For the past 70 years, each time the post of secretary general of the United Nations has been open, those interested in the job lobbied and cajoled the five permanent members of the Security Council behind closed doors. The Council chose the finalist, whose name was then presented to the General Assembly as a done deal. This obscure process for selecting one of the world’s most important leaders has gone unchallenged for decades.
Not anymore. The race to replace Ban Ki-moon, who will step down at the end of the year, fortunately, will be different. At the insistence of small nations that traditionally had no say in the matter, the United Nations has asked that governments that wish to nominate a candidate for the job do so openly. Next week, diplomats from the United Nations’ 193 states will have an opportunity to meet and question the four women and four men who are vying for the job.
Among the candidates are five United Nations veterans, including Helen Clark of New Zealand, a former prime minister, who has led the United Nations Development Program since 2009, and Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Also in the race are António Manuel Oliveira Guterres of Portugal, who served for a decade as the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, through last year; Danilo Turk, a former assistant secretary general who served as president of Slovenia from 2007 to 2012; and Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia, who served as foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations.
The other contenders are Vesna Pusic, the foreign minister of Croatia; Natalia Gherman, a senior diplomat from Moldova; and Igor Luksic, the foreign minister of Montenegro.
Most candidates are Eastern European because that region is widely assumed to be the next in line to have a representative at the top of the United Nations. The Security Council is also under pressure to give serious consideration to female candidates, since no woman has run the United Nations. The Council will start vetting the candidates in July and will pick one later in the year.
The next secretary general will face a series of challenges that will require deft leadership and tenacity. The United Nations needs to play a central role in ending wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, even as it struggles to provide resources and aid to millions of refugees who have fled Syria and other countries roiled by war.
The new leader will also inherit internal problems. The United Nations was slow to acknowledge and respond to allegations of widespread sex abuse by peacekeepers in Africa, a situation that could destroy its reputation and credibility in areas already struggling with the ravages of war and famine. The World Health Organization, which came under criticism for its inadequate response to the Ebola crisis in 2014, will also require sustained attention.
Those vying for the job will need to clearly outline their priorities and vision for a job that becomes ever more daunting in a conflict-ridden world.