U.N. Fails To Bring Transparency To Secretary General Race

Aug 31, 2016
Originally published on August 31, 2016 6:31 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's an important election that could affect nearly 200 countries - The race for the next U.N. secretary general. Ban Ki-Moon's term ends this year, and there are 10 candidates vying to replace him. The one leading the straw polls is the former head of the U.N.'s refugee agency. He's well-respected, but this election process is not playing out the way many had hoped. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains why.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At a time when the world is facing so many global challenges, the U.N. needs a skilled diplomat with moral authority, says Mogens Lykketoft, who's president of the U.N. General Assembly.

MOGENS LYKKETOFT: There were very high expectations, and the world needs the best possible person.

KELEMEN: The Danish diplomat tried to pry open this election process beyond just the 15 Security Council members, letting all U.N. member states hear from the candidates directly in a first-ever televised debate. But these days, the council is back to its usual non-transparent straw polls where the 15 members either encourage or discourage each candidate.

LYKKETOFT: It's a little ridiculous that there's no official announcement, but half an hour after the end of the straw polls, all the media know the results.

KELEMEN: Lykketoft also has been surprised that women haven't polled well, even though many U.N. member states would like to see a woman at the helm. That frustrates Jean Krasno, too. She teaches at the City College of New York and runs a website devoted to the female candidates.

JEAN KRASNO: It's so, so frustrating that the Security Council is just not really listening.

KELEMEN: There are still five women in the running, including a Bulgarian who heads the U.N.'s cultural organization, Argentina's foreign minister, a New Zealander who runs the U.N.'s development program and a Costa Rican woman who led successful international climate negotiations, but who came in last in Monday's straw poll. There are various reasons for these outcomes, says Richard Gowan, who teaches at Columbia University.

RICHARD GOWAN: Some people believe that this is because, in secret, a lot of male ambassadors in New York prefer the U.N. to be a boys' club. I think there is some truth in that, but I think there are also a lot of political games involved.

KELEMEN: And as usual, he says, it mostly comes down to the U.S. and Russia.

GOWAN: Susanna Malcorra from Argentina is seen as being very close to the U.S., which has been to her disadvantage with Russia and China. Irina Bokova from Bulgaria is seen as being very close to Russia, which means that Western powers are wary of her. So it's partly about gender, but it's also a lot to do with big power politics at a time when the U.N. is a very divided place.

KELEMEN: This U.S.-Russia struggle could prove difficult for the front runner, too. The former head of the U.N.'s Refugee Agency, Antonio Guterres, is from Portugal, and Gowan points out Russia says it is Eastern Europe's turn to have a U.N. secretary general.

GOWAN: Moscow feels that if the next U.N. chief is from one of its near neighbors, it will have additional power over him or her. However, the Russians are realists, and they may eventually be prepared to make a deal. And there have been some hints that they might even be willing to accept Guterres as secretary general.

KELEMEN: That is, if Guterres appoints a deputy from Eastern Europe. Gowan says that's the kind of horse trading going on now as candidates campaign before the next straw poll. The voting only gets serious when the veto-holders use color-coded ballots, and candidates learn whether they're being discouraged by a powerful permanent member. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.