UN Now Has 193 Interviewers to Grill Candidates Seeking Top Job

  • For first time, more open process for new secretary-general
  • Eastern Europeans, women, favored to lead 70-year-old body

The U.K. ambassador threw out an early grenade. He asked the candidate from Bulgaria, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, which parts of the United Nations “should be closed down to make it more effective.” She declined to respond.

Later, Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, faced queries by video-conference. Someone in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, wanted to know what he proposed to do as head of the UN to ensure that youth are made part of the fight against hate speech. Guterres agreed it was a "vital concern."

Irina Bokova

Photographer: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

Conducted in half a dozen languages from scores of interlocutors, it was not an average job interview. But it is not an average job. For the first time in 70 years, the UN is holding open hearings for those hoping to become its next secretary-general. Starting on Tuesday and running over the coming days, nine candidates -- five men and four women -- have been submitting themselves to the entire 193 members of the General Assembly as well as to interlocutors further afield. Live on the Internet.

As it has for decades, the job requires hundreds of thousands of miles in air travel, from banker summits in Switzerland to dirt-road villages in South Asia. The UN has 105,000 peacekeepers deployed around the world and an annual budget of more than $13 billion. Nominees have to deftly respond to a range of delicate questions ranging from Morocco’s policies in Western Sahara to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and Myanmar’s treatment of minority groups. 

It is a minefield.

One Wrong Word ...

“You could easily impale your candidacy with one wrong word,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, deputy director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. “These hearings have the greatest potential to knock out candidates who are seen as not up to the standard.”

Igor Luksic

Photographer: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

One by one, starting with Montenegro Foreign Minister Igor Luksic, candidates are taking a turn presenting credentials and fielding questions for two hours inside the historic UN building, on New York’s East River, sitting alongside General Assembly President Morgens Lykketoft.

In an institution where leadership historically rotates among regions -- this time is Eastern Europe’s “turn” -- the biggest question is whether candidates from other parts of the globe stand a chance.

While there are no “anti-establishment” candidates in a race like this, former Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand and Portugal’s Guterres are seen as having the best chance at propelling their candidacies if the Eastern European nominees fall short.

The First Woman?

Helping Clark and Bulkova’s bids, as well as Croatia’s Vesna Pusic and Moldova’s Natalia Gherman, is widespread pressure to select the first woman chief. In a letter to member governments in December, General Assembly President Lykketoft and U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power encouraged member countries to nominate “women, as well as men,” for the post.

Helen Clark

Photographer: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

Beyond dealing with global crises, managing the UN bureaucracy and its sprawling set of goals on issues ranging from sustainable development to gender discrimination can trip up even the most experienced administrator. Some analysts think the global body, which has 44,000 civil servant employees, needs to scale back its objectives.

“The UN needs to pare down and focus on key areas such as security and human rights and leave issues like development to the World Bank,” said Brett Schaeffer, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Too many priorities and the core mission gets diluted.”

Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, the current secretary-general, steps down at the end of this year after finishing a pair of five-year terms in which he had to help negotiate a climate change treaty, respond to a devastating earthquake in Haiti, plead for peace in Syria and respond to accusations of sexual misconduct by blue-helmeted peacekeepers in Africa.

Final Say

Guterres told journalists after his questioning, "My number one priority is prevention -- the UN is spending 70 percent of its resources on peacekeeping where is there no peace to keep. Prevention is clearly my priority."

While this year’s debate may be very public, in the end, the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the U.S., U.K., Russia, China and France -- still have final say.

“You have to do a good job here and show yourself to be competent and hold your own in such an international forum but there are a lot of tests, many of which will happen behind closed doors,” Della-Giacoma said. “And then it will come to the Security Council to determine.”

The winner will be chosen in October.

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