Yvonne Terlingen on the UN Secretary-General Selection Process

Jun 13, 2017

Until very recently, the United Nations selected its secretary-general entirely behind closed doors. Yvonne Terlingen, of the 1 for 7 Billion Find the Best UN Leader campaign, explains how the system has been made much more transparent and democratic: for example, candidates' names and resumes are promptly made available, women are encouraged to apply, and there is even some civil society participation in the process.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Hello, and welcome to another episode of our Ethics & International Affairs author interview series, sponsored by the Carnegie Council. My name is John Krzyzaniak, and I am asssistant editor here at the journal.

My guest today is Yvonne Terlingen, who is a steering committee member for the 1 for 7 Billion Find the Best UN Leader campaign and a senior policy advisor at the Institute for Global Policy. She has also worked for Amnesty International and the United Nations.

Our topic today is the recent reforms to the UN secretary-general selection process. Yvonne wrote an essay for the journal on this very topic, which appears in the journal's Summer 2017 issue.

Welcome to the program, Yvonne. Thanks for joining us.

YVONNE TERLINGEN: A pleasure to join this conversation.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: For those listeners who haven't quite had a chance to read the essay yet, can you get us up to speed and briefly sketch out how the selection process for the UN secretary-general looked in the past and how it looks today, now that we've had the reforms that took place in 2015 and 2016?

YVONNE TERLINGEN: We started this campaign because over the last 70 years the way that the United Nations selected its secretary-general had not changed. It had remained a process entirely behind closed doors. It was a smokescreen in which people didn't even know who the candidates were. Although all 193 members of the General Assembly are supposed to make the appointment of the secretary-general, in fact, all they did was rubber-stamp a decision by the Security Council. If I told my daughter that this was a selection when there was no job description, there was no deadline for nominations, the candidates were not even known, and there were no interviews with candidates, she wouldn't believe it, and it is very easy to explain to anybody that this is a process that had to be changed.

As a result of the work that Member States and civil society did together—and it was a sort of unique process of cooperation—we now have a process where there is a timeline, where broad selection criteria have been outlined, where the names and the curricula vitae of all candidates were promptly made available, where women were invited to apply particularly, where there were hearings by all Member States with all candidates for the whole world to see, and where there was civil society participation, however limited, in the process. So that is an enormous change.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: It sounds like what most of us would expect any job-selection process to look like. It's what we all probably go through any time when we apply for jobs. So it makes a lot of sense, and it is great that these reforms have finally happened.

In your essay you mentioned—and you actually just alluded to this—civil society's huge role as a catalyst for the reform. How did such a small group of private individuals essentially achieve so many of their goals for change in the face of resistance from some of the most powerful, self-regarding Member States?

YVONNE TERLINGEN: That is a very interesting question. I should say that, first of all, the General Assembly, which as I've said actually has the authority to make the appointment on the recommendation of the Security Council, had for many years adopted resolutions which called for a more open and inclusive and transparent process with hearings with candidates. But they had never done anything about it, and when they did, they always were far too late, as was civil society.

So this time around there was a feeling—and the General Assembly was very interested in doing something in which they could assert their authority. I will not go into the details; I have described it in the article.

If there was a crucial contribution that civil society made, it was that we started three years beforehand. At the moment that we had articulated a platform, it was very easy to sell it because there was enough time for states to come together because, as you know, everything in the United Nations takes years to achieve.

I should add that we had a handful of people who started this three years before the selection actually took place, and they were a rare combination of people who had tried to do this before, like this movement, the Institute for Global Policy. We had UN experts who had worked for the United Nations and had also worked for civil society; we had the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom, which had just raised this particular issue. And so the combination of this small group of people who had a combination of background and capacities to push this agenda forward meant that we could very easily attract a wide number or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to start working with us on a global basis.

