Clark fires starting gun in UN election race

The selection process for the next UN secretary-general has begun with a call to inject some transparency into a notoriously closed election

Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and the current administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, has announced her candidacy in the race to replace Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general. Ban’s term ends on December 31, and the institution faces intense pressure to open up the selection process for the most important job in global diplomacy to public scrutiny. If elected, Clark would be the first female head of the UN.

So far, eight candidates have been proposed by member states: Srgjan Kerim, the former foreign minister of Macedonia; Vesna Pusić, the former foreign minister of Croatia; Igor Lukšić, the former prime minister of Montenegro; Danilo Türk, the former president of Slovenia; Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian diplomat and the current head of UNESCO; Natalia Gherman, former foreign minister and acting prime minister of Moldova; former prime minister of Portugal António Guterres; and Clark.

Precedent dictates that the role should rotate between the UN’s five regional groups, and should now pass onto a candidate from Eastern Europe. The General Assembly would have to break with tradition in order to elect Clark or Guterres.

The P5, or five permanent members of the Security Council — China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA — have a veto on any appointment, and have typically quashed controversial candidates. So far, no heads of state or government have ever held the role, which has usually gone to career diplomats.

“The regional rotation is powerfully entrenched within the politics,” says Phil Orchard, senior lecturer in peace and conflict studies and international relations at the University of Queensland. However, the challenge of finding a candidate that all of the P5 countries accept is massive.

“Particularly in Eastern European candidates… is any candidate from that region who is acceptable to Russia, going to be acceptable to France, the UK and the US?” Orchard says.

Whoever takes over will need to articulate the wider relevance of the UN system to international development, security and the climate, in a world that often seems to be moving away from multilateralism.

The current head of the General Assembly, the Danish politician Mogens Lykketoft, is trying to open up this behind-closed-doors selection, asking candidates to present themselves to the public through the GA’s website, and to submit themselves to public debates and hustings.

“I do think these are being overhyped,” says Martin Edwards, director of the Centre for UN and Global Governance Studies at Seton Hall University. “While it is true that there is merit in transparency, this can be oversold. The value comes from speaking publicly, so that candidates can’t say different things to different constituencies in private, but I think the quality of the information that we’ve been getting isn’t necessarily all that high.”

Photo: Luiz Rampelotto/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images