Ban Ki-moon has nearly two more years to go, but the race for his successor as U.N. Secretary-General has already begun in world capitals as well as in New York

If you are a lady in your late fifties or early sixties, a national of one of the small states in Eastern Europe, with considerable experience of working in the U.N. system either as a diplomat or as a senior member of the Secretariat, with no strong views against the well known U.N. consensus positions on fundamental issues, and also speak French, you have a high level job waiting for you. Starting from January 2017, the job will be based out of an office on the 38th floor of the U.N. building in New York and a town house in Manhattan.

But the imponderables are many. The job description is extremely vague and cursory. So are the prescribed qualifications of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who has to be the Chief Executive, negotiator, mediator and the conscience of mankind. In fact, anyone who is acceptable to the majority of the members of the Security Council, including the permanent members, can be chosen in a private meeting. The person has to win two-thirds majority of the General Assembly later, but so far, no recommended candidate has failed to fulfil that requirement. But still, the next Secretary-General of the U.N. should have the attributes mentioned because of the history of the position, convention, practice and expectation.

Factors that matter

First and foremost, no woman has ever been elected Secretary-General so far and, in these days of gender balance and empowerment of women, the U.N. cannot overlook this fact. Equally sacrosanct is geographical rotation, which is at the centre of selection of personnel at all levels. Competence is often sacrificed at the altar of regional distribution. The fact that nearly half the staff of the U.N. are selected on the basis of geographical representation and not merit was acknowledged by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, when he said, “about fifty percent”, when he was asked as to how many people worked at the U.N. Among the five regional groups, one of which every member state belongs to, only the East European Group has not had a chance to provide the Secretary-General so far, while Asia (Myanmar and South Korea) West Europe (Norway, Sweden and Austria) and Africa (Egypt and Ghana) have provided more than one and Latin America (Peru) has provided one. The East European Group has undergone major changes after the end of the Cold War and it will be difficult to deny it the chance to nominate a Secretary-General this time.

“That no woman has been elected U.N. Secretary General cannot be overlooked in these days of gender balance and women’s empowerment”

The leading state in the East European Group, Russia, does not qualify as permanent members are excluded from consideration, as there will be too much concentration of power in a permanent member, if it also nominates the Secretary-General. This argument was used against India as India was a candidate for permanent membership. Even while opposing India’s permanent membership, the argument was used to deny support to an Indian candidate. But some of the former Republics of the Soviet Union like the Baltic States or some states, which were part of Yugoslavia may be able to offer candidates that fit the bill.

Age is no bar, but in the traditional world of diplomacy, in which age and experience are respected and the youth are seen as upstarts, persons with no more than 10 working years to go have an advantage. The experience can either be in the missions at the Ambassadorial level or in the Secretariat or both. Kofi Annan was the only Secretary-General who came from the Secretariat and some of his faults were attributed to his having been a part of the U.N. Secretariat for long. Foreign Ministers and above look attractive, but former Presidents or Prime Ministers have never made it. Overqualification is as deadly as under qualification.

Holding strong views on any subject is not an asset to the aspirants. Inane and colourless commitment to the consensus positions of the world body should help. The smaller the country, the more committed it will be to non-proliferation, human rights and the environment as it does not have to give up anything in espousing the consensus within the U.N. A representative of a country like India, which has its own angularities on these issues has little chance of leading the U.N., unless he disowns his national positions. No wonder, then, that the Indian candidate last time had never represented India at the U.N. Mr. Ghali was denied a second term basically because he brought his own perspectives to the job. Initially, it was thought that his Coptic Christianity and Jewish wife distanced him from the country of which he was Foreign Minister. In the case of Kofi Annan, his European wife may have been a helpful factor.

The permanent members

The permanent members have repeatedly made it clear that they will not accept any procedure to elect the Secretary-General that would detract from their own role in choosing the next Secretary-General. There have been suggestions that a search committee should be constituted with Kofi Annan at its head, with representatives of the permanent members as members. Nothing would be more objectionable to the permanent five. They demand absolute loyalty of the Secretary-General and will not be party to any arrangement which brings in other king makers. For this reason, the aspirants should be totally acceptable to all the five of them. It is the U.S. which identifies a potential candidate and sells him or her to the rest of the permanent members and then to the rest of the Security Council. The best chance is for someone who is willing to abide by the wishes of the permanent five without questioning as in the case of the previous incumbents except Dag Hammarskjöld and Boutros Ghali. The first was killed in a mysterious aircraft accident and Ghali was denied the customary second term. A “head waiter image” is the most suitable. Brilliant ideas or thinking out of the box are not assets for them. Like it happened in the case of Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, after several rounds of voting, an exhausted Security Council picked the one candidate who had nothing negative against him even if he had nothing positive either. Pérez de Cuéllar was fishing in Peru when he was elected unanimously.

With the sartorial elegance associated with diplomats, the aspirant has to be smartly turned out and well groomed. This is particularly important if a lady becomes the next U.N. Secretary-General.

The run-up

If a senior official of the Secretariat or a senior diplomat begins taking French lessons in New York, it is presumed that he or she aspires to be a candidate for the post of Secretary-General. France absolutely insists that it will veto any candidate who does not speak French. But mercifully, no desirable level has been clearly established and the French vote is often determined by other factors. Ban Ki-moon’s French is not particularly strong, but the French had other reasons to support him. But the French trump card is a nightmare for aspirants. If China and Russia too had imposed such conditions, the language courses at the U.N. would be heavily subscribed.

Ban Ki-moon has nearly two more years to go, but the race for his successor has already begun in the world capitals as well as in New York. Since there is no established procedure, whispers in the delegates’ lounge and conference corridors lead to speculation, emergence of candidates, controversies, convergence of opinions and even consensus. One agreement that has been reached so far is that the next Secretary-General shall be appointed as early as possible, preferably not later than one month before the term of the incumbent expires. The decision in November 2016 may be a surprise, but it will be no surprise if a lady from East Europe walks away with the post.

(T.P. Sreenivasan has represented India at the U.N. in New York, Nairobi and Vienna. He was also the head of the U.N. Division in the Ministry of External Affairs.)