I should add also what I would call the "lucky stars." We could never have achieved what we did if it wasn't that Member States, particularly the nonaligned movement and the 25-member group of States called the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency (ACT) Group, had not wanted to raise this issue. We could also not have achieved it ever if there had not been an excellent president of the General Assembly, who saw this as an opportunity for the General Assembly to make a mark and to change things forever, and he pushed the envelope. Combined with that, we had an excellent man who co-chaired the negotiations for the relevant resolutions. Without all those lucky constituencies it would have been very difficult to achieve what we did.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: If civil society was so instrumental in at least acting as a catalyst for the reforms, why was its involvement in the actual selection process so limited? As you say in the essay, it was limited to just two minutes of interventions during the two-hour-long dialogues. Why didn't NGOs and civil society push to have greater participation in the selection itself?

YVONNE TERLINGEN: Actually there are two answers to this question. First, civil society had an enormous influence beyond the participation of two minutes in the hearings themselves. We had numerous meetings with very many Member States in New York at the highest level. In other words, we met ambassadors and many others. We bombarded, quite frankly, missions with ideas about what to do, what points to raise, and particularly we gave them at all relevant debates a lot of background information. Because some of the missions do not have the time to do the research, we provided background to the arguments that we were making and that countries wanted to make. From that point of view, I should say there were even strategy discussions that we had with Member States.

When it came to the hearings, that is a very different matter because then you get the traditional resistance among a large number of states that civil society can attend but cannot speak. That is very different from Geneva, where, as you know, the NGOs play a key role with states and have much more of a role to play in the deliberations.

But when it came to the hearings, it was already surprising that we got civil society in there at all, and that was, again, because the president of the General Assembly pushed very hard for this. Of course, the time we had was too short. It was only two minutes, and every participant had to make a presentation in 30 seconds, which was far less than what was given to governments, of course. We hope that this can be improved, but it was a very important beginning on which one can build.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: One major consequence of this new process is that it is more likely to produce a very highly qualified secretary-general, and it's more likely that the secretary-general will not be so beholden to the interests of the permanent five members of the Security Council. How will the position of the secretary-general, or the remit of the secretary-general itself, change as a result of this new selection process?

YVONNE TERLINGEN: That is a very complex question. I would say that as a result of this process, where António Guterres has gone through a wide range of interviews and hearings where people got to know him, and where he actually consistently led all the polls that were had leading up to his election and where Member States got much more information about all the candidates than they'd ever had before—as a result of that, I think the secretary-general who has been appointed with the overwhelming support of Member States has a strengthened position than a man or a woman who would have been selected in a much more secret process. From that point of view, yes, the secretary-general has more authority as a result of this process.

However, every secretary-general, of course, has to work with all Member States, and has to also work with the most powerful members, which are the five permanent members of the Security Council. Here there have been concerns that there is a practice, which is widely condemned by Member States, that a number of these most powerful members strike deals basically with candidates to say, "We will support you, but in return we want these and these senior posts in the Secretariat for our nationals." That is one thing.

But what really is very problematic is if some of these States exercise a monopoly and continuously claim these posts so that you do not necessarily get the best people appointed to those posts because it's not an open contest. You cannot choose the best person from what is available globally. So the General Assembly has for several years—and reaffirmed it last year—very firmly opposed that there should be a monopoly on senior posts.

The rumor has it that when António Guterres was appointed that he had gotten away with not making any such promises. What we now see happening in the most recent months is that, like his predecessors, he has now for the fifth time appointed a French national to head peacekeeping and for the fourth time appointed a UK national to run humanitarian affairs. That raises this whole question, indeed, of to what extent is he independent in making these senior appointments.

One of the things that 1 for 7 Billion had argued very strongly for—and so had the group of elder statesmen, including, for example, Mary Robinson and Kofi Annan—was to give the secretary-general a longer single term of office, which would reduce, we believe, his dependency on the most powerful States. Unfortunately, that is one of the few things that hasn't happened and for which we will continue to work very hard.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: That is very interesting, and I actually want to get back to that in just a minute. I want to ask you about some of the reforms that many were pushing for that didn't happen.

