Danilo Turk’s Dark Horse Bid to Head the U.N. Gains Momentum

The former Slovenian president wins his share of plaudits and criticism, but faces several daunting obstacles in his race to succeed Ban Ki-moon.

Danilo Turk, the current President of Slovenia and presidential candidate in the upcoming national elections, arrives for a televised 'Presidential Election Faceoff' debate in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on November 8, 2012. People will vote in the Slovenian presidential election on November 11.   AFP PHOTO / Jure Makovec        (Photo credit should read Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images)
Danilo Turk, the current President of Slovenia and presidential candidate in the upcoming national elections, arrives for a televised 'Presidential Election Faceoff' debate in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on November 8, 2012. People will vote in the Slovenian presidential election on November 11. AFP PHOTO / Jure Makovec (Photo credit should read Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images)

Danilo Turk, the former Slovenian President, emerged last month as one of the top two frontrunners in the race for the United Nations’ top job, easily out-performing better known U.N. insiders like Helen Clark, the former New Zealand Prime Minister, and UNESCO chief Irina Bokova, of Bulgaria.

So who is this dark horse, and how has he managed to skate to the front of the line of hopefuls vying for the most visible diplomatic post in the world? Trained as a law professor and diplomat, Turk finished second last month in a Security Council straw poll designed to gauge support for 12 candidates competing to replace Ban Ki-moon when he steps down as secretary general at the end of the year.

His next big test will come Friday, when the U.N. Security Council will hold its second straw poll to assess the candidates’ chances of winning. So far, only one hopeful, former Croatian foreign minister Vesna Pusic, has withdrawn. She finished last in the last straw poll, securing only two votes encouraging her candidacy, and 11 discouraging it.

Turk –who obtained 11 votes in favor of his candidacy and two votes discouraging his run for  U.N. chief– faces his stiffest competition from Antonio Guterres, another U.N. insider who served as U.N. high Commissioner for Refugees for 10 years. Guterres received 12 votes encouraging his candidacy, and no votes discouraging it. Three council members expressed no opinion in the secret ballot.

Despite a low profile outside Turtle Bay, Turk is a well known figure in the world of U.N. diplomacy. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia, Turk served as newly-independent Slovenia’s first envoy to the international organization from 1992 to 2000. From there, he went on to become U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs, overseeing crises from Colombia to Nepal. He stayed there for five years.

Turk’s colleagues recall a “smart and principled” scholar who transitioned smoothly from his Eastern European roots to the largest stage in international diplomacy at U.N. headquarters. “He acquitted himself quite well” in his years in New York, recalled Robert Orr, a former cabinet member for two secretary generals. “He knows a lot of people and a lot of people know him. His doing well in the first round reflects the general high regard with which people hold him.”

But several other U.N. officials and diplomats who have worked closely with Turk have expressed misgivings about his leadership qualifications, describing him as an excessively cautious manager with far less charisma than his main rival, Guterres, the former Portuguese Prime Minister, who finished first in the straw poll.

“It seems to me that Guterres won the hearts and minds but Turk only won the minds,” quipped one senior diplomat.

Others talk of Turk’s sense of “entitlement,” on display after he stormed out of his U.N. job more than a decade ago after being passed over for promotion.

While the U.S. has not indicated its preferred candidate, American diplomats have long viewed Turk favorably. A former U.S. ambassador described Turk as a “shining star among Slovenia’s politicians and diplomats,” noting that the time he spent in New York had “peeled away the parochial mindset which many of his contemporaries still retain,” according to a March, 2007, U.S. cable published by Wikileaks.  As president, he supported the deployment of Slovenian troops in Afghanistan as part of a U.S. led military coalition–though the Americans suspected his backing was not always wholehearted.

Turk’s support among the European countries on the Security Council, who wield a veto, is less clear; Britain and France both appear to favor Guterres. It remains unclear how he stands with Moscow, though he has one ace up his sleeve: Russia has expressed a strong preference for an Eastern European candidate. And Eastern Europe has never produced a Secretary General; traditionally the U.N. rotates its top leadership spot by geographical region, meaning this could be Turk’s turn.

Turk, meanwhile, is hopeful he can overcome any Russian concerns. “I have always had a good working relationship with the Russian Federation,” he told Foreign Policy.

The question is whether Turk represents the strong leader that the United States and its European partners say they are seeking at Turtle Bay to tackle a dizzying array of crises, from the rise of international terrorism to the threats posed by climate change and spreading conflict from the Middle East to North Africa.  U.N. officials say they crave an inspirational leader after ten years of Ban, whom they faulted for lacking the spine to stand on principle in the face of pushback from the big powers. But some don’t see Turk as that guy.

Several of Turk’s subordinates described a leader who was accessible, competent and decent, but who lacked some of the moral and bureaucratic steel required to stand up to strong national interests or to prevail in the often scrappy U.N. turf battles. He showed little interest in the dull, but essential, task of administering a large bureaucracy, they said.

“He knows his stuff,” said one U.N. official. “But I wonder whether he would speak truth to power: I don’t think so. If he were to become secretary-general it would just be a continuation of what we have now.” Another official described him as “very smart, very knowledgeable, particularly about human rights. But I have never seen him take a strong position on any issue.”

