Who will get the UN's top job?

12:16 pm on 2 March 2016

The top job at the UN, eh? What's that all about?

Ban Ki-Moon's time is up at the end of the year, so the mysterious dance to "elect" a successor as secretary general of the United Nations is under way.

And what form does this dance take?

The president of the UN General Assembly last week announced a process involving a form of hustings, in which announced candidates are invited to appear before the assembly for "informal dialogues or meetings" from mid-April. They'll also be asked to produce a "concise vision statement", as part of "facilitating an inspired interaction".

Facilitating an inspired interaction?

That's right.

What kind of a job is secretary general?

Officially "chief administrative officer, the role has variously been described as the "world's chief diplomat", "the secular pope" and, according to Trygve Lie, the first secretary general, "the most impossible job in the world". According to one commentator, however, the role is more like managing a posh restaurant. "You get to rub shoulders with a lot of powerful people, but rarely on equal terms."

Who's that?

Never mind.

Why was the word "elect" in scare quotes earlier?

This new process, which, it is repeatedly stressed, is going to be "open and transparent", follows lobbying to make the appointment more democratic. Some hope the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council (US, UK, France, China, Russia) will recommend more than one candidate to the General Assembly, who ultimately vote the new boss in, but don't hold your breath.

Who, apart from Helen Clark, obviously, are the candidates?

Helen Clark, former PM of a small Pacific nation and current boss of the UN's biggest agency, the Development Programme, is not officially a candidate, though she could well throw her hat in the ring. In an interview last week with the AFP news agency, Clark said she hadn't yet "offered an opinion" on the matter.

Oh. If she did, who would she be up against?

So far, there are seven official candidates. Natalia Gherman of Moldova, Macedonia's Srgian Kerim, Igor Luksic from Montenegro, Vesna Pusic of Croatia, Slovenia's Danilo Turk from Slovenia, and, from Portugal, former PM António Guterres, who has also served as head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The "Bulgarian primary", meanwhile, was won by Irina Bokova.

The Bulgarian primary?

There are two highly rated contenders from Bulgaria - Bokova, head of UNESCO, the UN science, culture and education agency, got the nod from the government over Kristalina Georgieva, the vice-president of the European Commission. Georgieva, who is said to be favoured by the western states but may not appeal to Moscow, could still have an outside chance, given there is no strict rule that a candidate must have their home state's first choice.

There seems to be a - how to put it - pattern in those names.

They are indeed all, the Portuguese aside, from Eastern Europe. An informal convention has seen a regional rotation in place since the 1990s. Of the eight SGs so far, none has come from Eastern Europe.

Right. Does Helen Clark happen to have any helpful ancestry?

Helpful ancestry?

You know, like a NZ rugby player resettled in the British Isles.

That seems unlikely.

Who is that?

Just ignore him.

Does that mean Clark is a non-starter?

No. She may be lacking in Eastern European-ness, but Clark has the advantage of senior UN experience, and is considered well placed to get the support of the UK and the US, as well as having strong rapport with China. All it takes is for a candidate to be unpopular with one of the Permanent-5 to be in effect disqualified, which could be to Clark's advantage.

Has there been a woman secretary general before?

No. There has been a concerted push for a woman to be appointed for the first time in 71 years, and the UN awkwardly "encouraged ... Member States to consider presenting women, as well as men, as candidates".

What an inspired interaction!


Does Helen Clark have the NZ government's backing?

Yup. John Key has enthusiastically supported her potential candidacy. He even got an assurance from counterpart Tony Abbott that Australia would back her.

Isn't Abbott a former PM?

He is. And his successor, Malcolm Turnbull, has come under pressure to support a rumoured interest from another former PM.

Aha. Kevin Rudd.


So that could be a problem for Clark?

Possibly. Of late the UN thing has prompted a flurry of anti-Rudd sentiment in Australia.

Just like the old days!

Quite. One Liberal senator has issued a vitriolic attack on the man who called himself a "Happy Little Vegemite", while Chris Kenny of the Australian newspaper said that Rudd was just like the United Nations.

That sounds like an endorsement.

Not so much. Like the UN, wrote Kenny, Rudd's political career had been "one of grand ideals meeting ineffective implementation, of empty posturing triumphing over pragmatic solutions, and the process of political glad-handing consuming most of the energy that should go into political outcomes".

Also, Rudd is not a woman.

He is not. What is more, as a statement from his office at the New York think-tank where he now works clarified, "Mr Rudd is not Eastern European."

Anyone else in the mix?

Plenty. There's Vuk Jeremic, the Serbian former president of the General Assembly. Possibly Susana Malcorra, Argentina's foreign minister. And then there's the so-called "German wildcard".


An op-ed in the New York Times last month by Mark Seddon, a former aide to Ban Ki-Moon, reignited speculation that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel could make a run. "There is a compelling logic in favour of a Merkel candidacy," he wrote. "She is female, hails from Eastern Europe, understands Russia and could mediate between Russia and the US."

Would she want the job?

She does have quite a lot on her plate as it is.

What tasks await the new UN boss?

The UN needs to show leadership on the global refugee crisis and the seemingly interminable violence in Syria. Conflicts in South Sudan, Congo and Yemen are other pressing challenges. The great task is to place the UN at the heart of international relations, part of which demands building and maintaining relationships with other world leaders.

Like President Trump?


Could you crunch it down to 25 words, please?

Time for a new UN boss. Helen Clark? A longshot. After an "open, transparent" process, the Security Council will huddle secretly. Probably it'll be Bokova.

Five words?

"New Zealand, East European Paradise"?

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* This is a weekly column published every Wednesday, by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.