29 February 2016: Informal Session on the Selection and Appointment of the Secretary-General

By Alex Maresca, 15 March 2016

The following record has been compiled through informal accounts by participants, as well as through statements made publicly available online. If your government’s position has been inaccurately represented below, please contact us at .

On 29 February 2016, the co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the General Assembly (AHWG) convened an “informal brainstorming session” on the selection and appointment of the UN Secretary-General. In particular, the meeting was intended to address two proposals: the appointment of the Secretary-General to a single, non-renewable term and the recommendation of more than one candidate by the Security Council to the General Assembly. While both proposals were debated during the last session of the Ad Hoc Working Group, ultimately it was not possible for Member States to achieve consensus on either issue before the group concluded its work.

However, in his introductory remarks, co-chair Ambassador Drobnjak noted that paragraph 44 of resolution 69/321 “affirms [the Ad Hoc Working Group’s] readiness to continue discussing all the issues” related to the appointment of the Secretary-General during the 70th session, including those proposals contained in the report prepared by the AHWG last year. As pointed out by the co-chairs in their invitation to the meeting, both proposals are contained in that report.

The practice of holding informal sessions to address issues of particular concern appears to be an emerging practice in the Ad Hoc Working Group. In December 2015, the co-chairs convened a similar informal session dedicated to the Office of the President of the General Assembly, in response to increased interest in the issue following the corruption allegations against former President of the General Assembly John Ashe. Notably, the exact status of such meetings in the AHWG is not entirely clear. In the invitation to the meeting, it was stated that the session was convened “by the Permanent Representatives of Croatia and Namibia in their capacity as co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Working Group”. This phrasing may have been intended to create some distance between the meeting and the typical Ad Hoc Working Group framework. Moreover, while it is understood that the co-chairs intend to take note of statements made during these sessions, in the past the report of the Ad Hoc Working Group has only included summaries of the general debate and the four thematic debates. It remains to be seen how these informal sessions will feed into the outcome of the AHWG this year.

A Single, Non-Renewable Term of Appointment

In 1946, the General Assembly established through resolution 11(1) that the first Secretary-General would be appointed for a five year term, with the possibility of renewal. With some exceptions, this has become the accepted custom for subsequent Secretaries-General. However, skeptics of the practice fear that it makes the Secretary-General too beholden to the permanent five members of the Council, which can determine whether or not the sitting Secretary-General receives a second term by use of the veto. These States have suggested that eliminating the possibility for a second term altogether might encourage active and effective leadership from future Secretaries-General.

Of the twenty seven speakers who made remarks during the meeting, eleven expressed their support for the proposal: Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Iceland, Luxembourg, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, South Africa, and Sweden. Iceland argued that it was necessary to ensure the Secretary-General had the proper conditions under which to fulfill his or her duties, and that a single term would create conditions for the Secretary-General to work in the interest of all Member States. Costa Rica felt that the possibility of a second term diverts the Secretary-General’s attention to campaigning, rather than fulfilling his or her duties. Sweden noted that a single term would eliminate the perception that re-election concerns influence the behavior of the Secretary-General, and South Africa emphasized that the Secretary-General should not receive instructions from any government. Liechtenstein argued that a Secretary-General who was not subject to reappointment would be less likely to give in to pressure from Member States regarding the appointment of senior managers; some States claim that Secretaries-General are pressured to choose officials who are nationals of certain P5 countries.

In addition to these remarks, nine speakers suggested that the proposal merited further consideration, including representatives of the Non-Aligned Movement (on behalf of 120 countries) and the Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency, or ACT, group (on behalf of 25 countries). Hungary and Mexico noted that a single term would lead to a larger number of Secretaries- General over time, creating more opportunities for gender parity and regional diversity. Brazil suggested that Member States engage with candidates about this proposal during the GA’s upcoming informal dialogues with candidates.

The length of a single term was also addressed during the session. Costa Rica, Liechtenstein,Luxembourg and Sweden emphasized that a longer term would give the Secretary-General political space in which to implement his or her goals. Sweden specified that the term should be shorter than ten years (the equivalent of two five-year terms, as is current practice) but longer than five, and considered a seven year term to be a “reasonable” solution. Along the same lines, Panama felt a seven year term would be “optimal”.

However, some Member States raised concerns about adopting the single term proposal, including France, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Russia stated that past Secretaries-General such as Kofi Annan had undergone the reappointment process. The US and UK were concerned that making a decision at this time would constitute “changing the goal post” for current candidates in the middle of the process, undermining its fairness and predictability. However, Panama observed that some rules had already been changed for the process this year, such as scheduling informal dialogues for candidates to interact with Member States. Additionally, Ecuador argued that the AHWG had tried to discuss the proposal the previous year—before candidates had been officially proposed—but was prevented from doing so by opponents of the proposals.