But as a top official, Turk explained, he took his direction from his then boss Kofi Annan, who said an effective cabinet should perform like a “Brazilian soccer team — excellent as individuals and effective as a team. So, my work was conducted in a team spirit of cooperation and compromise which may have looked to some in the secretariat as a deficit of ‘strong positions.’ I had my own, suave way of defending my positions.”

“Let us not forget that compromise is most often the basic ingredient of peace,” Turk added. “For the U.N. this is important — in situations when peace agreements are negotiated and when a common policy approach is being sought among the Security Council members or within the secretariat.”

Turk’s family led a hardscrabble existence in a country variously occupied by Germany, Italy and Hungary during World War II. His grandfather was a shoemaker from Maribor; his mother and her relatives were forced into a labor camp during the Nazi occupation, where from the age of 14 to 18, she worked as a maid. She would later recall those years of lost schooling with regret, and impressed upon Danilo the importance of acquiring the education she never had. Turk recalled a childhood spent reading Greek and French classics in his native language.

“My mother’s experience has had a huge impact. She [and her generation] were intensely aware of the importance of education, which they had been deprived of when toiling in German labor camps during World War II,” Turk told FP by email. “So I and many of my generation were educated in the  spirit of  the vital need to excel in school, to read books, to understand history and to respect human dignity. This is why I have read Voltaire’s Candide with such attention already as a teenager.”

Turk would later go onto to study law at the University of Ljubljana, writing his PH.D. dissertation on the legal principle of non intervention. He took a particular interest in human rights, writing the human rights provision into Slovenia’s constitution, and serving as a U.N. Special Rapporteur on the realization of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“I always regarded him as a straight shooter. He is a really smart guy and is somebody who takes international law and human rights seriously,” recalled Michael Posner, the founder of Human Rights First, and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. “It’s not a passing issue. I view him genuinely as a real intellectual. A real scholar of human rights.”

In response to emailed questions, Turk defended his U.N. tenure, saying that he had demonstrated his toughness and willingness to stand on principles. In 2002, he refused a request to meet with Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, a favorite of the George W. Bush administration who had sought to parlay a close relationship with Washington into a powerful position in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. “I was not buying his rhetoric,” Turk said.

Turk was part of a group of ambassadors, including Prince Zeid Ra’ad, who pressed Kofi Annan to conduct in-depth reviews of the U.N.’s failings in Rwanda and Srebrenica. And in July, Turk set himself apart from his competitors for the top U.N. job by defending a former U.N. official, Anders Kompass of Sweden, who was investigated for passing on to French authorities a confidential report documenting sexual exploitation of children by French and African troops in the Central African Republic. The U.N. accused Kompass of recklessly endangering the lives of the victims and investigators by failing to redact their names from the report. Turk said Kompass, who recently resigned from the U.N., should be embraced and brought back into the U.N. fold.

The man who might need help coming back into the fold is Turk himself. His departure from the United Nations 11 years ago was anything but frictionless, according to officials there. Passed over for a promotion he thought he deserved — to become U.N. under secretary-general for political affairs — Turk wrote a letter of resignation that many of his subordinates and colleagues thought petulant. At the time, Turk’s boss, Sir Kieran Prendergast, had been forced into an early retirement and Turk saw himself as his natural successor.

“I think I know how the department breathes and what it can produce –if well led–and I felt it was my duty to take the challenge and do my utmost for the department in these trying times,” Turk wrote in his 2005 letter, which has never been previously reported. “As you know I was not chosen. I believe that I was a strong candidate. I could be wrong, of course. Nobody is infallible. But my conviction is firm and I cannot compromise my conscience. Therefore, the only honorable thing to do is to resign.”

Many of Turk’s colleagues felt the honorable thing to do was to swallow his pride and go quietly, whether he was the best candidate or not. His letter, they said, came across as implicitly disparaging his rival, a Nigerian diplomat named Ibrahim Gambari, as less deserving. “You could tell he was quite upset,” recalled one U.N. colleague. “It showed that behind that quiet veneer of calm, collected-ness is a sense of entitlement. He felt he was entitled to that job.”

Turk told FP that he has no regrets about his decision to resign. At the time, he thought he could do some good at the U.N. But he also longed to return to academia and to realize “a strong wish to write the first textbook on international law in the Slovene language,” which he finished in 2007, the same year he ran a successful campaign for the Slovenian presidency.

“Being a professor and working outside the natural environment of the academia is not easy,” he wrote in his letter of resignation. “One is deprived of the great excitement of working with students and being engaged in a free, academic discourse.”

But Turk hinted he might return one day. His U.N. “experience has been fascinating and one which I shall never forget,” he wrote in his resignation letter. “And then, who knows, one day I may work for the U.N. again, in one capacity or another.”

Clarification, August 8, 2016: Danilo Turk, a candidate for U.N. secretary general, became Slovenia’s first U.N. envoy after the breakup of Yugoslavia led to its independence. An earlier version of this story implied that Slovenia’s independence was a direct result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Photo Credit: Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images

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

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