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UN: Senior Appointments

Volume 764: debated on Thursday 10 September 2015

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effectiveness of the United Nations, in particular the selection processes for the Secretary-General and other senior appointments.

My Lords, I am delighted to have obtained this debate and I am enormously grateful to the United Nations Association for the help that it has given—to us all, I think—and to other organisations and individuals for providing useful briefings. I am grateful to the many Members of this House who put down their names to speak in this debate. I did try to get a sessional Select Committee on this topic and I failed, so this debate is really instead of having that. There have been relatively few debates in Parliament on the United Nations although my noble friend Lord Judd, who regrets that he cannot be here today, has asked one or two Questions in the recent past.

As one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Britain has a key role in working for UN reform. I could go through all the important things that the UN does but I will touch on just one or two of them. There are 193 member states; the UN’s expenditure is £30 billion a year; it provides food for 90 million people in 80 countries; it assists 40 million refugees and people fleeing from war, famine and persecution; it is involved in tackling climate change; and there are 125,000 peacekeepers involved in 16 operations in four continents. The UN also mobilises humanitarian aid for emergencies and uses diplomacy to prevent and resolve conflict.

The United Nations is important to this country’s national security and prosperity and, as one of the permanent members of the Security Council, it is important that we show consistent leadership at the UN. There should be a clear strategy for British action to strengthen the organisation. This involves: improving the appointment processes for senior UN officials, about which I shall say more later; increasing the practical support to areas such as UN peace operations; setting a positive example in implementing international laws and norms; and ensuring that there are regular parliamentary debates in Britain on our engagement with the UN system. In a wider sense, we should of course raise awareness of the UN in this country.

I want to talk about the importance of the selection process for the Secretary- General. We know of the range of important responsibilities that Secretaries-General all have and the successes that they have had. Peacekeeping was developed by the first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie. Dag Hammarskjöld secured the release of 11 US airmen imprisoned in China, among many other things. U Thant de-escalated the Cuban missile crisis. More recently, Kofi Annan did pioneering work in widening access to HIV/AIDS treatment. Ban Ki-moon, the present postholder, has championed LGBT rights and action on climate change. Generally, Secretaries-General have been able to play a pivotal role in preventing conflict. The charter enables them to bring to the Security Council any matter that may threaten peace and security. Clearly, if the process of appointing the Secretary-General was more legitimate, this would enhance their authority.

There is no job description, timetable or public scrutiny for the appointments process, and there is a troubling history of backroom deals. No woman has ever been seriously considered for the post. The five permanent members of the Security Council dominate the process and present the rest of the UN’s membership with a single candidate to rubber-stamp. It would not be acceptable for any British public body to behave in this way; if it did, it would be before an employment tribunal pretty sharply.

To give more detail, the charter says:

“The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”.

To be nominated, a candidate must receive at least nine affirmative votes in the Security Council—all subject to veto by any of the permanent five. The charter provisions are supplemented by a range of General Assembly resolutions. One, in 1946, says:

“It would be desirable for the Security Council to proffer one candidate only for the consideration of the General Assembly”,

and that the assembly would make its decision through a vote by a “simple majority”. It also set the term limit for the first postholder at five years, with the option of a further five. In addition, a number of informal practices developed, such as regional rotation among postholders, so that a Secretary-General would be selected successively from different world regions. At present, many eastern European states are claiming that they have had not had an appointment yet, but given current big-power tensions in the Security Council about eastern Europe and eastern states generally, that may be difficult to achieve. The General Assembly acknowledged the need to have regard to regional rotation and gender equality, but said that the,

“appointment of the best candidate”,

should come first. Postholders are normally from small or middle-ranking powers, and P5 nationals are not nominated.

I will indicate how I think the selection process should be improved. There should be formal selection criteria, with a clear focus on merit, and with gender and regional diversity listed as important but secondary factors. There should be deadlines and a public shortlist of highly qualified women and men. There should be a presentation of vision statements by the candidates. There should be chances for all states and civil society to engage with candidates. There should be a clear commitment from candidates and states not to seek or make promises in return for support, including on senior appointments. There should be a single, non-renewable term, to free candidates from the political and time constraints of re-election campaigning, if they had a second term. There should be a real choice for the UN membership, with more than one candidate presented by the Security Council to the General Assembly. None of these proposals would require amendment of the UN charter: they could happen just like that if it was decided by the member states.

Before moving on to other senior appointments, I will just say that the British Government do not have a clean sheet in all these things either. Just recently, there was a vacancy in the UN department of humanitarian affairs. The Government proposed one individual for that post, and when the Secretary-General resisted that, the Government put forward three Conservative MPs, one of whom got it. I make no comment on their qualities—they may have been the best, but there was no evidence that they were the best. Stephen O’Brien, who got the post, did it without any proper selection process and without any real competition. We surely need a commitment to merit-based senior appointments, irrespective of nationality.

What could the British Government do about these other appointments? We should ensure that we set a good example by nominating and supporting candidates of the highest quality for all senior appointments, with due consideration to gender equality and regional diversity. We should commit publicly to upholding this principle and encourage other states to do so, including by speaking out when standards are not upheld by the Secretary- General. We should encourage UN funds, programmes and agencies, particularly those of which we are members, to meet the highest standards for best practice in international organisations. As part of this process, we should consider the merits of a single term for a range of posts, if perhaps a slightly longer one. We should also reaffirm the General Assembly resolution, which states that,

“no post should be considered the exclusive preserve of any Member State or group of States”,

by calling for a general rule that no nationality should immediately succeed the same nationality in the same post. That would stop Brits reappointing Brits, the French reappointing French people and so on. I think those changes would make the UN a more effective world organisation.

I conclude by giving one example of something that happened a few years ago. I refer to Kurt Waldheim, who became Secretary-General. As I understand it, six names were put forward. The Soviet Union, as it then was, vetoed the other five, so Waldheim got it, although I do not think that his record as Secretary-General, nor his previous record, was particularly praiseworthy. That could be done by the great powers.

