Mary Robinson dubs selection process for UN chief as “morally inexcusable”

In an impassioned speech at a packed public meeting at UN headquarters, former High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson painted the current UN Secretary-General selection process - the prerogative of just five countries – as “weak, opaque and, perhaps, even irrational”. She stated that maintaining the status quo is “not just unwise, but morally inexcusable”.

The meeting, held on 30 June, was organized by 27 countries comprising the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group, which publicly advocates an overhaul of the selection process.

Speaking on behalf of global leaders from The Elders group, Ms Robinson expressed support for many proposals tabled by 1 for 7 Billion – a formal timetable, publication of candidates’ names, and early public hearings in the Security Council and the General Assembly. She asked: “In an open call for names, why not give an opportunity for civil society groups to engage with the process and make recommendations of candidates?”

Stressing that the world needs a Secretary-General who is independent and not beholden to the interests of individual member states, she called on all candidates to put forward platforms and to voluntarily declare they would only serve a single (longer) term, instead of the customary renewable five years. Citing the UN Charter, she condemned the practice of candidates having to offer some Security Council members high-level posts in return for political support as “unseemly… that seriously undermines the reputation and effectiveness of the United Nations”.

The Elders' powerful call for reform is indicative of the growing support around the world for the recommendations advocated by the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, represented on the panel by William Pace, who was optimistic that, despite the decades-long, frustrating history of reform attempts, this time things will be different.

Click here to watch the webcast of the meeting.

The UK’s ambassador to the UN and panellist Matthew Rycroft, one of the permanent five members of the Security Council, did not express support for all the above but did reiterate that transparency, structure and inclusion should mark the search for the best possible person. He said that this required encouraging female applications from wherever they may be, given that a woman has never held the post.

Unlike most other permanent five Security Council members, the UK called for “a clear deadline for candidates to declare themselves, and a clear date by which time the selection should happen”. The ambassador promised to work in the Council to that end.

Last, the UK wanted “leading candidates to have that opportunity to set out to, not just to the Security Council, but to the wider membership and others where they stand on key issues, what they stand for, why they want the job and how they will do it”. They should be questioned on their suitability and the UK ambassador wanted civil society to “scrutinise the names and qualifications and criteria of the candidates being put forward”.

In a welcome response to a question, Ambassador Rycroft expressed support for a proposal made by the ACT group on 1 June. The group proposed that, in order to start the selection process in an open and transparent manner, the Presidents of the General Assembly and of the Security Council should send a joint letter to UN Member States calling for nominations with a clear timeline. He reiterated that view in the Security Council later that day, recommending that the Security Council "take the lead" in advancing reform.

The proposal by ACT was supported by two other Security Council members – Lithuania and Angola - that afternoon in a public wrap-up session of the Security Council organised by its President, Malaysia, which had included “SG selection” in its concept note for the meeting.

A total of seven Council members highlighted the importance of the selection process: Angola, as Chair of the Informal Working Group on Documentation and Procedural Matters, said it would try to take the ACT proposals forward in the Council; Chile and Spain called for more openness, transparency and inclusiveness in the selection process, with Chile mentioning lists and presentation of candidates; Venezuela called for the presentation of candidates well in advance of selection. 

Well before the debate, 1 for 7 Billion wrote to all elected members of the Security Council on 26 June, urging them to support the ACT proposal for a joint letter by the two Presidents, to include an invitation to all Member States to present nominations, and to set out a clear timeline and a deadline for submission of candidacies.

Discussions in the Council are continuing.