For the first time in the history of the United Nations, candidates vying to be the next Secretary-General faced questions from member states and civil society in webcast hearings at the General Assembly. Hailed by media worldwide—and described by the President of the General Assembly—as a consequence of the two-year long campaigning efforts of 1 for 7 Billion, the hearings indicated a major departure from the secretive selection process that used to take place behind closed doors.
From 12-14 April, 1 for 7 Billion has been providing live coverage and commentary on the hearings, which saw the nine candidates face UN member states. Below, we summarise where candidates stand on 1 for 7 Billion’s main campaign priorities.
1 for 7 Billion Campaign Proposals
One of 1 for 7 Billion’s main reform proposals is for the next UN leader to be appointed for a single, non-renewable term of office, possibly for seven years. We believe that this would give the Secretary-General the political space that she or he needs to make crucial decisions in moments of crisis, rather than being beholden to the will of powerful states who currently dominate the re-appointment process.
While three Secretary-General candidates – Antonio Guterres (Portugal), Vuk Jeremić (Serbia), and Helen Clark (New Zealand)– were asked for their views on a single term, only Clark provided an answer. Clark responded that while she sees “the case for a single term,” she is “relaxed” about the issue, and believed that it should be left in the hands of member states to decide.
1 for 7 Billion was particularly disappointed that Jeremić evaded this question, which was put to him by the representative from Costa Rica. Jeremić had previously expressed public support for a single term at a conference in Paris earlier this year, before his candidacy had been confirmed.
Notably, although Vesna Pusić (Croatia) was not asked this question during her hearing, she expressed her support for a single term in a response to 1 for 7 Billion’s letter.
1 for 7 Billion has advocated for the next Secretary-General to be the best person for the job, irrespective of region or gender. In turn, we believe that the next UN leader should appoint senior officials on the basis of merit, and should not promise key high-level positions to certain member states in exchange for support.
Several candidates acknowledged that merit should be the main consideration in UN appointments. Asked to elaborate on how they would address “geographic imbalances” in the UN, Danilo Türk (Slovenia), Clark, Jeremić and Pusić emphasised merit-basis as the primary factor. Türk was the first candidate to openly express this view, responding to whether he would improve representation of small island states in the Secretariat. Türk’s reply: "I say, come with good candidates!” Guterres emphasised the need for “clear and transparent criteria for Secretariat appointments. Jeremić, while acknowledging his desire for regional representation, stated that ultimately, it should be the "best man or woman for the job wherever we go, whatever we do".
Some candidates, including Srgjan Kerim (Macedonia) and Igor Lukšić (Montenegro), showed a preference for the informal principle of regional rotation for many UN positions. Lukšić pledged that if he were appointed Secretary-General, his deputy would come from the southern hemisphere. Kerim noted that the Eastern European group believes it is its "turn" to be Secretary-General, and stated that regional rotation has always been important for the UN. Irina Bokova (Bulgaria) also appeared to prioritise regional representation, stating that she had abided by this principle as Director-General of UNESCO.
Gender representation was also a major concern during the meetings, with each of the candidates expressing a commitment to gender equality when making appointments. While Natalia Gherman (Moldova) stated that she would prioritise women’s engagement as Secretary-General, Bokova remarked that “the 21st century has to be the century of a true commitment to equality between the sexes”. Pusić emphasized that ensuring gender parity when making appointments is "not only right, it's smart," and Guterres promised "a road map to achieve gender parity at all levels".
Lukšić, Jeremić, and Kerim proposed that the appointment of a male Secretary-General should be accompanied by the appointment of a female Deputy-Secretary-General. Kerim and Jeremić made bold claims as to the gender ratios of their staff. Kerim promised that the Secretariat’s gender ratio would improve to 60-40 (men to women) if he was Secretary-General, while Jeremić insisted that he would ensure that half of Under-Secretaries-General were women from “day one".
However, the candidates were disappointingly vague as to how they would guarantee their independence as Secretary-General, particularly with regard to senior Secretariat appointments. Guterres noted that it was impossible to avoid political pressure as Secretary-General, but remarked: "independence is an attitude." Our campaign encourages candidates to consider specific measures to this end—such as committing to serve only a single term—in order to ensure that they can effectively serve as the next Secretary-General.
Civil Society Participation
As a civil society campaign, 1 for 7 Billion is deeply committed to ensuring that civil society voices are heard at the United Nations. Throughout the hearings, the candidates were asked for their views on how civil society should engage with the UN, and how this engagement could be protected.
Türk called for new forms of civil society cooperation with the UN, and stated that he would hold consultations early in his tenure as Secretary-General to identify how to progress in this area. Gherman focused on the importance of partnerships with civil society, as well as the private sector, in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.