I appreciate that it will not be easy for Britain to win the day, even if the Government accept all those arguments—which I hope they will—but let us at least try. Let us see whether we can make the United Nations a better organisation than it is now.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for introducing this important debate today. This year, the United Nations marks its 70th anniversary, and its three founding pillars of peace and security, human rights and development are as relevant today as they were in 1945. The UN provides an irreplaceable forum for its 193 member states to tackle important global issues collectively and has succeeded in its objective of avoiding another world war of the kind seen in 1914 and 1939.

Today, however, spiralling levels of conflict are resulting in vast numbers of displaced people; climate change is causing damaging effects; and natural disasters continue to inflict widespread destruction. The UN finds itself overstretched and, even with a budget of $30 billion, underfunded. There has not been a serious debate about the system for many decades. It is crucial that a modern United Nations is seen to be adapting to address today’s challenges. Strong leadership is therefore vital to enhance the impact of the UN and to bring about change. Thus, the appointment of the next Secretary-General is paramount.

In today’s dangerous and unstable world, one of the great challenges is that of international compromise and collective solutions conflicting with agendas of national interest. In recent years, the threat and use of the veto in the Security Council has frustrated efforts to address humanitarian catastrophes and political crises. In 2013, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that the UN was responsible for a “collective failure” to tackle the Syrian civil war, which would “remain a heavy burden” on the organisation’s standing.

ISIL is in part a result of that lack of effective co-ordination and response by the international community. When one sees the resulting catastrophic regional effect, it is imperative that the Security Council becomes more effective at conflict prevention. Proposals have in fact been made to restrain the use of the veto in cases of atrocity crimes—most notably by France and the ACT group of 21 UN member states. Will the Minister clarify the Government’s position on those proposals?

There are other areas where the UN desperately needs to reform—in particular, its development system. This undertakes operational activities that account for about 60%—about $13 billion—of annual UN spending and employs about 50,000 people. It includes more than 30 organisations, with funds, programmes, offices and agencies headquartered in 14 different countries and with 1,000 offices around the world.

Without doubt, the system has delivered substantial improvements on the ground, especially in areas such as infant mortality, school enrolment and access to sanitation, but at times there is duplication and a lack of coherence. For example, I have been told that 31 different UN bodies consider water and sanitation issues to be part of their brief. There are also 21 UN developmental bodies working in Iraq, alongside other political and human rights bodies. Given that some of the front-line agencies, such as the UN Refugee Agency and the World Food Programme, have serious funding shortfalls, surely a process of streamlining must be considered very seriously.

The launch of UN Women in 2010, bringing together the four agencies that previously worked on women’s issues, was enormously welcomed and has already done much good work at addressing gender inequality across the world. However, UN Women has also struggled for funding. It is often one of many actors on the ground working on similar projects. Perhaps it would be better placed focusing on where it can really add unique value as a UN body—for example, providing an in-country forum bringing together women’s voices to ensure that they are heard. Providing such wider advocacy and co-ordination is exactly where the UN can play an invaluable role, rather than competing with NGOs on the ground.

Peacekeeping plays a critical role in preventing conflict, bringing stability and mitigating humanitarian crises. I understand that today the UN has 16 peacekeeping operations on four continents, with 125,000 peacekeepers. Last December, I visited Mali, where the peacekeeping mission has come under attack and is suffering heavy losses. However, UN peacekeeping has had its challenges too, with reports in some places of UN peacekeepers committing sexual violence. Most of the peacekeeping troops come from developing countries, which may not have a high standard of military training, respect for human rights or the right equipment. Only the UN can carry out these peacekeeping roles, so it is crucial that the training and deployment of troops is fully scrutinised.

This debate takes place during what is a global crackdown on human rights. Over the past three years, more than 60 countries have passed or drafted laws that curtail the activity of NGOs, using methods such as forbidding foreign funding and creating anti-protest and gagging laws. This is having the effect of undermining human rights and human rights defenders. Such crises are the very reason why we need the UN. Yet I am aware that the UN’s Committee on NGOs has itself been accused of denying vulnerable people representation. Thus, again, the system needs to be looked at.

Ultimately, the UN is effective only if member states are willing to work together to strengthen it. However, this can be helped by the right leadership from the top. Thus, the appointment of the next Secretary-General remains crucial to the future effectiveness of the UN. As the noble Lord said, to engage the best candidate requires a robust selection process, with the candidate setting out their vision and priorities for the organisation. If all member states were involved, not just the small number that are at present, it would give a much broader base of support. An ideal process would also engage civil society and consider women candidates. Above all, the process should refrain from seeking promises on other senior positions in exchange for support.

The United Nations has had a remarkable impact on the world over the past 70 years and can continue to do so with the right reforms and leadership. A UN without proper clarity, authority and accountability will be a failure for us all. I conclude with the words of Norman Cousins, the American journalist, professor and peace advocate:

“If the United Nations is to survive, those who represent it must bolster it; those who advocate it must submit to it; and those who believe in it must fight for it”.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Dubs on having secured this debate and introduced it so ably.

It is a central paradox of international relations that we live in the most interdependent world ever, yet global institutions seem to be at their weakest. An anecdote about this is going the rounds and might amuse noble Lords—or it might not; I do not know, but I will give it a try. Three world leaders get together and have an audience with God. Bill Clinton is the first up. He asks, “When will there be agreement to limit climate change?”. God says, “Not this year—not even in my lifetime”, and Clinton walks away in tears. David Cameron is next up. He asks, “When will we get recovery in global growth?”. God answers, “Not this year—not even in your lifetime”, and David Cameron walks away in tears. The UN Secretary-General is the last one up. He asks, “When will our international institutions really work?”, and God walks away in tears.

