Auditioning for the Job of U.N. Secretary-General

For the first time in 70 years, candidates for the world's top diplomatic job have to explain why they deserve it.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24:  U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th United Nations General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters on September 24, 2014 in New York City. The annual event brings political leaders from around the globe together to report on issues meet and look for solutions. This year's General Assembly has highlighted the problem of global warming and how countries need to strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th United Nations General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters on September 24, 2014 in New York City. The annual event brings political leaders from around the globe together to report on issues meet and look for solutions. This year's General Assembly has highlighted the problem of global warming and how countries need to strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

This story has been updated.

The campaign for the world’s top diplomat formally kicked off this week at United Nations headquarters, with nine candidates for secretary-general submitting to an unprecedented round of public questioning by foreign delegates about everything from hiring practices to plans for tackling climate change to sexual abuse by peacekeepers.

But even the first round of questioning set off a whiff of controversy with revelations that one of the candidates, Irina Bokova, a former Bulgarian politician who serves as director general of UNESCO, improperly hired a Brazilian national for a high-level post at the Paris-based agency for which she was unqualified. A UNESCO spokesman, George Papagiannis, flatly denied the allegations, saying any suggestion that Bokova acted improperly are “totally baseless.”

The three-day Q&A — which ends Thursday — marked the first time in the U.N.’s 70-year history that aspirants to the diplomatic post debated before the General Assembly’s 193 member states. It provided foreign delegates with a rare opportunity to try to delve into the nine candidates’ views on how they would carry out the job.

“We are sailing into uncharted waters,” said U.N. General President Mogens Lykketoft.

In addition to Bokova, the candidates include four former prime ministers or presidents; two former General Assembly presidents, and two foreign ministers. Four are women, reflecting mounting international calls for the U.N. to select its first female secretary-general. Each was given two hours to deliver a statement and take questions from U.N. ambassadors and a handful of advocacy groups.

The public session was the result of a push since 2014 by small and mid-size countries and private advocacy groups, including the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, to open up a historically secretive election process to public scrutiny. It reflected festering frustration over the largely exclusive role that the permanent five members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — have played historically in selecting the U.N. leader.

Yet there are few signs the so-called P-5 is prepared to yield any power in picking the U.N.’s chief diplomat.

In a sign of misgivings, China and Russia did not pose any questions to the candidates, apparently preferring to probe them in private or wait until the Security Council begins its own scrutiny in July. The U.S., Britain, and France, meanwhile, pressed each on his or her approach to peacekeeping and reform. The United States, in particular, requested details on how U.N. peacekeepers should use military force to protect civilians in harm’s way — and how they would be held accountable in cases of sexual exploitation like the ones in the Central African Republic that have roiled the United Nations over the past year.

Observers have long decried the opaque process of selecting a secretary-general as destined to ensure that the worthiest candidate never gets the job.

Brian Urquhart, one of the first U.N. employees ever hired, wrote in his memoir, “A Life in Peace and War,” that the secretive selection process resulted in “a candidate who will not exert any troubling degree of leadership, commitment, originality, or independence.” John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in his own memoir that his boss, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, confided to him that the U.S. preferred a weak U.N. leader. “I am not sure we want a strong secretary-general,” he recounted of her private comments.

In the past, the U.N.’s top job rotated among candidates from specific regions — usually Western Europe, Africa, Asia, or Latin America — and were granted one or two five-year terms. Eastern Europe, which has never produced a secretary-general, is viewed by Russia and many other delegates as ripe for a turn.

But the United States and its Western allies have criticized the longstanding tradition, which is not required by the U.N. charter, saying the world body should pick its leader from the widest talent pool. Some Western diplomats are concerned that this year’s crop of hopefuls is not strong enough, and predicted the next secretary-general might not be on the current slate of candidates. “I don’t think the winner has entered this race yet,” one senior council diplomat said recently.

Even before this week’s debate, U.N.-based diplomats said they were underwhelmed by the initial slate of candidates and hoped others would soon step up.

There has been considerable buzz within the U.N.’s diplomatic community over whether powerful female politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, might seek the post. Neither, however, has expressed any interest so far.

