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Race for Next U.N. Chief Sparks Lively Debate

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jan (IPS) – Almost 23 months before a new secretary-general takes office at the United Nations, there is already a vibrant debate on who should succeed incumbent Kofi Annan when he completes his second five-year term in Dec. 2006.


“The selection of the secretary-general is always important — as much for what the selection process says about the state of multilateralism and how major powers see the potential for the United Nations, as for who ends up getting selected,” says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Don Kraus, executive director of the Campaign for U.N. Reform, told IPS that the United States, like any permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, “should be more concerned about ensuring that whoever follows in the footsteps of the current secretary-general is able to command the trust and respect that this position requires.”

“The real politicking for the post will not begin until the end of 2005,” says Hillel Neuer of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, “but the U.S. voice will certainly be significant.”

So far, there are two declared candidates for the job — both with strong backing from their respective governments: Thai Foreign Minister Surakiat Sathirathai, who is relatively unknown and untested, and former U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, who has worked the U.N. system for over 10 years.

Since Asia hasn’t had a secretary-general for nearly 34 years, since Burma’s U. Thant, Asian countries believe that one of their own should be elected as chief administrative officer of the world body when the final decision is made next year.

The post was previously held by Trygve Lie of Norway (1946-1953); Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden (1953-1961); U. Thant of Burma (1961-1971); Kurt Waldheim of Austria (1972-1981); Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru (1982-1991); and Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt (1992-1996). Annan, who is from Ghana, has been serving as U.N. chief since Jan. 1997.

Asked whether geography or competency should play a role in the selection of a secretary-general, Neuer told IPS: “Good candidates from any geographical group should be considered on their merits. The secretary-general’s job is simply too important for the world to slavishly defer to a rigid rotational system.”

But Bennis says she has her reservations on the issue of geography versus competency. “The notion that ‘the best man or woman’ should get the job, ignoring regional considerations, is an ideal, but one unlikely to be reflected in the real world,” she told IPS.

The secretary-general has an enormous set of conflicting tasks, the most important of which is to shape the U.N.’s role in challenging the threats of war, often by the most powerful countries, including the United States, she added.

Given the disparities of power and interest in the organisation, the willingness to make opposition to such war threats the centerpiece of U.N. policy should be the most important criteria for the secretary-general, wherever she or he may come from.

“But given the realities of that same power, finding that individual may be difficult, but getting her or him approved by the United States and its veto-wielding allies is likely to be virtually impossible,” said Bennis, author of ‘Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s U.N.’

The debate over the next secretary-general also comes at a time when the United Nations is at a crossroad — perhaps its “moment of truth” — facing charges of waste and mismanagement over the U.N.’s oil-for-food programme in Iraq and over its failure to resolve some of the ongoing crises in Africa.

“We face a paradox,” says Neuer, “because never before has the United Nations been more needed. We have genocide in Sudan, upcoming elections in Iraq, the global terror threat of Al Qaida bombs and Hezbollah satellite TV, yet never before has the United Nations seemed more irrelevant.”

“We had the failure to condemn Sudan at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in April, and then again last month at the General Assembly — and all of this during the 10th anniversary of the U.N.s failure to intervene in the Rwanda genocide. The oil-for-food scandal that continues to burn. And so on,” he pointed out.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is also debating a key report on U.N. reform — prepared by a high-level panel of experts — on how best to restructure the world body to meet the needs of the 21st century.

“So the next U.N. secretary-general will inherit monumental challenges, and it’s a tall order, indeed. What the world needs is a secretary-general with experience who can command global respect. Most importantly, he or she must be of great stature and moral character, willing and able to show leadership in navigating the decade ahead. A person with vision,” Neuer said.

Neuer said the Bush administration will examine the person and also, especially as both candidates are closely tied to their capitals, the sponsoring country.

One U.S. official, he pointed out, has already been quoted as saying there was no way Washington would support Surakiat because Thailand is perceived as “a Chinese stooge”.

Though Thailand did send troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Thais made a point of disassociating themselves from Washington, asserting that the troops were being sent strictly under a U.N. mandate and for humanitarian assistance, he added.

Kraus said that it is vital for the United States to support Annan in his attempts to pursue the reform agenda and move into the 21st century.

“Without the necessary structural changes required, the United Nations will not be able to meet the security needs of its members, regardless of who is selected as the next secretary-general,” he warned.

The next U.N. chief, he said, must continue a process that addresses global poverty, rampant terrorism and growing nuclear proliferation.

Bennis noted that it is a well-documented fact that every U.S. administration has played a major role in imposing the candidate of its choice on the United Nations. She pointed out that the first Bush administration supported Boutros-Ghali, believing that the close U.S. ties to Egypt would insure a malleable secretary-general.

Several years later, when U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright was lobbying to become secretary of state in (U.S. President Bill) Clinton’s second term, she launched a hardball campaign against the prickly Boutros-Ghali — who had, it should be noted, carried out virtually every “reform” demanded by Washington despite his tendency to talk back while doing so, Bennis said.

Annan was anointed by the White House, and became secretary-general with the fear of many that he would be Washington’s man.

“As it turned out, his tenure turned out to be more independent than many expected — somewhat the opposite from Boutros-Ghali. Annan was courtly and diplomatic with his and the U.N.’s worst enemies on Capitol Hill even while challenging much of their unilateralist tendencies,” Bennis added.

Neuer said that if it is Asia’s turn for the next secretary-general it should perhaps consider gender-equality as well: “Why not choose (Burma’s 1991) Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi?” (who has been under virtual house arrest under the Burmese military regime).

“Whatever she lacks in experience is more than compensated by her moral courage. Repressive Myanmar (Burma) would never sponsor Aung San Suu Kyi, but what is to stop a neighbouring state from doing so? We need to start thinking out of the box,” Neuer added. (END/2005)

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