The UN Could Use a Little More Democracy

Still waiting, 70 years later.

Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

As much as it demands transparency and accountability from its member nations, the United Nations has not always been very good at providing them itself. Now more than ever, the UN needs to bring more of its backroom dealings into the light -- and it can start with the process for selecting its leader.

The 15 members of the United Nations Security Council took their first straw poll last week to pick the UN’s new secretary-general. But they won’t tell the world the results, much less how any of them voted.

That’s one of many ways in which the UN needs to improve the way it selects the secretary-general. The process has been basically unchanged for 70 years. With the blessing of its five permanent members, the Security Council presents one candidate to the General Assembly, which approves him (and so far they have all been men).

It’s a long way from 1946. The UN now has to deal with crises that require cooperation among a much wider range of actors -- not just states, but global corporations, philanthropists and networked activists. The UN’s future legitimacy and effectiveness depend on giving these new players more of a voice, especially with social media acting as a kind of global watchdog.

The required changes to the UN’s rules wouldn’t necessarily trespass on the prerogatives of the five permanent members of the Security Council (refresher: the U.S., China, Russia, the U.K. and France). And let’s be realistic: Without the disproportionate influence granted to them by their veto power, the P-5 inevitably would have let the UN go the way of the League of Nations.

But nothing prevents the UN from releasing straw poll results (more will follow) without identifying how individual countries voted. After all, the UN for the first time this year held open hearings and debates among the candidates, a welcome change that has usefully sharpened the distinctions among them.

Even better would be for the General Assembly to request, and the Security Council to present, a choice of candidates -- something that UN “elders” have proposed. Of the 12 candidates in the running, including several former prime and foreign ministers, eight have high-level UN experience, eight are from Eastern Europe, and six are women.

Another smart break from the past would be to extend the secretary-general’s term to seven years from five, with no option of renewal. This would cut back on the re-election politicking that trades high-level UN positions for votes. It would give the secretary-general more time to launch difficult institutional reforms, and strengthen his or her independence -- which is all the more critical given the “crisis of relevance” facing the Security Council.

Finding the ideal blend of diplomat, politician, manager and moral champion is not easy. Making the process more open can only help.

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