindled to ten before the real campaigning even began, and out of these ten, seven were from the Eastern European Group. The reason for this was because the EEG is the only region in the world to have not been represented in the position of UN SG, and since no-one from a Permanent-Five country (USA, UK, France, Russia and China) can run for the position, candidates from Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Moldova, Serbia and Macedonia were put forwards with high hopes they would be elected. Helen Clark from New Zealand, current Argentinian Foreign Affairs Minister, Susana Malcorra, and the successful candidate, António Guterres, were the other three candidates.

Only a mere total of six straw-polls were conducted and António Guterres led them all, with the sixth seeing him gain the desired fifteen votes of confidence. Many called for this campaign to be more transparent and public, and for the first time ever, the 2016 campaign for UN SG also featured a televised public debate, where the candidates participated in a Q&A session in front of the UN General Assembly, answering questions posed by host news corporation, Al Jazeera, as well as from the public via Twitter. Yet, all the real discussion surrounding the competency and capabilities of each candidate was carried out behind closed doors by bureaucrats and a time-sensitive UN Security Council. The only piece of information the public really had was that we would have a new UN SG “before the end of the year”, thus making it understandable that many countries, international relations experts and people like myself, were caught completely off-guard by the premature decision.

The designate-SG is the former Prime-Minister of Portugal, and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees. As the head of the Portuguese Socialist Party from 1995, Guterres ushered in a term of strong economic prosperity and reduced budget deficits. Though he was re-elected in 1999 his second term was not as successful, as internal party machinations and disastrous PR resulted in his resignation in 2001/2, preventing a political debacle much like Australia faced during the R-G-R and Abbott-Turnbull years. In 2005, he was elected as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and held this position as head of the largest humanitarian organization in the world until the end of 2015.

The UN SG is an incredibly important role, as not only are they responsible for the world’s faith in the Un as an institution, but they also play a key role in negotiating, convincing and compromising with countries to resolve world conflicts. So whilst you may have heard very little about the election, António Guterres is going to be playing a huge role in global politics over the next five years. Many believe that his experience with the UN High Commission for Refugees played a vital role in his selection, especially with the current European Refugee crisis, the emergence of the world’s first climate change refugees, and the internal displacement of peoples within Bolivia. His veteran institutional knowledge and diplomatic mastery will also be put to the test regarding the handling of the conflict zones in Syria, Ukraine, and the South-China Sea. There is also the question of how the European Union will evolve as an organization within the UN following Brexit, and how the United Kingdom will act as its own entity following its separation from the EU. Altogether, Guterres is going to be exceptionally influential on key issues concerning our global political climate, and that is why we should care about his appointment.