The model of a mediocre secretary general

Ottawa Citizen (also appeared in the Montreal Gazette)

September 25, 2009

Member states must start now to reform the flawed process that selected the hapless Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary general

Two years from now, the international community will be busy choosing the next UN secretary general. We do not know if Ban Ki-moon will seek a second term. His choice three years ago validated the soft bigotry of low expectations with respect to the world organization.

According to a leaked internal assessment by Norway's deputy UN ambassador, Mona Juul, Ban has so far lived down to those expectations. If we are to avoid being saddled again with confirmed mediocrity in the world's top diplomat, we should mount a campaign now to change the method for selecting the SG. In a year's time, it will be impossible to disentangle the effort to reform the procedures from the politics of those campaigning for the highest international office.

Ban visited Norway on Aug. 31. In preparation for that, Juul wrote a confidential assessment for her foreign ministry which was leaked to and published by Aftenposten. She describes Ban as being charisma-challenged, battling to show leadership, failing to deliver, prone to constant outbursts of rage, unwilling to share the limelight, and unable to break free from his Korean handlers to listen to experienced UN hands. The result is a UN struggling to be relevant, lacking a voice on behalf of the world's poor, with the G20 stepping in to fill the void.

Ban made ill-advised trips to Sri Lanka in May and Burma in July which provided comfort to the governments but little succour to their victims. On Burma, for example, Juul writes that "After a seemingly futile visit by the SG the UN's 'good offices' will be further compromised."

Writing in the Washington Post on Sept. 1, Colum Lynch noted that with Ban having spent more time with autocratic leaders than any of his predecessors, the UN community describes him as an ineffective administrator responsible for the erosion of the UN's moral authority. UN staff are demoralized and member states are disillusioned.

There is a memorable scene in the film Patton when George C. Scott, playing General Patton, arrives to take up his command at his new base. Alighting from his plane, face suffused with disgust at the scene of shambolic disorder all around him, he stumbles over a GI lying on the ground. Kicking him, Patton asks what he thinks he is doing. "Sleeping, Sir." "Go right back to sleep, son, go right back to sleep. You're the only S.O.B. in this whole damn place who knows what he's doing."

Similarly in 2006, John Bolton seems to have been the only Security Council ambassador who knew what he was doing. Can any one of the other 14 ambassadors from then truthfully claim that

Juul's description of Ban as "a featureless SG lacking in charisma" is a departure from his previous record? While the U.S. pursuit of a mediocre champion for the world's interest is understandable, why did others go along?

The subtext of the Norwegian critique, widely shared in New York, is that the position does matter, and the choice has consequences for many critical issues in several parts of the world.

Norway's Trygve Lie, the first UN secretary general, famously said his was "the most impossible job in the world," one that combines the role of politician, diplomat and international civil servant. The voice of world conscience and the personification of the international interest, he must have the support of all governments but owe allegiance to none. In particular, he must retain U.S. confidence while being demonstrably independent of Washington. Only so can he can influence events without being able to control them.

His role is to assist and facilitate the UN Security Council and, to a lesser extent, the General Assembly to make informed and sound decisions, and then to implement their decisions faithfully and report back to them accordingly.

He must have integrity, independence and the ability and willingness to set the collective interest of the UN above the partisan interests of member states. He must provide managerial ability and negotiating skill while establishing rapport with a global audience.

He must know when to take the initiative in order to force an issue and when reticence is welcome; when courage is required and when discretion is advisable; and when commitment to the UN vision must be balanced by a sense of proportion and humour. He must possess charisma, the ability to articulate bold visions and complex arguments in crisp and clear soundbites, powerful oratory, inexhaustible patience, the skill to listen and keep confidences, an instinct for grasping the big picture without neglecting the necessary details, and a strong sense of the demands and expectations of the organization against the limits of the possible.

To describe what is needed is to explain why Ban's selection was a triumph of hope that he would evolve over experience in the form of his actual record. But it was made possible by the most peculiar process for selecting the SG.

The procedure is so quaint that we really have no idea of the relative support for Ban and second place Shashi Tharoor of India in a head-to-head contest if electors had been forced to choose between the two, the normal method for competitive elections. The depth of support for Tharoor until the end, with one potential veto deciding his fate, proved his popularity and respect in the UN system.

The "voting" process puts a premium on the most amiable and least offensive, not the most forceful and effective. Process shapes performance: choosing a weak leader allows the five permanent members of the Security Council to scapegoat him for the UN's ineffectual performance.

Imagine if Canadian voters could tick yes boxes for all Liberal, Conservative, NDP and Green candidates. Whichever party gets more votes wins government. This privileges breadth of support (mile wide) over depth (inch deep). It gives no indication of who would be the preferred candidate if the electors were forced to choose one from among several.

The process also highlights the impotence of the General Assembly vis-à-vis the Security Council. Article 97 of the UN Charter says that the secretary general "shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council" -- but the selection process is not specified. It was adopted by the General Assembly in 1946.

The General Assembly could easily change the terms and conditions of the appointment so as to make the secretary general less subservient to the Security Council, for example through a non-renewable single term of seven years. It could also use its power of appointment to provide substantial input into the selection beyond rubber-stamping the choice of the Security Council, whose overriding motto is: First offend no permanent member.

There are many possibilities. The really important point is that attention needs to be given to this. A coalition of interested governments should form now to change the procedures for selecting the next secretary general, not in the middle of actually selecting someone in the final year of an incumbent's term.

Ramesh Thakur, director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, is the author of The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect. He is a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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