Consider climate change, a field in which I happen to work, and which has been mentioned. Climate change poses a huge set of risks for the world. Some say that these risks are lower than the majority of climatologists think, but they could just as easily be much greater. Moreover, climate change is irreversible. This year, COP21 will take place in Paris. There have been 21 years of meetings organised under the auspices of the UN to try to get agreement to reduce carbon emissions. The results, I am afraid to say, are almost negligible as regards the huge scale of the problem. The volume of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to mount each year. Will the Paris meetings be more effective than those in the past, or a replay of the notorious ones in Copenhagen in 2009, which were invested with massive hopes but turned out to be so shambolic? We have to hope so; but even if some sort of formal agreement is reached, there is no effective system of international law to back them up.

The reasons for the fractured nature of global society are quite easy to find. The first is the decline of US dominance and growing multi-polarity. The second is the historically unprecedented nature of the problems we face; no other civilisation has had to cope with human-induced climate change, off-the-scale population growth or the existence of nuclear weapons. These are almost wholly new threats, which can be confronted only globally. The third influence is the frozen nature, as we all know, of some of the core institutions on a global level. Thus the permanent members of the UN Security Council famously reflect the world of 1945 rather than that of 2015. Yet we are living in a kind of runaway world which has a dangerous and disturbing feel to it.

All these factors are reflected in the inchoate way in which appointments to the post of UN Secretary-General are made—and the consequent lack of legitimacy it has. Of course, some Secretary-Generals, as has been said, have been very influential, and deservedly so, but it is widely acknowledged that the post is more about prestige than power, which remains largely in the hands of nations and groups of nations, especially the five permanent members of the Security Council. Each of them has de facto veto power, sharply reducing the chances that a strong leader could be chosen. The process might be even more convoluted this time given the divisions between Russia and the western members and between the US and China. The UN has carried out its own review of appointments procedures to executive positions, including that of Secretary-General, but it has become mired in the very processes it was supposed to help overcome.

A group of NGOs has also launched a worldwide campaign for reform with a list of proposals, so has Equality Now, which is pressing hard for there to be a female leader for the first time. There could, indeed, be a female leader. But otherwise, so far as I can see, there is unlikely to be much real change without reform of the Security Council, where the UK drags its feet as much as anyone. The situation would be comic were it not tragic in its consequences for world order and world security. I have two questions for the Minister. Is there serious hope that the situation can be otherwise? The Government have their own proposals, I believe. And is not the UK just a little bit complicit in this situation, which has been so difficult in the past and will probably prove difficult in the present too?

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for securing this debate, and indeed for couching it in sufficiently wide terms to enable us to cover extensive ground, looking at the effectiveness as well as the appointments. Those two certainly go hand in hand.

Let me deal with the most important issue to do with the UN’s effectiveness: the perception—widely held across both the global north and south—that the UN is again ineffective in dealing with international peace and security. Whether you are a Rohingya in Myanmar fleeing for your life, or an Iraqi or Syrian citizen living under years of war, what is clear to you is that the UN has been pretty much absent in terms of resolving the crisis that afflicts you. I do not mean absent in terms of providing humanitarian assistance, but ineffective in resolving or ending the conflict. It is not even capable of providing a safe haven, which it was able to do in the mid-1990s.

Likewise Ukraine, where we have seen the most egregious threat to the country’s territorial integrity, yet the UN is deadlocked. The public out there are not really interested in the endless discussions of reform, the composition of the United Nations Security Council or the way that the veto is used. Rather, they want the UN to apply its heft to stop conflicts or, better still, to prevent them happening in the first place. However, this debate affords us the opportunity to discuss effectiveness, so I will say one or two things about Security Council reform.

We have the French proposals from 2013, which suggest that the five permanent members of the Security Council—China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States—themselves could voluntarily agree a code of conduct which would call for them not to exercise their veto in circumstances where severe levels of loss of life and atrocity had taken place. Under the Fabius proposals, as they are referred to, at least 50 member states would be required to request the Secretary-General to,

“determine the nature of the crime”.

On delivery of the Secretary-General’s report, the code of conduct would apply and the permanent members would desist from using their veto.

This French plan is pragmatic and does not call for the code of conduct to apply where the “vital national interests” of a P5 member are at stake. It gives the Secretary-General the power to assess what that vital national interest might be. I want to use one or two examples. Would the existence of the Russian naval base at Tartus exempt Russia from the code of conduct? One could plausibly argue that it would not. The existence of the base is itself now imperilled with the rise of ISIL and potentially by the collapse of the Assad regime in any event. It is a counterfactual and we cannot know for sure, but Russian interests may well have been better served through an intervention in 2013 and a negotiated settlement at that time. That could have resulted in a viable transitional Government and averted the break-up of Syria.

Another example, using Russia again, would be the invasion of Crimea. Here, needless to say, as Russia was the aggressor in any event, clearly no code of conduct would have held it back and we would have continued with deadlock. One can move on to another example using China and the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute. They are clearly seen in China as a “vital national interest” and therefore one would presume that the veto suspension would not apply in that case. However, China has myriad other disputes with its neighbours which could potentially be resolved through the offices of the Secretary-General and the use of the United Nations Security Council were a veto not an automatic right that China had.

In order to make the code more appealing to the permanent five, it may well prove necessary for a further escape clause to be inserted, and here I propose a concession that the French plan does not. It is that if the P5 member believes strongly that the Secretary-General’s analysis does not take into account its vital national interest vis-à-vis a particular situation, it can still employ a veto. However, this should be an exceptional measure and there should be a requirement for it to publish a written explanation of why it felt it important to deviate from the code. In responding, will the Minister be able to touch on those French proposals? They are not new and they will not come as a surprise to him. It will be very interesting to know the UK’s position on them.

I turn now to the other arrow in the bow of UN reform—that of reform of the appointment of the Secretary-General. In the last two years we have had several goes in this House at fleshing out the Government’s willingness to lead on reform. In the mean time, we have seen an acceleration of civil society groups lobbying for reform as well. My party’s position on this is well known. There should be a more transparent process of appointment; regional pre-emption, whereby the region which considers it is “its turn” prevents others even being nominated, should be abandoned; and the putative postholders should be evaluated against clear and transparent criteria, irrespective of the region they come from. Moreover, there should be an extended single term so that the energies of the Secretary-General can be focused on the job in hand rather than on lobbying for a reappointment.

