United Nations General Assembly Hall. Credit: Basil D Soufi via Wikimedia Commons

Online Exclusive 12/9/2021 Blog

Secretary-General selection process and the P5 stranglehold on power

On September 10, 2021, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 75-325.1 The resolution did not attract much attention at the time, even among UN watchers, who by then were gearing up for world leaders to descend on New York. But behind the resolution, which concerns the selection process for the Secretary-General, were two months of intense negotiations between the Security Council (read: the five permanent members) keen to hold onto power, and the General Assembly (read: the other 188 states) asserting a larger role. In particular, the hotly contested paragraph on a female Secretary-General shows that when push comes to shove, the P5 will choose power over gender equality. The resolution and the live issues which were left unresolved will have a major bearing on future Secretary-General races.

General Assembly and the Security Council: Who selects the UN’s leader?

Before looking at the resolution, here is a recap of how the appointment works. According to the UN Charter, the General Assembly appoints the Secretary-General “upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”2 The UN Charter contains limited guidance about where one body’s jurisdiction stops and the other’s starts. Beyond this, it is up to states in each body to decide what happens. This close collaboration could be a case study for UN dynamics between the organization’s two foremost organs—the Security Council and the General Assembly.

In 1946 the General Assembly stipulated that the Security Council should present only one candidate (using male pronouns, of course). And until 2015, the process remained pretty much intact with the exception of the notion of “regional rotation” emerging after Boutros-Ghali’s single term led to African states protesting that they had missed out.3 For those seventy years the Security Council was able to dominate the selection process behind closed doors, by deciding which candidates were in the running and at times even voting on names without the knowledge of the individual in question or their government.

The hotly contested paragraph on a female Secretary-General shows that when push comes to shove, the P5 will choose power over gender equality.

Thanks in part to 1 for 7 Billion—a global civil society campaign for transparency and inclusivity in the recruitment process for the UN’s top job4 this back-room practice was curtailed in time for the 2016 race by the groundbreaking Resolution 69/321, negotiated by the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the General Assembly.5 This resolution established a more open process including an invitation for states to put forward candidates, the publication of candidate names and vision statements, and their appearance before the General Assembly. Consequently, 2016 saw thirteen competitors vying for the UN’s top job, presenting their leadership vision to UN member states and the public. Many problematic conventions were broken, including—with the appointment of António Guterres—the cycle of regional pre-emption, but some remain, including the glass ceiling.

Fast forward to 2021 and this new, open process had to be reapplied to the scenario of an incumbent seeking re-appointment. While the circumstances drew criticism—a one-horse race is never a good look—the 2021 process more-or-less faithfully re-implemented the historic gains of 2016. (Despite only one state nominating a candidate, 192 other states had the opportunity. The absence of challengers can be seen as a de facto show of support for Guterres). Mr. Guterres has since been appointed for a second term from 2022-2026.

Future Races—What’s New?

Nonetheless, this year’s appointment was not without hiccup. Confusion about the admissibility of a number of self-nominated civil society applicants attracted negative media coverage.6 On this front, Resolution 75-325 makes important progress by clarifying that nominations must have state-backing. Additionally, it calls for states to work with civil society upstream to help identify candidates.

Furthermore, the resolution addresses the spurious perception that there is a convention requiring a candidate to be nominated by a single country of which they are a citizen. For the next race, expected in 2026, a candidate’s nomination must simply be backed by “at least one state,” making it clear that it is indeed possible for multiple states to nominate a candidate, including countries of which the candidate is not a citizen.

And, for the first time in more than seventy-five years, we have a UN resolution that acknowledges the glaring gender inequality at the UN’s highest echelon. The resolution notes “that there is yet to be a woman Secretary-General” and asks states to bear this in mind when putting candidates forward. These developments were welcomed by 1 for 7 Billion and reflect suggestions made in its 2021 advocacy paper.7

Unfinished Business

While modest progress was made in this resolution, there were key points of tension and opportunities for progress which did not make their way into the document. These shortcomings reveal a concerning level of powerplay that is obstructing the democratic will of the General Assembly. Since the saga played out in negotiations behind closed doors, I spoke to diplomats and officials from a range of regions to explore what happened.

Major proposals to further reform the selection process were hotly contested during this summer’s negotiations, which were facilitated by the Working Group’s co-chairs: El Salvador’s Ambassador López and Slovakia’s Ambassador Mlynár. However, they failed to make the cut.

