The Race for the Next U.N. Secretary General

MIN READMar 17, 2016 | 17:36 GMT

Later this year the ninth Secretary General of the U.N. will be appointed.

Historically, the Secretary-General has been selected based on an informal system of 'regional rotation'. Under this rotation system three Secretaries General have come from the 'Western Europen group' of member states (Trygvie Lie, Dag Hammarskjold and Kurt Waldheim), two each from the 'African group' (Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan), two from Asia (U Thant and Ban Ki-moon) and one from Latin America and the Caribbean (Javier Perez de Cuellar).

No Secretary General from Eastern Europe has been appointed to date and most remarkably of all the U.N. has never appointed a woman Secretary General.

In July 1997 the General Assembly adopted Resolution 51/241 which is aimed at 'strengthening of the United Nations system.” The resolution provided that the process of selecting the Secretary General “shall be more transparent” – it could hardly be more opaque. It confirmed the system of  'regional rotation' and added “and shall also be given to gender equality”. 

The appointment of Ban Ki-moon's successor will be the test of whether the commitment to gender equality is anything more than words. 

The clear stand out candidate at this point in the race for the top U.N. post is Irina Bokova current Director General of UNESCO.

Ms Bokova who is from Bulgaria fulfils the 'regional rotation' requirement but more importantly she is a woman with a solid CV. Her life experience spans the bridge between east and west. She received her early training in the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and later at the University of Maryland and at Harvard.

Following stints at the Bulgarian foreign ministry and the Bulgarian U.N. mission in New York, Bokova entered the world elected politics and was elected to the first post Communist Bulgarian Parliament on the Socialist Party ticket in 1989. After a spell as deputy foreign minister with responsibility for coordinating Bulgaria's relations with the European Union she was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs ad interim in November 1996 and in that position led her country's bid to join the European Union. At the time not everybody in Bulgaria was enthusiastic for EU membership, her determination to take Bulgaria into the European Union demonstrated considerable political courage.

Bokova's election as Director General of the U.N.'s largest agency, UNESCO, in 2009 when she became the first woman and the first Eastern European to head the U.N.'s largest agency and her re-election as DG in 2013  demonstrate a striking capacity to garner support from across the 190-plus membership of the United Nations.

Baring some unforeseen event Bokova seems well placed to repeat this performance in the race for UN Secretary General.  She has the energy, the experience and the necessary contacts across the 'U.N. electorate'.

Most importantly perhaps she is in the best possible position to overcome the biggest hurdle that all candidates for the top U.N. post face – winning the support of all of the members of the U.N. Security Council.

Under the appointment procedures all five members of the Security Council hold the right of veto a candidate for Secretary General. Ms Bokova is well equipped to negotiate that hurdle. Over the years, she has established good relations with all the power blocs, has managed to avoid 'ruffling feathers' and has demonstrated a commendable capacity to navigate a course through sometimes stormy waters.

One area where Bokova has demonstrated capacity to navigate complex political minefields has been in her handling of very thorny issues that arise from the rich heritage of the Middle East.

Her handling of the controversy that cropped up around the issue of the classification of the Western Wall in Jerusalem provides a classic example. Bokova exhibited particularly adroit diplomatic skills in preventing UNESCO being dragged into political controversy. Her sensitive handling of the issue was recognised by the Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.

Her role in resolving a controversy about the staging a Historical Exhibition of the Jewish People and the Holy Land which was staged in U.N. headquarters  won wide scale praise.   

Oddly, given her strengths and the very considerable kudos that the appointment of U.N. Secretary General could bring to Bulgaria, a country that does not always get the best press, Bokova's strongest competition to date came from another potential Bulgarian candidate, Kristalina Georgieva EU Commission Vice President for Budget who also 'threw her cap in the ring'.

With two candidates from the same small country in the running for the U.N. job there was, all too predictably, a attempt to mount a negative media campaign against Bokova, the 'front runner.   Pressure was aimed at persuading Prime Minister Boyko Borissov urging that he drop the Bokova nomination. There was also some rather squalid media briefing. Some commentators suggested that Bokova would either be replaced or pull out under pressure: neither happened!.

Far from damaging Bokova, the campaign to unseat her as Bulgaria's candidate probably played to her advantage. She dealt with the campaign with great dignity and demonstrated that the quiet UNESCO DG had the necessary 'steel' in her character to withstand abuse – an important personal attribute for the top position in the U.N.

At the moment there are six other candidates in the field, two women Vesna Pusić, Croatia and Natalia Gherman, Moldova and four men , Srgjan Kerim, a former foreign minister Macedonia, Danilo Türk, a former President of Slovenia, Igor Lukšić, the incumbent foreign minister of Montenegro, and António Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal. While these candidates bring with them a considerable range of personal qualities and political experience none of them 'tick the boxes' quite as well as Bokova does.

There is one other factor that tilts the scales on Bokova's side – her mother country. While Bulgaria does not always get the 'best press,' the Bulgarian people have a tradition of ethnic tolerance, a tradition that has survived the toughest historic tests. During the dark days of World War II the Bulgarian people led by their monarch and church prevented the wholesale deportation of Bulgaria's Jews. During the Yugoslav wars Bulgaria provided a home of many ethnicities and was a pillar of stability in the region. And in the context of the current refugee crisis the Bulgarian people, although directly impacted have shown sympathy for people displaced by war and terror and the Bulgarian government has strongly favoured a common European solution. In a divided world where a tragic level of intolerance is on the rise, Bulgarian roots are an asset in the U.N. race.

There is one issue that could disadvantage Bokova: oddly this is a self-imposed constraint. Reportedly Ms. Bokova has decided that because her current term of office expires at the end of 2016, she will not 'go on the campaign trail' for the U.N. post. Her motivation in this is beyond reproach - she wants to avoid compromising her current office in any way. As other candidates, and would be candidates, will openly campaign  – expect to see the names of other candidates 'popping up' in the entourages of heads of state and government. The 'non-campaign strategy while commendable might need to be reviewed.   

There is an expression in Ireland “a quiet curate never becomes a Parish Priest” which has application beyond Ireland's shores. It has application in the U.N. race too.


According to the U.N. rules of procedure, the Security Council will recommend a candidate for appointment to the General Assembly.  The issue will then be “discussed and decided at a private meeting” and the new Secretary General will be appointed by the General Assembly “upon the recommendation of the Security Council,” traditionally through a General Assembly resolution. 

There is no formal appointment timetable, however General Assembly resolution 51/241 provides that “the Secretary General should be appointed as early as possible, preferably no later than one month before the date on which the term of the incumbent expires.”

Realistically the name of the successor of Ban Ki-moon will be known, well before the end of the year, maybe even by summer. 

This time it is imperative that the glass ceiling in the United Nations is breached and that the name of a woman emerges from the still opaque process for selecting the world's top diplomat. The name Irina Bokova comes with all of the necessary attributes for the post.

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