The House will also be well aware of my view that, after 70 years, it is time for a woman to lead the UN. The job is far too important to be left to less than half the world’s population. But I recognise that I cannot both argue for the best candidate and unequivocally state that it has to be a woman. One cannot let the best be the enemy of the good, so I have a compromise in that regard. In order for a suitably qualified female candidate to be considered for 2016, I suggest that the five permanent members agree not to veto a suitably qualified woman candidate on the basis of regional representation. In other words, they should make a bold public pledge this September, when the session commences next week, that they have agreed to set aside the veto in order for the best women worldwide to be considered for the post. It is a very limited ask, after eight men of varying competence have held the job in the past, that finally a group of women should get a serious look-in. When I last looked there were some 40 women who had served as heads of state and government, and others in other senior positions, past and present, who might have qualified—not to mention a host of others from within other international organisations.

If the UN can at least demonstrate a modicum of competence, fairness and representativeness, then there is some hope for its relevance in the world. I look forward to the Minister’s views on these proposals, and indeed to action on them.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for initiating this debate and for his excellent introduction to the issues that we are discussing. This is a timely debate as we mark the 70th birthday of the United Nations in the autumn. There are certainly debates that need to be had on the global challenges that the UN faces on delivering security, on the record of peacekeepers, on the refugee agency and on the perception that the UN is too bureaucratic. Indeed, it is often accused of being incompetent.

We are told that there is evidence at the UN of waste, fraud and abuse by UN staff, and there is a growing consensus that there needs to be improved accountability and comprehensive institutional reform. There are serious questions, too, about a Security Council that frequently seems unable to provide security, and peacekeepers who frequently seem unable to keep the peace. In addition, the Ebola crisis has shone a light on the UN’s failures to deliver on critical health priorities. Also, we are all aware of the challenges that are not being met, as record numbers of men and women and children flee from conflict and persecution.

After 70 years of the work of the United Nations, and $0.5 trillion later, it is time to ask the questions, but we should not neglect to value what has been achieved. Dag Hammarskjöld famously said:

“The UN was created not to lead mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell”.

Millions of people have benefited from this remarkable organisation, and when issues of cost are raised it is worth noting what a recent newspaper article said, which was that,

“total UN spending this year is still only about half of New York City’s $75bn budget”.

That comparison puts things into perspective. The conclusion that surely has to be reached is that what existed 70 years ago after the war is very different from what is needed now. Reform is essential, and the UN member states must facilitate that reform since all too often they are seen as providing major obstacles to progress.

Another demand has to be for the proper representation of people from developing countries. I know, from visits to New York, that representatives of the G77 group of developing countries regularly point out that that they are seeing a reduction, not an increase, in the roles that they are offered and feel excluded from decision-making. For a global organisation, this is unacceptable. It will also be unacceptable to maintain and perpetuate the status quo when it comes to the selection of the Secretary-General. Surely we need a Secretary-General who is independent and not beholden, as is currently the case, to the interests of individual member states.

My final point is to draw attention to the fact that in the past 70 years, not a single woman has been at the head of the Security Council. There have been eight general secretaries, all men. They have been selected by back-room dealing dominated by the five world powers, including the UK, that hold the Security Council permanent seats. Does the Minister agree that this has to change and that we surely are right in demanding more transparency about these issues? Does she agree that it would send a powerful message if a woman were at last to be at the helm of the United Nations? After all, the UN talks a lot about equal rights for women; it is time it got behind making sure that this claim is realised. Does the Minister agree that the selection process urgently needs to be revised because it is unacceptable that, since 1995, about only one-quarter of senior posts have been held by women? We must focus on what is needed for the job, but it is time that women were seriously considered for the job of Secretary-General in a way that they have not been before.

A number of countries, led by Colombia, are now promoting the view that it is time a woman led the UN, and there are calls for women to nominate women. We know that now a number of countries have women leaders who are urging that women should be promoted at the UN—and some of us here should be joining those pressures. For instance, I am convinced that if Helen Clark, the head of the UNDP, were interested, she would make an excellent candidate. She is undoubtedly well qualified to be Secretary-General and would bring her great skills, talent and experience to the job.

Finally, will the Minister clarify what was meant in a very interesting Answer I had to a Written Question? I asked how HMG proposed to ensure that suitable women candidates for Secretary-General are given serious consideration. Interestingly, the Answer I was given said that the Government would be encouraging the promotion of more applications from women. I would very much like an assessment of the progress on that initiative.

My Lords, the United Nations seems to have an inbuilt capacity to examine its administrative and structural problems and come up with solutions but then never quite implement them. A few years later, it then goes round roughly the same course all over again. I hope that this time, in relation to senior appointments, Her Majesty’s Government will be motivated to intervene and give the necessary leadership to prevent the usual recycling of problems and, instead, insist on real change in everyone’s interests.

I pay tribute to UNA-UK and its 1 for 7 Billion campaign, which is gathering global support for a better selection process for the Secretary-General. I know that the Government have declared their support for some of the campaign’s objectives and I hope that today’s debate will persuade the Minister to go further.

I also pay tribute to and express my deep gratitude to Dame Margaret Anstee, the British woman who became the first female Under-Secretary-General of the UN in 1987. Her long career at the UN included roles on every continent, spanning development, peacekeeping, technical assistance and operational delivery. Her wisdom and experience are second to none and I am most grateful for her insights.

Over the years, Dame Margaret’s has been one of the voices most often and most incisively raised on the process of the appointment of the Secretary-General. Process should not eclipse purpose, but on this issue, getting the process right is vital for the very purpose and role of the Secretary-General to be effectively fulfilled. A more transparent, inclusive and accountable process would be more likely to produce a Secretary-General as envisaged by the UN Preparatory Commission in 1945: someone who,

“more than anyone else, will stand for the United Nations as a whole”,


“embody the principles and ideals of the Charter”.

In other words, someone who will rise above narrow national interests and be the kind of leader for an age of ever-more rapid globalisation.

