Saturday 18 August 2018

Could Angela be first woman secretary-general of the UN?

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, addresses the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda.
Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, addresses the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda.

Mary Fitzgerald

When Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, met his successor Dag Hammarskjöld in 1953, he greeted him thus: "Welcome to the most impossible job on this earth."

Lie's words have since passed into UN lore but many would say the job description is even more fitting today in a world pummelled by multiple crises, including numerous wars, massive human displacement and climate change.

With current secretary-general Ban Ki-moon's second five-year term ending on December 31, the race is on to find his replacement as the world's top diplomat.

Since the founding of the UN in 1945, the secretary-general's role has changed significantly, not least because of how the organisation has grown over the decades. Today, the UN chief works with 193 member states and oversees 40,000 staff and some 30 UN programmes, agencies and funds.

The power of the secretary-general is greatly dependent on the power of his or her (though no woman has yet held the post) moral voice, with which they can help mediate an end to conflicts and call on governments to meet their responsibilities on issues from human rights to gender equality and sustainable development.

Some previous UN chiefs have been larger than life - Kofi Annan springs to mind - while others like the incumbent Ban, a diplomat from South Korea, have been more low-key.

According to the UN charter, the secretary-general is chosen by the 193-member general assembly on the recommendation of UN's main decision-making body, the 15-member security council. In practice, this has meant that the council's five permanent members - the US, Russia, China, Britain and France - have power of veto over the candidates in an opaque process that involves no little horse-trading in the corridors of the UN headquarters in New York.

This time, however, in an effort to inject some transparency into the process and engage the general public, contenders are presenting their case to the UN general assembly and taking questions in a session broadcast live on the UN's website in what the organisation has described as a "job interview in front of the whole world".

There are currently nine candidates vying to succeed Ban. Four are women. Many believe the next secretary-general should be a woman, a historic first. With no deadline for candidates, others can join the race in the months to come and rumours swirl that German Chancellor Angela Merkel could throw her hat in the ring. The UN also has an unwritten rotation system in which the post has moved among regions. Previous UN chiefs have come from Asia, Africa, Latin America and western Europe. It is widely speculated that the next secretary-general will come from Eastern Europe. Given all that, Bulgaria's Irina Bokova, currently head of the UN's educational and cultural agency Unesco and the first woman to hold the post, has emerged as one of the favourites.

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, who heads the UN Development Programme (UNDP), is also considered a strong contender.

The live interview sessions this week saw the hopefuls quizzed by diplomats but also by a child who asked via video-link what the candidates would do to ensure countries take actions to stop what was described as "catastrophic climate change".

In between questions on human rights, sustainable development and UN peacekeeping, Brazil, Germany, India and Japan - countries which aspire to become permanent members of the security council and together comprise what is known as the Group of Four (G4) - asked candidates how they would reform the security council. This is a perennial question when it comes to the future of the UN, as many believe the security council's current permanent make-up no longer reflects global realities.

UN general assembly president Mogens Lykketoft, who oversaw the question-and-answer sessions, said he was "very inspired" that 227,000 people from across the world watched the webcast. He said the candidates broadly shared the view that while the UN has achieved successes with a new raft of global development goals, an agreement on climate change and some progress on Iran and Syria, there was a need for the body to be more pro-active in conflict prevention and human rights protection. They also agreed that the vexed question of reforming the UN's bloated bureaucracy should be prioritised to make the organisation more efficient and nimble.

Whoever takes office as the UN's new secretary-general on the first day of next year will face the increasingly complex challenges of a rapidly changing world. Now more than ever, the job might indeed appear the most impossible on earth.

Irish Independent

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