The issues discussed include: Which body should get to set the length and renewability of the Secretary-General’s term of office? Should multiple candidates be recommended by the Security Council for the General Assembly to choose between? How involved should civil society be in the process? What measures should there be to encourage the appointment of the first female Secretary-General? Procedural issues include whether to apply a timeline for the process, what the modalities of the GA candidate dialogues should be, and calls for transparency of Security Council straw-poll votes.

While the P5 veto power is technically restricted to the Security Council, P5 privilege has a major bearing across the UN system, not least the General Assembly. During these negotiations four of the P5 (France was represented through the EU delegate during these negotiations) coordinated positions to guard practices that preserve power in the Security Council. For example, one diplomat involved in the negotiations told me that the U.S. led this group in ensuring that the resolution did not include any reference to the popular proposals to review the length and renewability of the tenure of future Secretaries-General, as well as blocking references to the idea that the Security Council should recommend multiple candidates to the General Assembly. What is remarkable for both issues is that P5 members are not even blocking the proposals themselves; they are blocking the mere call for discussions to take place on the proposals.

Research shows that on both the issues of term renewability8 and multiple candidates,9 over two-thirds of the UN’s membership either supports the reforms or feel they merit discussion. The only states to actively speak out against them were the P5 plus one or two outliers. Multiple state representatives in attendance told me that P5 states were the only ones willing to use their influence to stop these issues from even being debated.

While the P5 veto power is technically restricted to the Security Council, P5 privilege has a major bearing across the UN system, not least the General Assembly.

Russia and China, predictably, pushed for language on civil society participation to be scrapped. Those advocating inclusion, however, were able to hold firm on two crucial mentions: first, encouraging states to work with civil society to identify candidates in future races, and second, the inclusion of civil society in candidate hearings in the General Assembly. On this, multiple diplomats speaking off the record told me that China also voiced skepticism that arrangements for civil society participation should be left to the Office of the President of the General Assembly, arguing instead for a set of rules that could give states a vetting role in the selection of civil society organizations wishing to participate. According to these sources, China’s suggestion was widely ignored and the candidate hearings paragraph survived, albeit in a form that simply described what had already been happening and encouraging the continuation of such practices. In this way China, Russia, and other anti-inclusivity advocates ensured the resolution stopped short of calling for the enhanced civil society inclusion that many had been pushing for.

Power First, Feminism Later

Throughout the negotiations delegates debated whether to include language that pertained to the gender of the Secretary-General, and whether female candidates warrant special consideration.

As the resulting resolution was adopted on September 10, the Costa Rican delegate Ambassador Maritza Chan gave one of the most powerful and provocative speeches heard in the General Assembly in a long time.10 After lamenting seventy-five years of male leadership, she announced that:

“The road to get here was not easy. This is not the text that Costa Rica wanted. We compromised with those who thought it was too progressive or bold to just make a call to elevate women to the 38th floor of this building in this year’s resolution. Those who thought that to prioritize female candidates or even request gender-balanced shortlists to the Security Council would be going too far.”

The Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency (ACT) group of states11—and in particular, the Costa Rican delegation—proposed the idea of inserting a paragraph on the gender of the Secretary-General. This text was intended to acknowledge that male leadership since the UN's inception was incongruous with UN goals and to “urge” Member States to “prioritize” female candidates. According to unpublished annotated drafts of the Resolution, the paragraph endured much elaboration and discussion, including significant opposition from P5 members.

Diplomats from multiple regions lamented the Russian’s early objection, which was a controversial but sadly familiar position.12 It asserted that the gender of the Secretary-General should not be a factor and instead that their fit should be based on the substance of the issues advocated for. Clearly this could be used as an argument against any measures to improve the gender balance in the UN’s workforce, which at the current rate will take another 130 years to reach parity.13 session of the Commission on the Status of Women, 21 December 2020, see https://undocs.org/E/CN.6/2021/3.

Multiple sources in attendance at the negotiations suggest that the U.K.’s opposition—which was supported by fellow P5 member, the United States—was more nuanced. It may not have been anti-feminist in its intentions but due to a wider philosophical resistance to the General Assembly straying into the Security Council’s purview, and, in this case, the reduction of the Security Council’s freedom and maneuverability to recommend whomsoever they like as Secretary General. Regrettably, this desire to maintain power comes at the cost of the implementation of a feminist approach that would have helped address what will be an 80-year unbroken chain of male UN chiefs.