It has been observed by experts such as the British Association of Former United Nations Civil Servants that the authority of the Secretary-General is currently undermined by the fact that member states really do not want a strong incumbent, and that a “tortuous horse-trading process” can lead to the lowest common denominator being chosen.

This has been fuelled by the assumption, mentioned by others, that there must be some sort of geographical rotation. This is one point on which I would urge Her Majesty’s Government to intervene most strongly. Yes, regional diversity is important, but more important still are the ability and willingness to rise above regional or national interests and enhance the UN’s impact across the board. What is needed is a mindset which can challenge the attitudes of member states, leading to a more collective understanding of the role of the UN and shifting the definition of national interest. Surely when we look at the UN through the lens of the 21st century rather than that of 1945, we can see that issues such as terrorism, climate change and massive, unprecedented population movements should now trigger an end to the dominance of narrow member statism, characterised by a secretive, undemocratic way of choosing the Secretary-General, and instead open the way to a more modern, effective process.

No large multinational company would recruit its chief executive without a job description, a systematic global search and a recommended shortlist. The UK Government should support and insist on these changes, and oppose old-school resistance from member states which falsely believe that the process relies on the Security Council coming up with a single name which the General Assembly then rubber-stamps. It does not have to be like that.

Another reform for the greater effectiveness of the Secretary-General would be a single term of office—five or seven years has been suggested. As others have said, this would do away with the time-wasting process of seeking re-election, increase the incumbent’s authority and protect him or her from undue pressure from member states. It is regrettable that the UK has not thus far thrown its weight behind this proposal, and I hope that will change.

I am glad that the Government have expressed their support in principle for a female candidate for Secretary-General. But are we following that up by nominating suitable women? Certainly one who comes to mind is the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, who seems to me eminently qualified and experienced. I have no idea whether she is interested, but I would like to know that someone has proactively tried to find out.

There are other reforms which I have not had time to mention, but the point I want to finish on is the importance of our doing more to encourage and promote UK nationals working at all levels within the UN and its agencies. The UN needs to be a more attractive proposition for talented people seeking challenging jobs, and the Government have a responsibility to communicate more positively to the public the detailed work and importance of the UN. Can the Minister tell the House today—if not, perhaps he can write to me—what progress is being made towards fulfilling the pledge to triple the size of the International Citizen Service, and how many individuals the UK now has engaged with the UN’s Junior Professional Officer scheme?

The 1 for 7 Billion campaign points out that a more open, inclusive way of appointing the Secretary-General could have,

“a transformative multiplier effect across the UN system”,

giving the whole world, not just the big powers, an interest in and stake in the outcome. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will have the confidence to display the kind of innovative leadership needed to champion this change. As the first G8 country to meet the 0.7% aid target, surely we are in a position of credible leadership and must exercise it constructively.

My Lords, we are grateful to my noble friend Lord Dubs for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. I guess that one way to put it is that if we had to do it all over again, we might have something like the United Nations but not in the form and structure that it has at present. It is ultimately not a United Nations but a union of states. As my noble friend Lady Kinnock and others have said, there is lot of jousting between individual countries or regions to get their share of the spoils, posts and so on. There is great concern that there will be an interstate equity in terms of jobs and so on rather than a search for the best people who can do the job.

The United Nations also bears the mark of its origins in 1945. The fact that there are five permanent members of the Security Council with a veto power is not something that we would reproduce today if we had the chance. As my noble friend Lord Giddens pointed out, we are no longer in a hegemonic state where the United States or the Atlantic powers dominate the world. We are in the multi-polar situation that we all wanted and longed for. Here it is and what a mess it is.

I know this will not happen but I may as well say it. We really need a reorganised United Nations without a veto power for any permanent member. As I have said before in your Lordships’ House, we should perhaps follow the European Union and have qualified majority voting. Maybe we should have not just five but more members of the Security Council. With QMV, maybe we would then be able to get a slight improvement in the decision-making processes of the United Nations.

In respect of the Secretary-General’s appointment, the usual thing to say is that the permanent members want a secretary not a general, and they make quite sure that whoever is elected does not fulfil the criteria that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, read out to us from those heady days of 1945. What we get is someone who will come from a suitably small country to which no permanent member objects, and who will not disturb the interests of any of the permanent members. That person will keep their nose clean and then they might be reappointed for five years. That is the way it has been.

In a sense, although it is normal to say what a great thing the United Nations is, I think it is a gigantic disappointment. It has failed to reform itself. When you look at it today, the biggest slaughter has been going on of Muslims by Muslims in the Middle East. That has gone on for many years and there has been absolutely no intervention or discussion by the United Nations. A refugee problem is bursting out all over the world, especially from the Middle East and Africa, but the EU is holding the baby and the United Nations is suitably absent.

In a sense, we have to give up any hope of the United Nations ever reforming. It will spend a lot of money and have lots of new causes such as climate change and this and that. A lot of agencies will proliferate and I have no doubt that a lot of people will make a lot of consultancy money. But at the end of the day, the central task of promoting or guaranteeing world peace has not been achieved by the United Nations in any form whatever that one can think of.

What do we do about the problem of the Secretary-General? There is a precedent. Many years ago, I did some consultation work on the human development report for the UNDP. The administrator for the UNDP used to be appointed by the American President. Someone who had given a lot of money to the President’s campaign fund used to get the job. Now the UNDP advertises openly for the administrator or whatever the person is called and selects the best person, so there is a precedent within the UN system—I know of one body that has done this. We ought to urge Her Majesty’s Government to pursue this idea as soon as possible. The job should be advertised and open for anyone to apply from across the world. While we may say that we would very much like a woman to be the Secretary-General, as I would, what we really ought to say is, “Let the best candidate be appointed regardless of the region they come from”. We cannot go on with the scandal of the rather poor quality of Secretary-General that we have had. It is as bad with the IMF, where you must have a European at its head all the time regardless of whether they are qualified. No one would have appointed Dominique Strauss-Kahn had they done any due diligence on his character. The same can be said—but I had better not insult anyone else. Let me just say that I wish Her Majesty’s Government luck either in achieving an open recruitment process or in having a woman as the Secretary-General. If they can do that, I think they will have succeeded.