In this vein, several of the candidates highlighted their own experiences working with, or as a part of, civil society. Guterres noted that he supported civil society access in his role as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and Kerim stated that as 62nd President of the GA he had insisted that civil society be "part and parcel" of the UN's work. Highlighting her own experiences as a civil society representative, Pusić emphasized that civil society should be involved in defining the UN’s agenda. Jeremić mentioned that he is currently head of a civil society organisation, but also noted that first and foremost he would work with member states.
The Secretary-General and the UN System
The Role of the Secretary-General
Overall, one of the most frequently raised topics during the discussion was the role of the Secretary-General, and how each of the candidates conceived of the post.
Natalia Gherman (Moldova) stated that the Secretary-General "should be the general of the Secretariat and the secretary of the member states." In contrast, Danilo Türk (Slovenia) felt that the Secretary-General is in fact neither 'Secretary' nor 'General' - he or she "has to be a humble, knowledgeable servant of the Organization who can tell states and bodies what they need to hear and what they need to know.” Similarly, Antonio Guterres (Portugal) prioritized humility and diplomacy, describing the Secretary-General as a "convener" and a "catalyst,” an "honest broker" for peace. Srgjan Kerim (Macedonia) described the Secretary-General as "the face of the organization" and the "conscience" of the Security Council, and emphasized the value of achieving consensus.
Irina Bokova (Bulgaria) noted the “enormous moral authority of the Secretary-General”. At the same time, she underscored that the Secretary-General “first and foremost serves member states”; she or he should engage member states in order to implement the UN’s decisions. Clark highlighted the “soft power” aspects of the role, while characterizing herself as a “pragmatic, task-focused and results-oriented” leader. She added that she would not be “an establishment candidate”. Vuk Jeremić (Serbia) also envisioned a more activist role, arguing that the Secretary-General “should be a person with spine...but someone who will use their courage wisely."
In addition to the Secretary-General’s managerial and leadership abilities, the importance of strong communication skills was also noted during the hearings. Gherman in particular emphasised that “We must learn how to communicate better to the people of the world... we must make the UN better known and better understood." Along similar lines, Türk argued that "We are very bad at telling stories, and we need storytellers who are brought in from the outside,” and stated that he would appoint a chief of communications capable of addressing this problem.
The issue of reforming UN bodies – particularly the Secretariat and Security Council – emerged as a prominent theme throughout the hearings. 1 for 7 Billion has previously expressed hope that reform of the Secretary-General selection process will pave the way for further improvements to the UN system.
There were mixed views on how – and the extent to which – the UN should be reformed. Certain candidates such as Gherman expressed broad support for change, saying that she would “spare no effort to ensure a culture of transparency and accountability” at the UN, and would be “open to continuous reform of all UN bodies” led by member states. Similarly, Kerim suggested that he was open to reform, noting that management reform was his top priority. However, he added that change can only be advanced when member states are ready.
On the other hand, Vesna Pusić (Croatia) and Türk expressed greater commitment to reform. We need to keep what we've got and build on it,” said Pusić, pledging to reform the organisation by working with existing structures. She further remarked that “approaching an organization honestly, knowing its flaws and being prepared to work with them to move forward” would be the basis of her approach. Türk focused on reform of the Secretariat, stating that the current recruitment process for senior UN staff must be shortened to improve efficiency, as the current vetting process takes 100 days.
Türk also stated that he is supportive of UN Security Council reform, and that this should be in the hands of UN member states. "But if I was invited to present my ideas, I wouldn't hesitate," he added. Clark focused more specifically on Security Council expansion, stating that "it is important that reform does not crowd out the ability of small states to be elected to the Council - such as expansion of the Council. As Secretary-General, I would study what previous Secretaries-General have done to revive the discussion on expansion."
Interestingly, during the media stakeouts, several candidates were questioned about their campaign funding. Guterres explained that the Portuguese government funded his travel, as well as other logistical expenses. Jeremić stated that he intended to fundraise rather than accept money from governments, and added that he would disclose the sources of this funding. Kerim offered an estimate of his campaign budget, explaining that the Macedonian government had spent 60,000 euros to date, and would contribute an additional 40,000. He noted that he would also personally contribute to his campaign. In a nod to greater transparency, Lukšić committed to publishing his campaign budget. 1 for 7 Billion views this as a positive development, and hopes that all candidates will consider taking similar steps.
This week’s meetings were a historic process, and an unprecedented move towards greater transparency and inclusiveness in the appointment of the next Secretary-General. At the same time, they are only the first step; now is the time to ensure that a highly qualified candidate is identified and appointed this fall. 1 for 7 Billion calls on civil society, the press and public, as well as all member states, to join the conversation about who should become the next Secretary-General.