After months of dedicated campaigning from all parties and endless press coverage, Londoners elected Sadiq Khan as Mayor this month. It was a historic result, with Khan reportedly winning with the largest personal mandate a UK politician has ever received, which leaves him responsible for building a fair, prosperous London for its 8.6 million inhabitants.
At the conclusion of this and the council elections, UK citizens have now turned their attention to the next significant voting event on their horizon: the upcoming EU referendum. However, there is in fact another revolutionary campaign underway that has been overlooked by the media thus far, and it is about to arrive right on our doorstep, relevant not only to London’s 8.6 million but the global population at large. At London’s Barbican Centre on June 3rd, nine candidates vying to become the UN’s next Secretary General have been invited to make their case for selection under the scrutiny of not only an expert panel but civil society at large, answering questions from the audience and social media users in the second event of its kind.
London is an appropriate host for this debate; UNA-UK, one of the organisers of this event and its precursor in New York last month, has played a huge role as the co-founder of the ‘1 for 7 Billion campaign’, arguably the reason they have been held at all. The campaign is a global movement of over 750 NGOs which have battled since 2013 to create a new process for the selection of the Secretary General. Since the UN’s establishment in 1945, eight individuals have been appointed through an undefined selection process characterised by opaqueness and back-room deals within the Security Council. The UN Charter describes the process for selecting the Secretary General in just one sentence, stipulating that the Security Council must present their recommended choice of nominees to the General Assembly who then vote to approve their appointment with a 2/3 majority.
Although the UN celebrated its 70th birthday last year and publicly reflected on past achievements and developments, it was clear that the election process for Secretary General was one issue that had fallen to the wayside. The Assembly’s role had mostly been reduced to rubber stamping the choice presented by the Security Council after closed-door negotiations. The Assembly itself was provided with no information about the suitability of the candidates, making the process a formality, another area in which only the Security Council had meaningful control.
Enter the ‘1 for 7 Billion’ campaign. Started in 2013, this 170-million-strong movement campaigned member states and the global public to review the selection process for Ban Ki-Moon’s successor as he prepares to step down on December 31st of this year. The group was cited by the President of the General Assembly as one of the main reasons the ground-breaking Resolution 69/321 was passed in September last year, which implemented a number of the changes they had lobbied for in response to international attention to the issue. These modifications have greatly increased the transparency of the process, re-emphasising the selection of candidates based on merit, not political dealings. The most notable changes to the selection process include the creation of a clear timeline, a defined statement of selection criteria that Security Council Members and the General assembly must use when judging suitability and the declaration of candidates being considered with publication of their credentials. More importantly, it states a commitment to increasing informal dialogue between candidates and member states, as well as civil society at large. The first event of this kind occurred in March, where webcast hearings hosted at the UN had candidates collectively answering over 800 questions from member states on a plethora of global issues. April’s New York debate and London’s next month are a result of NGO’s attempts to bring the level of engagement to a more informal level with civil society at large.
What makes the above so significant? After all, the Secretary General is defined as ‘chief administrative officer’ of the organisation, not a key policy creator or activist. Moreover, the Security Council still holds final say on who it selects to present to the General Assembly, meaning candidates will still be those unlikely to ‘rock the boat’ with the P5. Truthfully, how much these reforms matter will become clear through the possibilities they create for the legacy of the Secretary General role, rather than in their immediate impact.
The UN needs to reaffirm the confidence entrusted to it now more than ever, especially in the wake of scandals such as that in the Central African Republic, where peacekeepers were accused of sexual abuse. Moreover, the UN and its complicated structure has caused many to see it as inefficient and bloated, described by recently resigned United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Anthony Banbury as ‘a Remington typewriter in a smartphone world.’ In the case of the previous Secretary General selection process, this criticism was actually fair, as no private company or organisation would likely approve such a shrouded, unmerited process for their own staffing. However, the UN needs to work to dispel such perceptions and create a meaningful connection with the global population it works tirelessly to assist. These reforms provide a unique opportunity to do so.
To many, the Secretary General represents the global face of the UN and is a symbol of its successes and political will. To dismiss it as simply an administrative role with little impact ignores the significance of public support and interaction. By reforming the process to make it more open and inclusive, the role of Secretary General can be granted greater legitimacy. Reigniting engagement with the public by making its main mouthpiece more accountable can be the shot in the arm the UN needs to show it is an organisation that can evolve and respond to an ever-changing world, dispelling the common perception of an unmoving institution dominated by the interests of only five states. Giving the public and member states a chance to have a real say in the process of selecting the Secretary General can do much to rebuild a real sense of stake in the UN’s operations and impact. It also takes away some of the P5s power by making the consequences and accountability of their recommended candidate selection have far greater impact.
In the wake of endless tongue-in-cheek speculative coverage about the impact of a Trump Presidency on the world, the global media has largely let exposure of a race the entire world has real stake in fall to the wayside. Perhaps this is simply a symptom of the above disconnect the general public has with the everyday structural operations of the UN. However, the progress resulting from the work of ‘1 for 7 Billion’ and UNA-UK heralds an opportunity to create lasting change in the role of Secretary General. If you want to be part of this revolutionary and process and take the opportunity to have an impact on politics of a huge scope, book to attend the London debate here or submit your own question online to scrutinise the candidates. The campaign to change the Secretary General selection process is not over, as ‘1 for 7 Billion’ is currently pushing to see specified terms introduced. However, the possibilities presented by what it has already been achieved give an assuring indication that the UN structure is not as inflexible as it is often considered. Personally, this author will be submitting this question to the candidates; “What would you do with the role to make the world think ‘why on earth didn’t we change this sooner?’”
by Grace Carroll