Quest for new UN Chief

Quest for new UN chief
When being an Asian is a qualification
by T.P. Sreenivasan


AMONG the many attributes that a Secretary-General of the United Nations is required to have by convention is an unusual name. From Trigvie Lie to Kofi Annan, every Secretary-General sported a name that took people time to learn, whether it is the spelling or the pronunciation. Even a seemingly simple name like U Thant caused confusion as the honorific, U for uncle that the Burmese use with their names was mistaken for his first name.


The Secretary-General cannot be from any of the permanent members of the Security Council, or from any country which has a dispute with another nation. Small, neutral countries with good relations with the US have a good chance. The qualifications and the experience of the candidate are no less important once the other criteria are met. Knowledge of French too is essential as France is known to have strong views on this point. This time around, the added attribute is that he should be from Asia, the continent having stood down for a term to facilitate a second term for Mr Kofi Annan, giving Africa an unprecedented 15 years.


These attributes automatically rule out several candidates, but that has not prevented anyone from aspiring for the job. Their supporters think that there will always be a first time to make an exception. The names of Bill Clinton, Mohammad Khatami, Maurice Strong, Jean Chretien, Ali Alatas and Shashi Tharoor, who do not fulfil one criterion or another, have been mentioned as possible contenders. Although the East European Group has lost its political identity, it has challenged the notion that it is the turn of Asia this time on the ground that East Europe has not had a Secretary-General so far. President Aleksander Kwasniewsky of Poland is supposed to have the support of the group.


Those who believe in convention have focused attention on the small countries in South and South-East Asia, where there is no dearth of people with the right qualifications and experience. The front runner for a time was a former Foreign Minister of Thailand, Mr Surin Pitsuwan, though Tommy Koh and Kishore Madhubani of Singapore, Mr Razali Ismail of Malaysia and Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka were not far behind. The first to announce his candidature, however, was the then Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Tyronne Fernando, who said modestly during his campaign that he would withdraw if a better candidate entered the field.


The recent endorsement by the ASEAN countries at their summit in Laos of Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai has made him a front runner, even though he does not have the added attraction of Islam that Surin Pitswan had. But he has all the attributes, including a tough name. Earlier reports indicated that he was not fluent in French, but at a recent Francophone summit in Burkina Faso, Surakiart made it a point to speak in French and he spoke it reasonably well.


Thailand is a non-controversial country and has cordial relations with the US. Surakiart’s credentials are impeccable, with Harvard and Tufts degrees and vast experience in peace-making at a relatively young age (46).


Interestingly, Thailand is an Observer in the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and has sought Observer status in the group of Francophone countries. None of the permanent members is likely to veto him and he may be able to get broad support. The dialogue partners of ASEAN like India, China and Japan are expected to be specially inclined towards the ASEAN candidate, though none of them has taken a position. The US attitude to the ASEAN candidate is also unknown.


Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, whose candidature has been confirmed recently, has the same advantages as Surakiart and, in addition, his reputation as the person who delivered the perpetuation of the NPT and his record as the Under Secretary-General for Disarmament may make him a better candidate in the eyes of the US. With the ASEAN endorsement of Surakiart, other ASEAN aspirants will emerge only if his candidature fails. Therefore, the contest may well be between Thailand and Sri Lanka. India will have a hard time choosing between the two when Sri Lanka seeks SAARC endorsement.


The absence of veto rather than general support is the main factor in the election of the Secretary-General. Boutros Ghali got 14 votes for his second term, but one veto denied him the customary five more years. The French had threatened to veto Annan, but relented when they were sure that Ghali would not make it. The repeated US veto against Salim Salim of Tanzania and the Chinese veto against Waldheim landed Mr Perez de Cuellar in the chair as he was the only one among a dozen candidates who had no veto against him, a fact that Olara Otunnu, the young Ugandan who chaired the Security Council, discovered in a straw poll. De Cuellar was fishing in Peru when he was chosen by the Security Council.


A veto or threat of a veto can change the situation dramatically any time and a totally unexpected name may emerge from the consultations, setting all conventions aside. Bill Clinton may have wide support despite his obvious disqualification. Shashi Tharoor, with his felicitous pen and demonstrated diplomatic skills, has great credentials as a brilliant insider of the UN system like Kofi Annan. As an aspirant for permanent membership and a country with a special position on some UN matters, India may not qualify to provide a Secretary-General, but Tharoor’s nationality should not be an impediment as he has never been a practitioner of Indian diplomacy. At least one permanent member has indicated that Mr Tharoor may be considered a compromise candidate. Talk of electing the first ever lady Secretary-General has thrown up names of Gro Brundtland, Sagaka Ogata, Nafis Sadik, Najma Heptulla and others


Two years are a long time in making and unmaking of personalities and in shaping the international situation. A word here or an action there may unsettle even agreed arrangements. Moreover, the investigation on the oil-for-food scandal and the reform exercise may produce new heroes and villains. An ASEAN diplomat said that the endorsement of Surakiart was motivated by the wise saying, “it is the early bird that catches the worm.” A counter to that wisdom is that it is the early worm that gets caught!


The writer, a former ambassador, has represented India at the UN in New York, Nairobi and Vienna.