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United Nations: Secretary-General

Volume 755: debated on Tuesday 22 July 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what criteria they are putting forward for the selection of the next Secretary-General of the United Nations; and what arrangements they are advocating to ensure maximum support for the new Secretary-General.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government do not put forward the criteria for candidates for the UN Secretary-General role. However, we would want to see a proven leader fully committed to the values of the UN, with sufficient political authority and expertise to lead and manage such a large and complex organisation. The current system whereby the Security Council nominates a single candidate for the General Assembly continues to ensure that the candidates receive maximum support.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should all send a message of solidarity to the present Secretary-General for the immense burdens that he is carrying on behalf of all the people of the world? Do not the events of Ukraine and the Middle East illustrate how vital this appointment is and that it is not too soon to prepare for his successor? In preparing for his successor, is not transparency essential in order to have the good will and support of the world community, and therefore should not a specification of the terms of reference be published? Should there not be a process open to candidates from every region of the world, and is it not essential that the General Assembly, for final approval, should be able to see a shortlist with, if need be, the recommended candidate of the Security Council?

Of course, I join the noble Lord and this House in paying tribute to the work of the Secretary-General, and I acknowledge the immense pressure of work that he currently faces as international events unfold. I also pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, who through the United Nations Association has over many years raised the issue of reform in the selection and election of the Secretary-General. However, I go back to what I think is an essential element. The General Assembly and the United Nations generally have to approach these matters through a principle of consensus. The job is difficult enough without making sure that you have enough member state support behind you. It is therefore important that the support of the Security Council and the General Assembly is maintained during the selection process.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that, by 2016, 71 years will have passed without there being a female Secretary-General and that it will be 35 years since there was a European Secretary-General? When she says that the United Kingdom Government have no specific criteria at this point, will she at least recognise that the 2006 Canadian non-paper had very clear specifications and recommendations? Finally, will she agree that the United Kingdom will at least not discourage—in other words, rule out—a suitable female candidate, should one come up in the final selection?

My Lords, I think we all agree that, first and foremost, it is important that we find the best candidate to do this incredibly important job, and we have the pick of the world. I agree with my noble friend to this extent: we have now had eight Secretaries-General and not one of them has been female. I know that there is much discussion about a female Secretary-General being put forward, and I understand my noble friend’s position in relation to Europe having a potential candidate. I assure her that the UK will in no way try to discourage a female candidate and will get behind the best candidate, but I think she would acknowledge that the P5 would not have a candidate in that list.

My Lords, what is being done to ensure that the UN is being structurally strengthened to support the new Secretary-General, and to reflect the modern, varied and challenging new responsibilities of that office?

I have the enviable task of being responsible for UN reform, among other things, and it is an area of my work that I find difficult. I am trying to find international consensus in an organisation that is now established as the organisation which responds to international affairs but with member states each putting forward their national interests. It is therefore important that reform is done in a way that makes the United Nations much more effective and efficient. The United Kingdom’s priority is to contain the UN budget, focus less on staff and more on delivery, link funding to results, prioritise countries and mandates, make better use of IT and streamline back-office work.

My Lords, would the Minister perhaps come back to the point of the original Question and address it slightly more specifically? Are we opposed to regional pre-emption before the process even starts? If we are not, should we not be, because is that not what narrows down the gene pool quite undesirably before we have even looked at all the possible candidates?

The noble Lord, with his expertise, will be aware that the United Kingdom has never formally endorsed the process of regional selection in the appointment of the United Nations Secretary-General. Like many practices, it has developed over time, through non-binding resolutions at the UN, but it is important that member states around the world should feel that the whole world has an opportunity to put forward a potential candidate.

It is claimed that the UN Secretary-General should be either a secretary—perhaps there have been too many of those of late—or a general, like Dag Hammarskjöld. Into which category, given the current challenges facing the UN, do the Government think the new Secretary-General should fall?

I shall not comment on potential candidates, some of whom have been named in the public domain, while others may wish to put themselves forward. I am clear that, despite the mandate of the Secretary-General, it is apparent that those with clear leadership and an ability to add their personal perspective to the issues at the UN General Assembly are those who seem to achieve real results.

I wonder whether the Minister is aware of what happened when Kurt Waldheim became Secretary-General of the United Nations. Is she aware that at that time there were six candidates on the shortlist, five of whom were good? The Russians vetoed the five good ones and that is why Waldheim got the job. Can we be sure that that sort of shenanigans do not happen again?

Of course, that Secretary-General was appointed in 1972 when I was one year old but I will try to recall that period. The noble Lord makes an important point. The P5 has a veto in relation to these matters. Even when we end up with nine approved votes at the UN Security Council, the P5 can still come along and cut across it. That is why it is important that we achieve some consensus before we get to that point.

Does the noble Baroness agree that transparency would be much better than a system of Buggins’s turn, which appears to have prevailed in the past? Is not problem-solving a very important criterion?

Transparency is important, but agreement and consensus are also essential in getting off on the right foot.