My Lords, this debate could not be timelier. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has done the House a favour by enabling us to discuss this important set of issues well ahead of the UN election process getting fully under way. The year 2016 is an election year at the UN, when a new Secretary-General is likely to be chosen, and on past precedent he or she will effectively be chosen for two five-year terms because that has been the practice, although not invariably so. Following the choice of the Secretary-General, other senior appointments will need to be made, including that of a deputy Secretary-General.

No one who has been through one of these election cycles, as I did in 1991 when Boutros Boutros-Ghali was appointed, can possibly believe that the process is an optimal one. There is much furtive manoeuvring both within and between regional groupings. Promises are made, often contradictory ones, and the possibility of vetoes hangs over the heads of the participants. In the past, this process has led to some good appointments and some less good ones, but unlike the noble Lord, Lord Desai, I will not categorise who falls into which category. However, the system could be greatly improved without the need for reform of the charter, which is clearly out of reach in the timescale we are discussing, even if it was desirable. Here are four suggestions which I hope the Government will consider. The UK as a permanent member of the Security Council has good influence, but only if it makes up its mind and deploys that influence skilfully and in good time.

First, and perhaps most ambitiously, it really would make sense for the Secretary-General to be appointed for a seven-year, non-renewable term. Several other noble Lords have put forward that idea, which originated with Sir Brian Urquhart some years ago. That would free up the incumbent from the often unseemly lobbying that goes on for a second term and which stretches right forward from the date of his reappointment. Secondly, I suggest, along with several other noble Lords, that the whole process needs to become much more transparent. It would make good sense for every candidate to go through some kind of open hustings in which they could set out their position, listen to the views of member states, and respond to them.

Thirdly, it would be good if each candidate could be asked to set out in writing their own priorities for the development of the organisation. That would have the great advantage of meaning that whoever is eventually chosen would arrive in the post with something approximating a mandate. Fourthly—this is probably the most important suggestion but also rather difficult to achieve—it really is high time to break the practice of regional pre-emption, which has dominated the choice of the last three Secretaries-General. If applied at the beginning of the process, it effectively excludes a large proportion of the world’s population from consideration at the outset. It is, frankly, an absurd way of handling things.

Of course, over time the post must rotate regionally. It cannot remain the preserve of one particular region, as was the case for the first two Secretaries-General, who were both western Europeans. However, this need not, and should not, be done in such a way as to exclude any candidate from any of the five regional groupings outside the one that was pre-empted. I am sorry to say—this was recognised by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner—that if you are against regional pre-emption, you have to be against gender pre-emption. I admit that gender pre-emption excludes half the world’s population, which is a bit less than you exclude on regional pre-emption, but it is still not the right way to proceed. I absolutely agree that should a woman come forward as Secretary-General now, that would be a tremendously good thing, but it should not be achieved by pre-emption from the outset.

I know that a major effort is being made by east Europeans to promote regional pre-emption, as it is the only region that has never provided a Secretary-General. I wonder whether that is in their best interests, given the real risk of a truculent and more assertive Russia intervening at some stage in the process with a veto. In any event, I am quite sure that the practice of regional pre-emption is not in the interest of the organisation as a whole, nor of any of its regions.

Some would like to see a change in the balance between the Security Council and the General Assembly in making appointments. I doubt, frankly, whether that is achievable.

As to other senior appointments, it is surely right that Britain should, from time to time, aspire to one of the top posts. British incumbents have, in fact, over the life of the United Nations, had an impressive track record. But we really must rid ourselves of the practice of giving the Secretary-General only one candidate. He needs to have a choice; it is really demeaning to suggest that we should choose the person to put forward and then tell him that he has to accept them. That practice came to grief quite recently, as was said, over the appointment of the humanitarian post. I am very glad that Stephen O’Brien was appointed, and I am very glad that the British Government put forward more than one person. I hope that in future they will always do that. I hope, too, that we will not overlook UN officials of British nationality serving professionally in the UN; they are sometimes of the very highest quality but they tend to be overlooked when it comes to putting forward proposals for very senior posts.

It would be good to hear how the Minister reacts to those four proposals. The subject is, I know, sensitive, but it is also important if the UN—which is, I believe, of real value to us—to function more effectively than it has until now.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his timely initiative. In the two elements of his Motion, he stressed rather less the effectiveness of the UN and more the procedures for the choice of the Secretary-General and leading officials. I endorse all that he said about that and, indeed, the very wise words from that great reservoir of experience, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. Like him, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply to his four points.

I will concentrate more on the effectiveness of the UN because it is a good time, after 70 years, to take stock of its performance. At first sight, after years of disillusion and powerlessness, we are indeed far from the central role in world affairs envisaged by the founding fathers after the memory of the failures of the League of Nations and in the context of the destruction of the Second World War. So after 70 years, how do we commemorate it? Do we celebrate, or do we have 10 minutes’ silence? I am among those who think that the glass is more than half full and that we should broadly celebrate.

It is unfair to level so many criticisms at the UN as a body. It is not an autonomous player. It is controlled by the permanent five. There is no independent military capacity. It is a forum for debate and sometimes of action, which is much valued particularly by smaller countries. On Tuesday, the Guardian, which is a natural supporter of the UN, had a major article entitled, “Expensive, bureaucratic and undemocratic: how can the UN be reformed?”. It is easy to criticise the sclerotic bureaucracy. When I asked a leading Swedish official, who alas died at Lockerbie, how many people worked for him, he said, “About half”.

There is corruption. I know someone who was a whistleblower working for the UN in west Africa. He reported that one of his seniors was dealing in diamonds. In fact, my former colleague was moved and not the person dealing in diamonds. There have been serious violations of human rights. One thinks of the allegations against the blue helmets in the Central African Republic. Often there have been silly policies, particularly during the communist era, and absurdities such as the so-called Commission on Human Rights with more than 60% of its resolutions criticising Israel and having members with appalling human rights records. There is an immobilism on reform and no serious prospect of the reform of the Security Council to bring it in line with the realities not of 1945 but of 2015.

