Selecting the United Nations Secretary-General and a UN Parliamentary Assembly

Tony Fleming, 30. March 2016

U.S. Ambassador Samatha Power with U.S. Senator Benjamin Cardin, who has endorsed establishment of a UN Parliamentary Assembly (Photo: Senator Cardin's Facebook page, September 2014)

From next month on, the international community will actively engage with the seven men and women who have put their names forward as candidates for UN Secretary-General. The manner of the engagement will be unprecedented. For the first time, member states of the UN General Assembly—representing all UN member states—will have the opportunity to hear from candidates and pose questions to them.

In the end, the selection will still be made by the General Assembly upon recommendation by the Security Council. The person they choose will guide the international community as it faces enormous challenges: implementing the new Sustainable Development Goals, ending the civil war and rebuilding devastated cities in Syria, and reducing carbon emissions to secure our climate.

These issues affect every man, woman and child on our planet. So they should have the opportunity to engage those who will hold the high office and lead this charge. In the organization’s 70-year history, the Council has always nominated a single candidate whom the Assembly has subsequently approved. Prior to the nomination, there was very little discussion outside Council chambers that would inform other member states, let alone the public, who was being considered. Since 2006, a number of countries and civil society groups have urged a more transparent process, one that would include periodic sharing of names by the Council with the Assembly and informal dialogues between candidates and other member states.

Those reforms were put into effect this year through a process spearheaded by the President of the General Assembly, Mr. Mogens Lykketoft, and agreed to by members of the Council. To many observers, they go even further than reform advocates could have hoped. The UN’s rules of procedure almost always require events of this type to take place in closed sessions. In contrast to regular practice, the informal dialogues between candidates and states in April will be webcast live to the entire world. Following, civil society groups and the media will be able to post questions to candidates during a media stakeout.

In advance of the public dialogues next month, citizens around the world have been invited to submit questions through an official UN website. This process is being managed by the UN’s Non-governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS), an inter-agency programme of the United Nations that works to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.

These changes are remarkable in scope and hint at the role that a UN parliamentary assembly (UNPA) might play in future selections. The role being played by the UN-NGLS could be taken up by citizens’ own representative within the United Nations. The establishment of a such a body is supported by over 1,400 current and former Members of Parliament in over 140 countries. It was recently endorsed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other high ranking officials as part of the Commission on Global Security, Justice, and Governance.

As proposed, such a body would not alter the existing Charter-based provisions, but it could take on the active role that the civil society-focused UN-NGLS is playing this year to bring in the voices of citizens. Following their informal dialogue with governments in the General Assembly, candidates for Secretary-General could be invited to respond to questions that represent the concerns and interests of parliamentarians’ constituents. A UNPA that includes opposition or minority party members would also ensure that candidates hear views that may challenge official government positions in the Assembly and Council. It is highly unlikely that any candidates would avoid the opportunity to participate in such a democratic forum, webcast live before the global public.

As recently noted by the Albright-Gambari Commission, participation in such global decision-making by elected or appointed parliamentarians would contribute to a more accountable shaping of globalization and the development of a more transnational democratic culture. Though the Council and the General Assembly would not be bound by its views or recommendations, a formal role for parliamentarians could strongly contribute to the perceived credibility and legitimacy of the selection. It could also endow the office-holder with a democratic mandate to bring more transparency, oversight, and effective governance to the Secretariat.

The choice of the UN Secretary-General seems worthy of such accountability, engagement and democratic involvement.