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7 April 2021, Gateway House

UN: Woman-led or West-led?

A new chief is due to occupy the chair of the UN Secretary General later this year. The lobbying for this prestigious global post has already begun. There is a rotation system that offers equal opportunities to regional blocs to promote their candidates. But this time, it's a toss between having the first woman to head the body, or continuing with the West-led bloc's candidate. Who will win? And where does India stand?

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Akanksha Arora is a spunky Indo-Canadian with the UN Audit Office who believes that an auditor is ‘not just an accountant”, to use the title of former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai’s best seller. She has ‘applied’ for the post of UN Secretary-General (UNSG), whose current incumbent Antonio Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal, will complete his five-year term in December.

UNSGs have traditionally served two terms and Guterres should be re-elected, maybe even unopposed, since Arora is yet to secure the backing of any UN Member-State.  No matter, Guterres is now clearly pro-active in a re-election facilitative mode. This includes a loud calling for net zero by 2050 (GHG emissions), a priority for the US Administration, whose backing is an imperative for anyone to be the UNSG.

The UN has five regional groups – Asia-Pacific, Africa, Latin America & Caribbean, East Europe and West Europe & Others (including the U.S. and Canada). The UNSG is selected from these groups by rotation. Guterres and Arora are both from WEOG countries – Western Europe and Others.

The selection process is centred in the UN Security Council (UNSC) as Article 97 of the UN charter which states that “the Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly (UNGA) upon the recommendation of the Security Council”. In practical terms the Security Council forwards only one name to the General Assembly for the appointment.

The UNSC busies itself with the selection around the middle of the year and holds a series (if required) of straw-polls to determine the candidate whose name will be sent to the UNGA. In case of just one candidate, as may happen for Guterres, there will be no need for any such process and the recommendation will proceed by acclamation.

Initially, all UNSC members write ‘encouraged’, ‘discouraged’ or ‘no opinion’ on white slips for all candidates, which are mixed to maintain a certain secrecy. As the straw polling moves beyond initial rounds, the P5 – U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China – are provided red slips. A candidate receiving ‘discourage’ on a red slip means that he/she will be vetoed and is best advised to withdraw. As is the case for UNSC resolutions to go through, the rule for selection of the candidate requires that he/she must not be vetoed by even one of the P5 and obtain at-least 9 positive votes in the UNSC.

The selection of the UNSG is an intensely political process which sees hectic lobbying by the countries concerned and the candidates. This certainly includes promises of UN jobs, including key ones, given the UNSG’s almost unfettered powers as the UN’s administrative head.

In recent years, the P5 and the leading financial contributors from the West have assumed a kind of dynastic hold on some of these administrative positions with their nominees heading key UN Departments. Among them, the Americans have the Department of Political Affairs, the Chinese hold the Economics Department and the French have Peacekeeping in their pocket. The UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator has just finished his term and his country, the U.K., has every reason to assume that its nominee will secure the post, as this is election year and the UNSG will not  want to annoy a P5 member (in this case, the U.K.). Apart from the de jure decisive positioning of the P5, money and personnel matter most at the UN. This also results in a capability to have a heads-up on what’s cooking and even some influence in agenda setting.

No matter its attempts to showcase itself as a supra-national entity with an ‘independent’ secretariat, the UN is really an inter-governmental body and hence, the importance to have “your” people in it (and not just good citizens), especially in senior positions that are influential in the UN system.  With the straw polls system allowing all members to cast slips for every candidate, UNSC membership at such a time is an added premium as the selected candidate needs to continuously obtain an increasing number of encouraging votes in the 15-member UNSC. India is presently serving on the UNSC and is thus afforded a certain tactical leverage.

Historically, the UNSG has rotated among the regional groupings though the East European group has never held the post. In 2016, with Ban Ki-moon from South Korea having completed two terms, the East Europeans should have secured the UNSG’s job for their candidate but no East European appeared to have been able to surmount the Russia-West divide with the former preferring Guterres, from outside their group. The point of the regional hegemon’s backing was also noted in 2006 when South Korea’s Ban Ki-Moon was elected as he had the Americans and Chinese on his side in defeating Shashi Tharoor. The result was a foregone conclusion though most believe that Tharoor’s red slip came from the U.S. and not China as could have been expected.

Back to Akanksha Arora. No woman has ever held the UNSG position and this is her talking point. But it is unlikely to cut ice this time, just as it didn’t in 2016 when also there were well-qualified women in the fray. All going as per the normal rotational schedule (leaving aside East Europe), in 2026 it will be the turn of Latin America with its slew of women leaders with many being UN veterans, including Michelle Bachelet, twice President of Chile, who had established UN Women and is now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. As a country well-recognized for global good and with much interest in high table international politics, India is well placed to – and should – play smart in the short and long run.

Amb. Manjeev Singh Puri is an Indian Diplomat and the former Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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