But before we get to that, I want to ask you about this question of gender. Looking from the outside, many were hopeful—and even expecting—that the next secretary-general would be a woman. On one hand, the good news is that more than half of the candidates in 2016—seven out of 13 of the candidates—were women. Yet the ultimate appointee, the secretary-general, is a man. Why didn't we get a woman?

YVONNE TERLINGEN: That is a question that many people have asked.

First of all, there was a very strong push by some 60 of the 193 Member States who were pushing for a woman to be secretary-general.

As far as our campaign was concerned, we very much also wanted there to be a woman as secretary-general. But for us the most important criteria was that the best person should be appointed. If you had two equally qualified candidates, then we would have very much campaigned for a woman to take the prize.

Although there were female candidates who were as highly qualified as António Guterres looked on paper, I was very surprised that in the final poll—and that was actually throughout most of the five polls that you had—women only came fourth, and that is very hard to explain. I do not know the reason for that.

What I do know is that there was unanimity—I can't say "unanimity"—but after the hearings there were many who felt that in terms of communication skills, which was an important factor after the previous secretary-general that we had, in terms of vision in order to grapple with the complexity of issues and of the questions raised, in terms of ability to communicate in a wide range of languages without even a piece of paper in front of you, Guterres was the man who virtually everybody I spoke to afterward thought was the best candidate.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Does the new process have any bearing on the state of gender equity across the United Nations more generally? For example, only three women have ever served as president of the General Assembly as compared to 68 men historically, and there are similar ratios for the chairs of the main committees and senior posts. What does the new process do for gender equity more generally?

YVONNE TERLINGEN: First of all, since the whole gender question had been so prominently raised in the campaign, all the male candidates had programs to show Member States what they had done to bring gender parity in the work that they had done before. Most of the male candidates felt on the defensive on that score, and so they presented lots of information about that.

Again, Guterres had very concrete proposals about what he wanted to do about that. The United Nations itself had in 1993 set the goal to achieve gender parity in its appointments by the year 2000, and, of course, it fell far short of that by then, and certainly by now, although as you know, Ban Ki-moon tried to do something about it, particularly in the first period of his term.

Guterres actually had the strongest platform of bringing gender parity. When he assumed office, he pledged to respect that gender parity would be a priority for him from the start of his work in all the senior appointments that he made, and he pledged to achieve gender parity by the end of his mandate. He gave specific indications of how he would achieve it, which was that he would set out a roadmap which would be checked constantly, and he would make sure that gender parity would not only be achieved at the lower level but also at the highest level. That is a huge task.

But he has made a very good beginning. As you know, his deputy is a woman. Three of the top cabinet officials that were his first appointments were all women.

It is hard to say whether that will have an impact on the question that you highlight, which is the president of the General Assembly, where, as you also highlight, there is a dismal record; we have had very few female presidents of the General Assembly. But I wouldn't be surprised if this tremendous effort to bring gender parity to the UN Secretariat is not in the long run also going to have an effect on other appointments that are being made in the United Nations. It must have; at least I hope so.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: I want to go back and talk about some of the future reforms that might be necessary. There are some reforms, but in the essay you talk about further reforms. This process of selecting a UN secretary-general now happens on a much longer timeline and requires a lot of effort from the candidates.

How will Guterres now, as secretary-general, manage as a candidate trying to renew his term? Do you foresee complications here? Is this going to spur further reform in the future?

YVONNE TERLINGEN: We actually hope so, and it is a question that very few Member States have given much thought to.

Just maybe to remind you, in the past the way that a secretary-general came up for renewal—as you know, the term that the secretary-general serves is five years. That is renewable once, so you have a very long period of 10 years in which the recent secretary-generals like Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon have served.