The US observed that the Council’s resolution to recommend a candidate typically includes a term of office, and expected that this would be the case again. However, the Non-Aligned Movement noted that the Council does not have to set the term of office; the GA can also set the terms of appointment.

The UK also questioned why a capable and qualified Secretary-General should be limited to a single term, and conversely, why an ineffective Secretary-General should be granted more than five years in the office. In contrast, Liechtenstein felt that the possibility of a second term was not a meaningful accountability mechanism to remove an ineffective Secretary-General, given that the GA has never refused to reappoint a Secretary-General. In practice, reappointment only promotes accountability to the P5.

Hungary also raised concerns about the reappointment process in general, characterizing it as “defective”. Hungary felt that if a single term was not adopted, the AHWG should consider altering and improving the reappointment process. Egypt stated that the GA should consider its resolution of appointment carefully, and ACT emphasized that the GA would require sufficient time to draft its appointment resolution.

The Recommendation of More than One Candidate by the Security Council

As described in Article 97 of the UN Charter, the General Assembly will appoint the Secretary-General “upon the recommendation of the Security Council”. Following a resolution adopted by the GA in 1946, the Council has always opted to submit a single candidate to the GA for its consideration. However, many Member States have raised concerns about this practice, arguing that it effectively allows the SC to choose the Secretary-General. To these States, the issue is compounded by the more recent practice in the GA of accepting the Council’s recommended candidate by acclamation instead of by taking a vote. If the SC were to recommend more than one candidate, the GA would most likely be obligated to take a vote on the subject—and would assume a more meaningful role with the “final say” in the appointment process.

Speaking on behalf of 120 Member States, the Non-Aligned Movement unequivocally endorsed the proposal, and several members of NAM also expressed support in their national capacities. Colombia stated that it is impossible in democratic countries for elected leaders to achieve 100% of the vote, and thus a lack of consensus would not weaken the status of the Secretary-General.

Additionally, Sweden stated that there were “clear merits” to the proposal, noting that it could promote gender parity; for instance, if three candidates were recommended, the Council could ensure that at least one of these candidates was a woman. Hungary observed that even if the Council recommended more than one candidate, it would still retain “ownership” of the process, given that each of these candidates would have first been approved by the Council. More broadly, Brazil emphasized that the Charter does not require the GA to “rubberstamp” the SC’s candidate recommendation, and that the GA should reclaim its rightful role in the process.

However, a number of States felt that the Security Council should continue to recommend only one candidate to the General Assembly, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan, and Nigeria. Echoing the language of the resolution which first established the practice, the United States felt that it was desirable for the SC to submit one candidate to the GA, and that discussion in the GA should be avoided. France emphasized that any division or antagonism in the GA should be avoided, as this would undermine the next Secretary-General’s authority.

Other Topics

Some Member States noted the particular interest civil society had taken in these proposals. Brazil mentioned that both the 1 for 7 Billion campaign and The Elders had recommended a single term, and Hungary expressed appreciation for the 1 for 7 Billion campaign’s analysis of the single term proposal. More broadly, Panama expressed its support for the initiatives of both the Elders and the 1 for 7 Billion campaign.
Many States recalled the need to implement the procedures established by the previous session of the AHWG in A/RES/69/321. Egypt welcomed cooperation between the Presidents of the GA and Security Council, stating that it should continue in order to effectively implement 69/321. Sweden encouraged the Presidents of the GA and SC to ensure that the outcome of the upcoming GA “informal dialogues” with candidates, established by resolution 69/321, would be taken into account during the SC’s deliberations. There was considerable interest in promoting gender parity during the appointment process. ACT encouraged the nomination of women as candidates, and Costa Rica emphasized that it hoped the first female Secretary-General would be appointed.

In general, the United States and France felt that the GA should focus on implementing resolution 69/321 instead of adopting further changes. Russia noted that implementing the process must respect the prestige of the candidates and of the nominating Member State.

There was also some interest in addressing how the Secretary-General is appointed in the General Assembly. Ecuador pointed out that appointing the Secretary-General by acclamation in the Assembly is not in the Rules of Procedure, which call for a secret ballot vote, and Belarus emphasized that the appointment of the Secretary-General should be by secret ballot.

Some States also raised concerns about the appointment of high-level Secretariat staff. Brazil called for the same transparency applied to the appointment of the Secretary-General to also be applied to the appointments of Deputy-, Under-, and Assistant-Secretaries-General. Brazil further noted that past resolutions have stated that “no national of a state should succeed a national from that state in a post”. Japan suggested introducing a Code of Conduct to prevent Permanent Representatives to the UN from assuming high level UN posts within a couple years of one another, to prevent conflicts of interest.

Member States will resume discussion of the “single term” and “multiple candidates” proposals, as well as other issues pertaining to the appointment of the Secretary-General, during the AHWG’s thematic debate on the subject on 22 March.