Is Kevin Rudd the very model of a modern UN secretary-general?

Kevin Rudd is reportedly campaigning to take over as UN secretary-general when Ban Ki-moon’s term expires in 2016. EPA/Peter Foley

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s second term expires at the end of 2016. Candidates are already lining up to compete for the position, including – reportedly – Australia’s former prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

But what does it take to become secretary-general?

Formal and informal rules

The UN’s formal rules are quite vague. The UN Charter says only that “the Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”. A General Assembly resolution passed in 1946 said that it “would be desirable for the Security Council to proffer one candidate only”. This means that the vote of the General Assembly – composed of all of the UN’s member nations – is only a formality.

The 15-member Security Council really makes the decision. Its five permanent members – China, France, the UK, the US and Russia – all have the veto power. This has meant that past secretaries-general have needed to be acceptable to all five countries and, in particular, to not have made enemies.

But there are also two informal rules that govern the selection. First, no secretary-general has ever come from the Security Council’s permanent members – with the exception of the first, the UK’s Hubert Miles Gladwyn Jebb, who acted in the role for three months.

Second, the position rotates through the UN’s five regional groupings of countries. This time, it is seen to be Eastern Europe’s turn, given it has never had a secretary-general. Australia is in the “Western European and Others Group”, which has already produced three secretaries-general – Norway’s Trygve Lie, Sweden’s Dag Hammarskjöld and Austria’s Kurt Waldheim.

Lessons from history

Because of the permanent members’ veto power, the position doesn’t tend to go to international high-flyers. None has been a former head of state or government.

Hammarskjöld, praised by US President John F. Kennedy as “the greatest statesman of our century”, had been a bureaucrat and minister in the Swedish government. Gladwyn Jebb only put him forward because two other candidates – Canadian Lester B. Pearson and Indian Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit – were vetoed.

The veto power also affects their reappointment. Lie, who had been the head of the Norwegian delegation to the UN, resigned from the position after the Soviet Union made it clear that it would no longer support him. Boutros Boutros-Ghali failed to receive a second term entirely due to American opposition. Waldheim sought a third term but the Chinese vetoed him 16 times.

This led to a change in practice. The Security Council now conducts straw polls, where members indicate their encouragement or discouragement for a candidate. Since 1991 the polls have been conducted with red ballots for the permanent veto-wielding members and white for the elected members.

Most secretaries-general have come from either the UN’s diplomatic corps or their country’s foreign service. Beyond Lie, Burma’s U Thant and Waldheim had been their countries’ permanent representatives to the UN before their elections. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar had been Peru’s permanent representative before becoming the special representative of the secretary-general in Cyprus. Boutros-Ghali had been Egypt’s minister of state for foreign affairs. Ban was South Korea’s foreign minister.

The real exception was Kofi Annan, who was the only secretary-general to emerge from within the UN Secretariat.

Others have not been lucky. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who served as the UN high commissioner for refugees for 12 years from 1965 until 1977, tried three times to be elected secretary-general, but the Soviet Union vetoed him twice, and then he could not secure a majority of votes the third time.

India’s Shashi Tharoor, who was serving as the UN under-secretary-general for communications and public information, lost to Ban after the US vetoed him. He then left the UN to return to Indian politics.

Miroslav Lajcak could be a contender to be UN secretary-general. Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Who will it be?

If history is a guide, the next secretary-general will be from Eastern Europe, working in their national government, and with strong foreign service experience.

Foreign Policy reporter Colum Lynch has suggested a few possible candidates. These include:

  • Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak;

  • Jan Kubis, Slovakia’s former foreign minister and now the UN’s special representative for Afghanistan;

  • Danilo Turk, Slovenia’s former president, a former permanent representative to the UN, and the former UN assistant secretary-general for political affairs; and

  • Vuk Jeremic, a former Serbian foreign minister and former permanent representative who also served as General Assembly president in 2012-13.

But there is one last issue: no woman has ever served as secretary-general. There is clear pressure for a female to be elected. As a former UN high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, has argued:

Whatever the selection process for the next secretary-general is, historically there’s been no attention paid to the representation of half the world’s population.

Could Dalia Grybauskaite be the UN’s first female secretary-general? Reuters/Carlo Allegri

There are strong female candidates from Eastern Europe, including:

  • Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who was previously a European commissioner;

  • Bulgarian Irina Bokova, the UNESCO director and her country’s former foreign minister; and

  • Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva, a European commissioner who previously worked with the World Bank.

If the Security Council does go against precedent and nominates a secretary-general from outside the region, there is a former Oceania prime minister who has a shot. But it is not Rudd – it is Helen Clark, New Zealand’s former leader and now the head of the UN Development Program.

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