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United Nations: Secretary-General

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 27 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their strategy in relation to the appointment of the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, and what criteria should be paramount in that appointment.

My Lords, we do not expect discussions on the current Secretary-General’s replacement until the start of 2016. No candidates have emerged yet and, as such, we believe that it is too early to speculate on a successor to Ban Ki-Moon. However, we would want to see a proven leader who is fully committed to the values of the UN, with sufficient political authority and expertise as well as the ability to lead and manage such a large and complex organisation.

In our highly interdependent but highly unstable bipolarised world, is it not true that the UN has a potentially more significant role than ever and that the appointment of the Secretary-General is therefore an absolutely crucial international appointment? Should not the criteria for that appointment have maximum possible international agreement and be transparent—irrespective, of course, of gender? Does the Minister agree that the days when we can cobble together some sort of compromise behind closed doors in the Security Council or the P5 are over and that credibility depends on as much transparency and international agreement as possible?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I pay tribute to the work that he has consistently done with the UN Association going back many years and for being persistent in relation to this question. It is important for us to keep focusing on how we can improve these international appointments and the elections that take place for them. We continue to focus on the fact that we want the best candidate for the job, but the candidate must also command the greatest possible support from the international community as well as that of the P5. We must conduct the process in a way which does not form divisions within the international community to ensure that the office bearer, once elected, has the greatest amount of support rather than undermining them through the process.

My Lords, given that by 2016 it will be nearly 70 years since the establishment of the United Nations, does my noble friend agree that it would be helpful if we could see a woman at the helm after all this time? On criteria, does she accept the general view that the two terms a Secretary-General gets may not be adequate given the desire for regional representation? Could we possibly contemplate from the United Kingdom the Canadian proposal for a longer single term—similar to that recently proposed for the House of Lords, incidentally?

Of course, I would be delighted to see a woman in the position of UN Secretary-General. Indeed, this House has produced some fantastic international appointments in the past—we have only to look at the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, to see what amazing work she is doing on the international scene. However, I come back to what I said at the outset: it is important to have a transparent system and to make sure that we get the best possible candidate for the job, who may well be a woman. It is important also that we maintain consensus during the process, because UN reform is a difficult enough subject without the Secretary-General having to do the job when he does not command the support of the General Assembly.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House that the Government will do their best to prevent what is called regional pre-emption—that is, the presumption being established ahead of time that a particular region will provide the next Secretary-General? That, of course, narrows the candidate list enormously. If the Government were to push hard against that with other influential members, that would count. Will she also consider the possibility that, on this occasion, we might try to broker a gentlemen’s agreement between the five permanent members that none of them will exercise a veto at the next election?

The process that the noble Lord mentions involving the concept of a regional rotation has of course happened in practice, but the UK has never endorsed the idea of a formal rotation. We believe that every region should have the opportunity to put forward a candidate—no region should be denied that. The noble Lord will be aware of the speculation as to which region that will be next time round. Going back to the issue of consensus, it is important that the discussions between the P5 take place in accordance with protocol in a way that builds consensus so that we do not end up with public splits which could damage the process.

Does my noble friend further agree that real reform of the United Nations cannot be done without the Security Council being modernised in a much more fundamental way to reduce the traditional excessive dominance of the United States and some of her close allies?

We of course agree that the United Nations Security Council has to be reformed. Many proposals have been put forward for both its operation and its membership. I think that it needs to go further than that. As the Minister with responsibility for the UN, I have been pushing for a United Nations that is much more responsive and competitive, and that in a difficult economic climate gives us better value for money, improves its performance management and makes better use of IT. Much could be done to reform the UN.

Does the noble Baroness agree that our credibility on openness would be much greater if we did not tacitly collude in the IMF for Europe and the World Bank for the United States?

I think that the noble Lord’s question may go beyond the remit of this Question, but I am quite prepared to read it in Hansard, consider it and write to him formally.