An International Election That Canada Can Help to Fix

By David Petrasek and Allan Rock

Published in the Toronto Star, February 24, 2015

The emergence of potential candidates reminds us that the 2016 race for the White House has already begun. Canadians will watch the American contest in fascination and frustration, aware that although the choice has momentous consequences for Canada, we are mere spectators.

Whether or not Prime Minister Harper wins re-election this year at home, successfully bringing transparency and democracy to the election of a new UN chief would be a legacy of which any politician could be proud.

There is another important “foreign” election in 2016, campaigning for which is also getting underway. But in this one, Canadian leadership could have a profound impact on the result.

In 2016 Ban Ki-moon will complete his term as secretary-general of the United Nations. At some point next year – no one knows when – a new secretary-general will be nominated by the Security Council for approval by the UN General Assembly. Canada could make a real difference, not by backing a particular candidate, but rather by leading an effort now to reform the flawed process by which that person is being selected.

At present, the secretary-general selection is rather informal. There is no fixed procedure. There is no search committee to identify promising candidates and encourage them to come forward. There is no agreed list of required qualifications, nor is there an opportunity for member states to ask questions of the candidates. Any one of the Permanent Five (P5) members of the Security Council can veto a candidate; hence their views on candidates matter most. This leads to a good deal of backroom negotiation among the P5, and it is in these negotiations that the real decision is made.

The only certainty is that at the beginning of 2017 a new secretary-general will be in place. The Security Council will, when it chooses, put forward a candidate’s name for a largely pro forma majority vote in the general assembly. Only one name has ever gone forward to the general assembly – mocking the notion that an “election” is taking place.

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Such an opaque process is hardly guaranteed to deliver the best candidate. It is, however, likely to produce someone unduly beholden to the P5, which suits their purposes well. It has never led to a woman being nominated.

An open process, engaging all member states and offering a real choice, would strengthen the legitimacy of the next secretary-general and make more probable the election of a person qualified for one of the world’s most demanding – and important – jobs. A fair and transparent process would also enhance the UN’s authority and appeal, both of which are only undermined by the current, secretive approach.

The good news is that a sizeable majority of UN member states has voted in favour of change. The UN’s own review body has joined those calls. Furthermore, a global campaign is forming, under the moniker “1 for 7 Billion,” to push for choice and transparency in the secretary-general election.

But while public pressure helps, only member states can effect change. Canada is ideally suited to lead that effort. One of the top contributors to the UN budget, Canada has a legitimate stake in the issue. Although the current government has not always appeared as enamored of the UN as its predecessors, both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Foreign Minister John Baird have urged greater transparency and the reform of outdated practices.

The precise elements of a new process will, of course, need to be worked out.

At a minimum, there should be clear, merit-based selection criteria and an open call for nominations, permitting member states and civil society to put forward names by an established deadline. Both the general assembly and the Security Council should then publish a list of candidates under consideration. The candidates should make public their vision and priorities, and face scrutiny in open sessions of the assembly. The Security Council should be required to submit at least two names to the assembly for the vote that will determine the next secretary-general.

Finally, the secretary-general should be offered a single, non-renewable term of, say, seven years. This would remove the need to campaign for re-election, and permit the secretary-general to focus from the outset on implementing her or his vision and plans.

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Meanwhile, in New York, one can already see the shadowy, secretive signs of the current, flawed process. Names are being whispered. Would-be candidates are visiting P5 capitals to test the waters. Their efforts will only accelerate during the year ahead, as they curry favour with the five leaders who will choose our next secretary-general.

Prime Minister Harper could speak out now to demand a better, fairer process. He could put Canada’s name and reputation behind the movement for change, and rally other nations to the cause. And whether or not he wins re-election this year at home, successfully bringing transparency and democracy to the election of a new UN chief would be a legacy of which any politician could be proud.

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