No Kevin ‘17: Turnbull opts not to back Rudd for the UN’s top job

Kevin Rudd had been hoping to succeed Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general. AAP/Dean Lewins

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed the Australian government will not nominate Kevin Rudd to be United Nations secretary-general. Rudd, a former prime minister and foreign minister, had been hoping to succeed Ban Ki-moon, whose eight-year tenure ends later this year.

Rudd was aiming to become the first Australian to hold the world’s most senior diplomatic position. The failure to secure the Australian government’s support has delivered a fatal blow to Rudd’s campaign.

While Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had been publicly supportive of Rudd’s candidacy, several senior government ministers had voiced their concerns about Rudd’s suitability for the role. Even Turnbull was somewhat dismissive of the whole affair, commenting that Rudd’s candidacy “isn’t the most important issue confronting the cabinet”. Ultimately, federal cabinet agreed to leave the decision to Turnbull alone.

Even if Rudd had secured the government’s nomination, he still would have faced a difficult campaign. So how does one go about nominating for UN secretary-general? And who needs to be on your side to get the top job?

How will the process take place?

The UN Charter sets out the requirements for the appointment of the secretary-general. It provides that the General Assembly appoints the secretary-general on the recommendation of the Security Council.

The process of getting that recommendation is quite involved. First, a prospective candidate must, by convention, be put forward for the position by their own government. However, a candidate securing the support of their own country is only the first step.

Once the list of candidates is finalised, the Security Council then meets to adopt a resolution, putting forward its recommendation to the General Assembly. While there is nothing stopping the Security Council from putting forward a number of candidates, it has been accepted practice since 1946, almost the beginning of the UN, that the Security Council will put forward only one candidate.

If there are a number of candidates, the Security Council will conduct ballots before adopting its final resolution. The process is also subject to the Security Council veto. Any one of the five permanent members of the Security Council – the US, UK, France, China and Russia – can prevent the council adopting the resolution that puts forward the chosen candidate.

Gaining the Security Council’s support is thus paramount. This is most often achieved through behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the candidate, as well as by the candidate’s own country.

In addition to these procedural requirements, convention dictates that the position of secretary-general is “rotated” on a regional basis – that is, if a previous secretary-general was from, say, Africa, the next one should be from Asia, or South America.

The position of secretary-general has been held by nationals of Korea, Ghana, Egypt, Peru, Austria, Myanmar, Sweden and Norway. Accepted wisdom would put Eastern Europe as the likely region for the next secretary-general.

The current candidates include nationals from Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Serbia, the Slovak Republic and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which would seem to give credence to this accepted wisdom.

And the UN has made it clear that a female secretary-general would be a welcome development. In a December 2015 letter soliciting candidates for the position, the presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council encouraged member countries “to consider presenting women, as well as men” as candidates, in order to:

… guarantee equal opportunities for women and men in gaining access to senior decision-making positions.

Six of the current 12 candidates are women, including former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark.

So, even if Rudd had the government’s full backing, he would still have had to win over the Security Council, including the five permanent members, and somehow convince the UN to choose him over someone from Eastern Europe and to select him rather than give the job to an equally qualified woman.

Australia has a long and impressive history of engagement with the UN. The most recent, its 2013-14 tenure on the Security Council, is considered a great success for Australian-led diplomacy.

It is likely Australia will eventually call the office of the secretary-general home – however, it won’t be in 2017.