It is a fallacy, I think, for General Assembly members to think that they played a role in that. I already highlighted the fact that in the past what the General Assembly did with the appointment of the secretary-general was rubber-stamping basically a decision taken by the Security Council.

When it came to renewal, the General Assembly hardly played any role at all. Basically, what was involved for a secretary-general if he wanted his mandate renewed was to travel to Washington, to travel to Moscow, and maybe to travel to Beijing, and then it was a question of phone calls or whatever between these capitals, and they said, "Okay, you can be renewed or not"—there is a famous case when Boutros-Ghali was not renewed—"But okay, it's fine," and a letter was sent to the General Assembly basically, and diplomats said, "We were basically told that we had so little time that we couldn't even send a letter to capitals. We just had to approve this immediately."

So now we have a process which is a transparent process—or at least a more transparent process—and you have hearings with candidates that would have to take place. As you know, there were many hearings this time, not only with the General Assembly; there were interviews with the press; there were meetings outside with civil society; there was a town hall meeting—in other words, a whole number of time-consuming things, and that for a secretary-general who has to battle with all the crises of the world.

This was one reason why 1 For 7 Billion argued so strongly for a longer single term of office for a secretary-general. We said, "You have much more information about the candidates. Do take the step to appoint that man or woman for a longer single term so that you don't have the problem of having to go through a renewal process."

But that didn't happen, and so now there definitely will have to be hearings with the General Assembly. Obviously, the General Assembly will have to play a role, and the General Assembly will have to start thinking about how to do that in a way that makes it possible and manageable for the new secretary-general to continue working. We would, of course, insist that there are hearings with the General Assembly, but it may not be all the extensive outside hearings that you had at the same time. This is something that needs to be discussed and that we have now raised with Member States that it is something they should start thinking about.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Do you think it is certain that Guterres will seek a second term, or is there any chance that he will recognize some of these problems that you've just described?

YVONNE TERLINGEN: Honestly, I do not know what his current thinking is. I cannot answer that one. Maybe he hasn't made up his mind himself.

Let's be honest. When he ran for the post of secretary-general, he did not, I think, anticipate that he would have to deal with the current, let's say, additional burden of the threat of having to see the UN budget cut to the extent that is now being proposed—and not yet agreed upon, of course—under the Trump administration. Cuts have already been made to certain UN budgets which the current U.S. administration cannot support, and this at a time when governments haven't got too much money to spare is, of course, an added difficulty for his office. In other words, his already near-impossible task has, in a way, been even more complicated by what is happening now in terms of the funding for his programs.

Whether that will affect his decision or whether he will seek a second term or not, I do not know.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Understandable. That is the end of the questions that I had for you. Do you have anything else that you wanted to say that didn't come out in any of the questions that I've asked?

YVONNE TERLINGEN: The only thing I think I wanted to reemphasize was the importance of cooperation between civil society and states that was such a great example of how change can be forged. The other thing that I wanted to emphasize is that the reselection may already come much sooner than people expect.

I think the important question for Member States and civil society is to not lose the momentum and to already start the next process, the renewal of the mandate or the selection of a new secretary-general. And it is particularly important for women's groups because it is, I think, with the next selection extremely important that there must be a wide range of strong female candidates for the position. We already did fantastically well on this occasion, but if there is going to be a woman as secretary-general the next time, then people have to start looking for a good woman already now.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: As much as I would like to continue this conversation, unfortunately our time is up.

Once again, I am John Krzyzaniak, and I have been speaking with Yvonne Terlingen, author of the essay entitled "A Better Process, a Stronger UN Secretary-General: How Historic Change was Forged, and What Comes Next," which appears in our Summer 2017 issue. You can find that essay, as well as much more, on our website at www.eiajournal.org. We also invite you to follow us on Twitter @eiajournal.

Thank you to everyone for tuning in, and a sincere thanks to you, Yvonne, for this wonderful discussion. It has been a pleasure.

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