Politics

Helen Clark’s path to the top at the UN is strewn with potholes

Were it down to competence, ability and integrity, the former NZ PM would be all but a shoo-in for Secretary General. But it’s much less straightforward than that, writes former NZ ambassador to the UN Terence O’Brien

Helen Clark’s bid to be next UN Secretary General is now official. It is hardly a surprise. Speculation has been rife for a while, fuelled by her coyness when questioned by media. The timing of the announcement has been influenced by a new method of candidate selection decided last year by the collective UN membership. Unlike in the past governments must now formally back the candidature of their citizens. Previously it was an entirely individual responsibility to throw a hat into the ring.

Helen Clark is one of eight candidates who have so far announced they're in the running to lead the UN. Photo by Pierre Suu/Getty

Helen Clark is one of eight candidates who have so far announced they’re in the running to lead the UN. Photo by Pierre Suu/Getty

The final decision on the successful candidate will be taken in seven months’ time. Each candidate must canvas UN member governments – all 193 of them – between now and then, beginning with a statement of intent and of suitability for the job, before the assembled membership in New York by the end of April.

The individual candidate shoulders most of the burden for his or her campaigning. The role of their sponsoring government is basically to “put in a good word” quietly but persistently in their candidates’ favour, with other governments. The process is not quite the same as a full-on bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council where NZ is, of course, currently serving. The Secretary General campaign requires of governments a more discrete effort.

The combination of Security Council membership alongside the Clark candidature will surely focus a brighter spotlight upon NZ over the remainder of 2016. It would surely justify on-the-spot NZ media presence in New York over that period. Helen Clark’s prospects of success should not be overrated. If the final decision just rested upon competence, ability and integrity she would certainly merit selection. But while there seems a groundswell to appoint a woman for the first time to the job, other factors weigh in the balance.

In the first place, the slate of candidates can be expanded even after the opening shots are fired at the April General Assembly. As things stand right now there are eight candidates, all except Helen Clark and an ex-Portuguese Prime Minister (a male) are from eastern Europe. Amongst these one stands out, the Bulgarian Irina Bukova, who presently heads the UN Education and Cultural organisation (UNESCO) in Paris. The others are drawn from smaller East European countries which have not themselves been UN members very long.

Inside the UN there is a principle, but not a rule, that equitable representation from the various regions into which the system pigeonholes the membership should operate in appointments and selection of office holders. Governments in eastern Europe claim it is their “turn” to provide a UN Secretary General because over the 70 years of the UN’s existence every other region has supplied one, except eastern Europe.

The role of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, UK, France, China and Russia) defines the final choice. In the past the Council after much internal quibbling has agreed a chosen candidate who is recommended to the UN General Assembly who have rubber stamped the choice.

This time around the UN General Assembly has inserted itself early into the selection process by calling for nominations. How far this will actually influence the final selection by the Security Council and the Assembly’s own formal endorsement of the Council’s favoured candidate remains up in the air. It will lend some greater transparency to a process which in the past has been privately decided in a smoke free room between five powerful governments. Seasoned UN watchers firmly believe the new procedure in fact changes nothing. The permanent five will as ever get the man or woman they want. That has not in the past always produced however a compliant easily controlled Secretary General, as Kofi Annan the independently minded African convincingly proved.

The context in which the final decision will occur promises much distraction. The coincidental US presidential election will intrude conspicuously, ongoing deep internal stress will sidetrack Europe’s concentration, possible British exit from the EU could materially compound problems and tensions between Russia, the US, Nato and eastern Europe all provide much perplexity. The road ahead for the Helen Clark candidature is strewn with potholes. Anything is possible. Watch this space.

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