There are major policy failures. Critics can point out that one of the first challenges to the new organisation came when the UK gave up its mandate over Palestine. The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 1947 chose to divide Palestine into two states—one Jewish and one Arab. On 21 April 2015, when the Secretary-General addressed the Security Council, he spoke of,

“decades of missed opportunities and failures”,

with the prospect of a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on two states even further away,

“with potentially explosive consequences”.

Yet all reasonable people know the broad lines of what should be a solution to that problem. Surely we do not have to conclude that some problems in the world are insoluble.

We can look at successes and failures over its history. In the 1980s, there were successes. I was marginally involved in the great success on Namibia. At that time, the wonderfully enthusiastic officials in the United Nations Transition Assistance Group, UNTAG, were saying, “Today Namibia, tomorrow western Sahara”. But it was not to be. There were great failures in the 1990s. I think of the failures, for example, of Srebrenica and of the genocide in Rwanda.

The UN is a forum for debate. It seeks consensus and is a source of legal authority, as we see in the current migration debate on the interpretation of Article 51 on self-defence. We in Britain continue to send some of our finest diplomats to the United Nations. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, with his background would not dissent from that.

One could give a whole catalogue of examples, such as the environment, climate change, the development goals, and a whole series of areas under the specialised agencies, including peacekeeping. Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who was the head of peacekeeping for a number of years, said in a recent article in The World Today:

“The United Nation’s peacekeeping operations are in deep trouble after 15 years in which the number of its blue helmets deployed has risen from 20,000 to 120,000”.

There are areas of conflict, but we say, rather like Voltaire’s God, that if the United Nations were not there we would have to invent it or something like it.

I adopt much of what was said by my noble friends Lord Dubs and Lady Kinnock, by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, about the need for a woman. Surely there must be a woman of sufficient eminence over the years to have qualified for that post—someone like Gro Harlem Brundtland, for example. What is the Government’s position? Surely the Executive in this country cannot rely on just secrecy. We need to have a more open debate in our own country. It is surely not too much to ask the Government to spell out very clearly the criteria that they consider important. I hope that this debate will at least provide an opportunity for the Minister to spell out what the Government are looking for in the new appointment—not, I would expect, a general or a secretary, but I hope a very competent woman.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Dubs for initiating the debate and for raising this issue on previous occasions in this Chamber. In its 70th year the UN, despite its positive aspirations, is still dogged by accusations of incompetent bureaucracy and by the undemocratic politics of its Security Council. The West sees it as bloated and inefficient; developing countries regard it as dominated by the rich. As we have heard, with the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War and conflict in many parts of the world, it is right to ask and debate the question, “What is the UN for?”. In the Guardian article referred to by my noble friend Lord Anderson, my noble friend Lady Amos, in reflecting on her period at the UN, described it as a valuable ally in delivering UK aid, but acknowledged concerns about it being overly bureaucratic and slow in the way that it dealt with development issues.

Ten years ago Gordon Brown co-chaired a UN panel on reform. Its report said that the UN was badly failing those it was supposed to help. Its work on development was described as “often fragmented and weak”; its governance was called “inefficient and ineffective”. It proposed extensive changes to promote greater collaboration and efficiency under a programme called Delivering as One. I mention that because Ban Ki-moon has declared that delivering and working as one in the UN was the main motor of his administration. That is not necessarily the judgment of everyone. The executive director of the reform report, Adnan Amin, said that the changes proposed in the report were “fundamentally good ideas” that had not had the impact its authors had hoped for. That is what we have heard in the debate: plenty of examples of good ideas, but delivery is something on which we seek more efficiency.

It is not necessarily the bureaucracy that acts as a barrier to reform, as we have heard. Member states want the UN to have authority and the ability to act when they are behind a particular policy, but they are very jealous about its authority and initiative when they are less keen about the policy. My noble friend quoted Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, who died in tragic circumstances in 1961. His death occurred when the West and the Soviet Union were challenging each other in Africa, undoubtedly linked to the control of uranium.

We know from official records that our Prime Minister at the time, Harold Macmillan, did not want the Secretary-General to think that he had an independent role bringing together the various factions in the Congo, including leaders of the breakaway province of Katanga. The meeting set up for our Foreign Office Minister to meet the breakaway leaders on that fateful night in September 1961 led to the crash of the UN Secretary-General’s plane. We have very strong evidence of two things: first, that there was a second plane involved in the crash landing; and, secondly, that Britain was very closely connected with the white supremacist regimes involved.

I mention this now because later this month the UN General Assembly will be asked to authorise more focused action to follow up the report of the commission of inquiry organised by my noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall, which led to a UN panel corroborating the quality of the evidence that led the commission to its conclusions. I ask the Minister to respond positively to the plea of the UN in the report to the General Assembly that all nations, including the United Kingdom and the United States, which have not so far produced all the information from their archives, should co-operate fully with the UN in finalising the outcome of its inquiries from that period. There is much to learn from that episode.

As my noble friend Lord Dubs said, recent appointments also highlight the role of UN member states, with countries seeing particular jobs as theirs. As we have heard, the former job of my noble friend Lady Amos as head of humanitarian affairs is a good example. Her predecessor was British and so is her successor. It is difficult to see in such circumstances how the UN can balance the need to represent the diversity of its membership with maintaining a merit-based structure.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has stated on a number of occasions when this issue has been raised in this Chamber that the current system of selection for the Secretary-General, with the Security Council nominating a single candidate to the General Assembly, ensures that the candidate receives maximum support. Although the noble Baroness also indicated that the Government would not want to see the process significantly changed, she appeared to favour the suggestion put by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, in a recent exchange, which he repeated today, that all candidates be asked to set out their ideas for strengthening the organisation. At least the world would have something on which to judge the candidates in terms of what they hoped to achieve—and it would be important in being able to measure their success in delivering those aspirations. What progress, if any, have the Government made in persuading others to adopt this in the process to replace Ban Ki-moon?

We have had an excellent debate and serious questions have been asked. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on securing this debate. It is an opportunity to set out the Government’s assessment on the United Nations as well as the selection processes for the Secretary-General and other senior appointments within that organisation.

Noble Lords will no doubt be aware that it is 70 years since the United Nations rose from the ashes of the Second World War, as has been mentioned by many. Its inception was a pledge of those countries present to never relive those experiences. As expressed in the United Nations charter, the founding nations were determined,

“to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”.

Having said that, I also note carefully what the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said. I also listened with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said and hope to respond to him later in my speech.

Seventy years on, we reaffirm the values and commitments made by those founding nations. Her Majesty’s Government are proud to support the ongoing work of the United Nations. In doing so, the Government recognise the continuing importance of the United Nations in maintaining international peace and security and the vital role it plays in resolving threats to that security. The UN is a critical component of the international rules-based system. It enjoys unique legitimacy and unparalleled reach.

The UN’s achievements are substantial, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said. It has shaped the now undisputed norm of an international community expected to tackle shared global challenges: states are obliged to use constructive diplomacy for the settlement of international disputes, as well as conflict management and resolution. It has played a crucial role in codifying international human rights law, establishing a system of oversight and monitoring of states’ performance against it. It has also developed international law on a host of other subjects, including recent agreement of the UK-proposed international Arms Trade Treaty. Among other achievements, it saves 2.5 million lives annually by vaccinating 58% of the world’s children, and assists millions of refugees and people fleeing war, famine or persecution every year.

The United Nations and its member states can be justifiably proud of such achievements but for an organisation carrying out such critical roles as those outlined above, an effective leader is essential. The UN charter empowers the Secretary-General to,

“bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”.

In addition, the Secretary-General carries out the vital role of using “good offices”—steps taken publicly and in private to prevent international disputes arising, escalating or spreading.

The United Kingdom is therefore determined that we secure the best person for that role. The election is still some way off. The United Kingdom is aware of some prospective candidates. It is likely that more candidates will register their interest in the months ahead. As noble Lords will be aware from previous debates on this subject, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the United Kingdom has a policy of not revealing our voting intentions in the selection process for the next Secretary-General.

As outlined by my noble friend Lady Anelay in response to a Question in this House on 3 June, Her Majesty’s Government believe that the selection process for the Secretary-General of the United Nations,

“would benefit from greater structure and transparency”.—[Official Report, 3/6/15; col. 408.]

As my noble friend outlined, the United Kingdom has proposed an initiative that pushes for three key changes to be made to achieve this. First, greater structure on the selection process could be provided by setting a date for candidates to declare themselves and a date by which the selection should happen. Secondly, the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council should provide a formal call to candidates that includes encouraging applications from women, which was mentioned by many noble Lords. We want to encourage female candidates to stand to be the first female Secretary-General, while being firm that the selection process itself should be based on merit, rather than gender. Thirdly, candidates should be provided with a platform to set out their manifestos and be questioned by Security Council and General Assembly members, as well as NGOs and civil society. This would allow for greater involvement from the wider United Nations community about issues of concern.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Kinnock and Lady Falkner—in fact, most people who spoke in the debate—mentioned regional rotation. We believe that no region should be denied the opportunity of putting forward a candidate. However, the UK does not endorse the idea of a formal rotation. We believe, as I have said, that the focus must be on finding the best person for the job.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned the French veto initiative. The proposal put forward by France offers an important contribution to the debate on reform of the Security Council. The United Kingdom whole- heartedly supports the principle that the Security Council must act to stop mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. We cannot envisage circumstances where we would use our veto to block such action.

The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, raised the issue of complicity. We dispute that the UK has been complicit in the current selection process. Since announcing its initiative, the United Kingdom has been working with its partners in the Security Council and the wider UN membership to promote its initiative and build support. The United Kingdom has also been actively involved in the General Assembly’s annual consideration of this important issue. We have worked to promote transparency and inclusivity in Secretary-General selection, notably through conducting informal meetings, dialogues with candidates and encouraging greater clarity over the timelines for the process. We acknowledge that more can be done. The United Kingdom will continue to play an active role in ensuring that this process is run effectively and efficiently in the Security Council and in the General Assembly. However, this needs to be handled sensitively. There is a risk that too much focus on open competition could fuel counterproductive divisions concerning the role of the United Nations Secretary-General. We believe that this position must command the greatest possible support from the international community and have the necessary authority to carry out the role effectively.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Falkner, Lady Kinnock and Lady Coussins, strongly and rightly advocated our encouraging a greater number of women candidates. We strongly agree. However, we want to see the best person for the job selected, regardless of gender. As I have stated, the United Kingdom does not endorse the idea of formal regional rotation. We believe that the focus must be on finding the best person for the job.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, asked what we have done so far. As I said, the United Kingdom has been working with its partners to promote its initiative and build support. We anticipate increased opportunities to promote the initiative, including encouraging female candidates, during the ministerial segment of the opening of the next General Assembly Ministerial Week, at the end of September. This includes working with Colombia and Costa Rica on their initiative. As I said, the United Kingdom will continue to play an active role in ensuring that this process is run efficiently and effectively.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, mentioned a number of issues relating to the International Citizen Service and junior professional officer scheme. I will write to her with whatever details are available.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for his intervention and his suggestions for improving the Secretary-General’s selection. Similarities are noted between some of these and the United Kingdom’s initiative in respect of regional rotation. I have already said that finding the best person for the job is the UK’s priority, but I am sure that my department will take careful note of what the noble Lord has said.

No organisation is perfect but there can be no doubt that the United Nations is an essential component within the international rules-based system. It is critical that this organisation has effective leadership, which includes commanding the greatest possible support from the international community as well as having the authority to carry out that role effectively. It is hoped that the United Kingdom’s initiative will assist in delivering the best person to carry out that role and ensuring that the United Nations continues to live out its fundamental values, pledged 70 years ago, well into the future.

House adjourned at 6.09 pm.