Sir Brian not that impressed

This month’s Foreign Affairs includes an article by former Under-Secretary-General and statesman Sir Brian Urquhart entitled “The Next Secretary-General: How to Fill a Job With No Description.” Sir Brian is widely regarded for his proposals for reforming the UNSG selection process. He wrote what is considered the definitive biography of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and, in 1996, co-authored A World in Need of Leadership with fellow UN statesman Erskine Childers. Earlier this year he was interviewed by UNA-USA’s Suzanne Dimaggio on this year’s process.

Despite the title, Sir Brian’s article concerns itself more with a history of the office of UNSG. He describes the weak consensus about the UNSG’s role in the early years, then discusses at length Dag Hammarskjöld’s administration which significantly transformed the office, before turning to the question of the next officeholder only in the last few paragraphs.

Apparently, Sir Brian is not too enthused about the current slate of candidates. 

“Unfortunately, but as usual, a crop of self- or state-nominated candidates has already come forward, discouraging the council from conducting a more serious search for the right person.”

Nor does he appear impressed with the unprecedented transparency marking this year’s selection.

“…improvements in the selection process are unlikely this time around, although many suggestions have been made: limiting the next secretary-general to a single seven-year term; creating a search and nominating committee; abolishing regional preferences; giving a greater role in the selection process to the General Assembly; requiring that all candidates publicly circulate a statement setting out their agenda, priorities, and proposed modus operandi…”

While he notes these formal proposals for opening up the process, he neglects to note the more influential, if informal, changes that we have witnessed this year: the Security Council requirement of a formal nomination, public appearances by known candidates, campaign visits to world capitals, greater engagement with civil society and the media, and generally well-known platforms.

As a colleague at the Canadian permanent mission noted, these informal developments will greatly facilitate the acceptance of those formal reforms in 2011 or 2016, but more importantly, they are opening up the process this year more than attempts to negotiate formal changes ever could have.

Sir Brian’s failure to look at this year’s process from outside the institutional box is unfortunate and deprives us of his unique insight as a UN statesman.

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