Indeed, diplomats also spoke off the record on a similar aversion within the European Union to highlighting the urgent need for a female Secretary-General. Reports suggest that France (represented through the European Union’s delegate) did not want to include language that prioritized female candidates, possibly motivated by similar reasons as the U.K. and the United States. Portugal, who throughout the process had been acutely sensitive to preserving the credibility and legitimacy of Guterres’s second term, also consistently advocated for more passive gender language, including in this instance.

To bridge these differences, unpublished drafts of the resolution show that Canada, Australia, and New Zealand proposed language to encourage gender sensitivity in Secretary-General appointments that was acceptable to the P3 (that is, France, U.K., and the U.S.). Due to the persistence of progressive states, including ACT leaders, this language was strengthened and, according to those involved in the negotiations, the majority of EU states rallied and were able to suppress France’s objections and so gain EU support. After extensive deliberation, the language “urging states to consider nominating women candidates” looked set to be adopted having gained the support of the Non-Aligned Movement, as well as ACT, China, the United States, the U.K. and others—amounting to approximately 180 member states.

This desire to maintain power comes at the cost of the implementation of a feminist approach that would have helped address what will be an 80-year unbroken chain of male UN chiefs..

However, according to multiple diplomats, on the last day of negotiations Russia (whose attendance throughout the negotiations was described to me by one official as “patchy”) announced that it would not be able to support the language, steering a landmark consensus off the rails. A consistent opponent to progressive gender language, Russia apparently suggested it was condescending to have to prioritize female candidates and suggested a provocative fix: mentioning men alongside women in the gender paragraph (a fix reminiscent of the notorious botch in the 2015 joint letter from the Presidents of the Security Council and General Assembly which encouraged member states to consider nominating women, “as well as men”14). Those involved in the negotiations told me that states including ACT, the U.K., and the E.U. rejected Russia’s suggestion, countering that such proposals were offensive.

Despite widespread support for more ambitious language, to accommodate Russia’s late objections the paragraph was weakened through a new proposal, introduced by China, which passively recognizes that the UN has never had a “woman Secretary-General,” and encourages states to “bear this in mind” when nominating candidates. States unenthusiastically accepted this compromise, completing the convoluted story of operative paragraph 68 of Resolution 75/32515:

“Notes that there is yet to be a woman Secretary-General and invites Member States to bear this in mind in the future, when nominating candidates for the position of the Secretary-General;”

While anodyne, this language nonetheless heralds the first time a General Assembly resolution has recognized the unbroken pattern of male Secretaries-General and suggests this should be a consideration for future candidate nominations. Given the circumstances it was a remarkable achievement to get anything at all in the resolution relating to the gender of Secretaries-General, and it is a testament to the persistence of progressive diplomats.

Zooming out, it is shocking to see such an almighty struggle to agree on such timid language on gender. The relative celebration of the outcome by those who fought hard for progress16, 17 speaks volumes to the challenge ahead, but also shows that there is an appetite to rise to this challenge and keep pushing. The drawn-out compromise, as well as the P5’s role in blocking discussions on term renewability and multiple candidates, will be bubbling close to the surface when the Working Group next discusses the issue. (This will be during the 77th session of the General Assembly in 2022-2023 due to the biennialization of this resolution.)

While plenty of states have non-progressive attitudes on issues, it is those states with an outsized influence—in particular the P5—that feel comfortable making demands in the General Assembly even when against the will of a large majority of states: they use power to retain power. Beyond China and Russia’s spoiling tactics on a range of issues, their supposedly more progressive counterparts, France, the U.K., and the United States, have shown themselves equally willing to prioritize conventions that preserve power over the application of feminist principles.

Despite the apparent stranglehold on further reforms to the Secretary-General selection process, a strong crop of diplomats are clearly determined to make progress, and painful negotiations like this one will only add fuel to their fire.

—Ben Donaldson

Ben Donaldson is head of campaigns at the United Nations Association – UK and a co-founder of 1 for 7 Billion, a global civil society coalition launched in 2014 to campaign for a fair, open, and inclusive way to select the UN’s leader. Twitter: @benaldson