In a key sense, the campaign simply applies a democratic veneer on an election process that has traditionally been settled behind closed doors by the big powers, particularly the U.S., Russia, and China. But, some diplomats note, it also puts candidates to the test by making it tougher to anoint a leader who foundered in the glare of public questioning.

The session started Tuesday, and the questioning quickly revealed some of the member states’ parochial views.

Algeria’s U.N. ambassador, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, made the case for granting more U.N. jobs to individuals from developing countries. Thailand’s envoy, speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 developing nations, raised concern about the informal practice of giving the big powers — particularly the United States, Britain, and France — a monopoly on the most senior jobs dealing with political affairs, peacekeeping, and humanitarian relief.

Still, the debate was surprisingly frank, and pressed candidates on everything from their views on the use of force to how much independence they would exercise as secretary-general.

It opened with a statement by Montenegro’s Foreign Minister Igor Luksic, 39, who highlighted the need to address the alienation of youth and promised to promote women to senior jobs, including deputy secretary-general. He also pledged to publish his campaign budget.

Several candidates sought to emphasize how much independence they would exercise as secretary-general as well as their willingness to invoke Article 99 of the United Nations’ charter, which permits the U.N. chief to bring any matter on peace and security before the Security Council. Current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has never invoked it in his nearly 10 years at the U.N.’s helm.

Those candidates included Danilo Turk, a former U.N. official who served as Slovenia’s president, and Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who served for a decade as U.N. high commissioner for refugees. He said he would exercise his authority under Article 99 “when appropriate.” Guterres also pressed for a broader refugee resettlement program, warning his European colleagues that their nations would not survive without migration populations.

Both Turk and Guterres inveighed against the tedious pace of U.N. diplomacy. “Too many meetings with too many people, with too little results,” Guterres noted. Turk said U.N. discussions can be plain “boring,” adding, “Our language [only] appeals to us.”

Other candidates who addressed the world body included Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic and senior Moldovan official Natalia Gherman. Speaking Thursday will be former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who is now executive director of the U.N. Development Program; and former U.N. General Assembly Presidents Vuk Jeremic of Serbia and Srgjan Kerim of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Bokova highlighted the secretary-general’s role as a servant of the U.N. member states. She also underscored the importance of promoting the “equality of the sexes.”

Several hours after she spoke Tuesday, Britain’s Daily Mail reported Wednesday that Britain’s ambassador to UNESCO, Matthew Sudders, had helped trigger an investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Bokova. In a closed-door UNESCO board meeting last April, the Mail reported, Sudders claimed Bokova appointed an “underqualified” Brazilian civil servant as her assistant director general for strategic planning. Sudders, according to leaked minutes of the meeting obtained by the British newspaper, said the Brazilian “makes no secret of the fact that she does not understand budgets” and had “no obvious experience” in strategic planning.

A Security Council diplomat familiar with the investigation confirmed key elements of the report to Foreign Policy, and said the inquiry “found some wrongdoing and some lax implementation of regulations.” The Brazilian official was moved to a different job at UNESCO, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the inquiry publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Papagiannis, UNESCO’s spokesman, said allegations that Bokova was found to have engaged in any “wrongdoing and non-implementation of regulations are totally baseless. As these are false allegations, they cannot be allowed to stand.”

“The director-general introduced a competitive hiring policy for all assistant director-general appointments, including the case mentioned, through a professional recruitment process, which provides for interviews of a candidate by a panel, and upon recommendation by the panel, the final selection by the director-general,” Papagiannis said in an emailed statement.

“Throughout her tenure at UNESCO, Director-General Irina Bokova has shown zero tolerance for fraud and corruption,” Papagiannis added. “All formal allegations of misconduct or fraud have been tackled with due diligence and in accordance with UNESCO’s rules and regulations.”

Still, it remains unclear whether Bokova can survive the campaign for the top U.N. job, given London’s concerns about her judgment. As a permanent member of the Security Council, Britain wields the veto power, giving its opinion greater weight than the vast majority of other U.N. members participating in this week’s campaign.

Photo credit: ANDREW BURTON/Getty Images

Correction, April 14, 2016: Britain’s ambassador to UNESCO, Matthew Sudders, helped trigger an investigation into possible wrongdoing by the agency’s Irina Bokova, according to the Daily Mail. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that he had opened the investigation.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch