Vetoes, Zombie Candidates, and the Lowest Common Denominator: Selecting the UN Secretary-General

Next UN secretary-general candidate Kristalina Georgieva addresses the media regarding her candidacy. New York, October 3, 2016. (Cia Pak/UN Photo)

As the identity of the new United Nations secretary-general is determined [Ed. note: shortly after publication, UN Security Council members announced former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres as their unanimous choice for next secretary-general], it seems an ideal time to re-explore the history of selecting the chief of the world body. This is a history of secrecy, abundant use of vetoes, and embracing the lowest common denominator, even when good men (as only men have served as secretaries-general so far) have been chosen.

If it is true that the UN can only be as effective as the big powers permit, the secretary-general’s leadership still matters. With all its limitations, the UN remains the last resort when it comes to addressing crises and conflicts. Very often, it is called to pick up the pieces after the fact.

A few years back, I attended the opening of a new conference room named after first UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie at the International Peace Institute, where I was a director at the time. I had the good fortune to speak with Brian Urquhart, a civil servant of the UN since 1946, who recounted a humorous anecdote also included in his memoir A Life in Peace and War.

In February 1946, Sir Brian was in charge of the speakers’ list for one of the first meetings of the UN General Assembly, in which the first secretary-general was to be elected. At one point, US Secretary of State Edward Stettinius asked him to identify Mr. Lie, pronouncing his name as “lie” rather than the correct “lee.” After Sir Brian pointed to the rather corpulent Norwegian foreign minister, Stettinius repeated his mispronunciation at the podium, declaring, “I nominate my great friend Mr. Lie, a figure known to all the world.” Thus began the thoughtful selection process for the leader of the world organization!

The Power of the Veto

It was clear since the beginning of the process that competition among major powers would limit the UN’s effectiveness. In 1946, many distinguished candidates were rejected due to the adversarial East-West relationship, including Britain’s Anthony Eden, the United States’ Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Canada’s Lester Pearson—the American first choice—all of whom went on to lead their countries.

In vetoing all of these appointments, the Soviet Union started a trend among the five permanent Security Council members. While they generally exercise a degree of constraint on issues on the council’s agenda, use of the veto has been the defining feature in the appointment process of new secretaries-general.

The secrecy of the appointment process makes it difficult to track down the exact number of vetoes cast in past selections, which is a record further muddled by the introduction of the “straw polls,” an anonymous and secretive indication of preference introduced in 1981. Still, we know that Lie’s reappointment in 1950 was vetoed by the Soviet Union, but eventually the General Assembly renewed his mandate without the Security Council’s recommendation—a political coup almost unthinkable today.

The USSR vetoed Lester Pearson again in 1953, when Lie resigned, and it is estimated that by 1971, when Kurt Waldheim was elected, 27 vetoes had been cast over secretary-general appointments. Waldheim himself was vetoed twice by China and the UK. The three candidates to succeed him in 1981 received 32 vetoes, until Javier Perez de Cuellar emerged as the consensus candidate. The Clinton administration in the US famously vetoed Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s reappointment in 1996, while the other African candidates to replace him received a very high number of vetoes or negative straw ballots (probably more than 30), until Kofi Annan was eventually selected. France reportedly agreed to Annan’s appointment—after opposed him during the straw polls—only after he consented to appoint a French national to head the Department of Peacekeeping.

A Suitable Candidate?

All this ado seems to signal that member states do care about who is appointed secretary-general. Unfortunately, so far more effort has gone into avoiding an undesirable candidate rather than choosing one whose qualifications match the demanding requirements of running a global institution. The most devastating indictment of the way in which great powers select the world’s leading international civil servant was the appointment of Waldheim. We now know that he lied for nearly 40 years about his World War II record as an officer in Hitler’s army. It is appalling that the Security Council permanent members—four of whom were at that time members of the Allied War Crimes Commission—did not even bother to check his background.

The selection process is further complicated by the not coincidental fact that there is no job description for the secretary-general position. This contrasts with top posts at other international agencies such as the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization, and the World Trade Organization, which feature specified qualifications or criteria that must be met. The UN Preparatory Commission in 1945 did develop a very wide range of qualifications that would be required to appoint a secretary-general, including leadership qualities, moral authority, mediating abilities, communication skills, and political judgment. These are all requirements that indicate a much wider role than the narrow definition of “chief administrative officer” that eventually made it into the UN Charter (article 97). But there has been no appetite so far among member states to anchor the selection process in “agreed criteria/qualifications,” as a Canadian delegation proposed in 2006 (page 8).

In addition, the established practice of regional rotation of the secretary-general position further limits the mix of candidates. This is not an official rule, but in the last two elections it was widely accepted that the secretary-general would be African and then Asian. Ahead of the current selection process, Eastern European countries formally noted that theirs was the only UN regional group that had never held the secretary‐general post. With that said, the rotation process has only prevented nomination of candidates from multiple regions in the 1996 election process, which featured four African candidates. This time around there are candidates from Argentina, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and Portugal, in addition to Eastern Europe.

Behind Closed Doors

Transparency has also been a thorny issue in selection. Article 97 of the UN Charter says that the secretary-general “shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon recommendation of the Security Council.” There is no formal limit to the number of terms, but no secretary-general so far has held office for more than two. Again owing to the veto power, de facto power over the process to the five permanent members. The Security Council has always recommended one candidate to the General Assembly, which was itself responsible for instituting this preference through Resolution 11(I) in 1946 that some, including India, have suggested repealing. The anachronistic nature of the resolution is further highlighted by its assumption, in paragraph 1, that the secretary-general will be a man.

Much discussion has taken place in UN chambers around the need to increase the transparency of the selection process. The 1981 introduction of straw polls was a significant innovation and came at the suggestion of Olara Otunnu, the Ambassador of Uganda presiding on the council at the time (and future International Peace Institute president). The process of indicating informal encouragements or discouragements without casting an official vote was seen as a way of overcoming the deadlock between Waldheim—who was running for a third term—and Ambassador Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania. It worked, and a third acceptable candidate emerged in Perez de Cuellar.

Straw polls have been used in every subsequent selection process. Since 1991, color-coded ballots have also allowed identification of whether a veto power has cast a vote of “discouragement” against a candidate, representing a potential kiss of death. In 2006, the additional “no opinion” option was added. The sixth straw poll, which is being run today, provides red ballots for the permanent members to make votes from within the group identifiable, though not from an individual country. However, it is still only through leaks and unofficial statements that the results of straw polls are made public, which is hardly a sign of increased transparency.

A 2016 Breakthrough?

Arguably the most significant transparency innovation in the course of the secretary-general selection process has been introduced this year, with the General Assembly organizing public dialogues with the candidates. This process gave each candidate a two-hour speaking slot, including time for an initial statement and to respond to questions from member states and civil society representatives. More than 1,500 online questions were submitted from over 70 countries. The dialogues were webcast and remain available online.

The informal dialogues introduced an unprecedented degree of public interaction into the selection process. Even if the straw polls results so far do not perfectly align with the strongest public performances (always a matter of opinion), it is widely agreed that the top “encouraged” candidate, former Portugal Prime Minister António Guterres, performed very solidly in his public dialogue. While some contenders have been labeled “zombie candidates,” it is unquestionable that the new practice of public dialogues has made the process more rigorous. It is also harder for the permanent Security Council members to pull out a last-minute candidate who has not gone through this vetting process. All candidates have also been very active in social media and public events outside the UN. This is a far cry from second secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld’s time, when he was unaware that he was being considered for the job until he received a telegram offering it to him.

A final note of consideration has to be given to gender equality. It appears that only three women were ever considered as formal nominations throughout the history of the secretary-general selection process: Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, an Indian diplomat that the Soviet Union suggested as a replacement for Lie in 1953; Gro Harlem Brundtland, then prime minister of Norway, who was added to the list of candidates during a straw poll in 1991; and Vaira Vike-Freiberga, then president of Latvia, who was nominated by the three Baltic states in 2006.

Strong advocacy by academic and civil society groups, in addition to a group of 56 member states led by Colombia, has succeeded in encouraging a large number of female nominations in 2016. As of the time of writing, they account for half of the 12 candidates. However, while no official results have been announced, leaked results show poor returns for female candidates. The top-ranking woman in the latest straw poll, UNESCO Director-General and Bulgarian national Irina Bokova, is only ranked fifth, with seven “encourage” votes and five “discourage.” Her campaign, however, seems to be over, as her government has switched candidate, putting forward Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s budget commissioner, who also appears to have the support of Russia. It remains to be seen if gender might still play a defining role in the selection of the next secretary-general.


Much water has passed under the bridge since Secretary of State Stettinius nominated his “great friend Mr. Lie.” The level of transparency and public scrutiny over the secretary-general selection process has continuously increased, particularly with the public dialogues in the current selection process. Nonetheless, the final decision on the replacement for Ban Ki-Moon still seems to rest firmly in the hands of two or three countries. As the US was decisive in the selection of both Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, will Russia be the gatekeeper this time around, vetoing any candidate considered too “close” to the West?

A transparent process is only a partial guarantee of the quality of a candidate. A robust job description would probably do more. Most of all, we need to advocate for Security Council permanent members to have a thoughtful discussion about who can best guide the world organization through today’s troubled waters of global affairs, as this is in all of their national interests. It is only by moving beyond petty and face-saving considerations that the lowest common denominator option will be avoided.