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Southeast Asia

Asian gambit for top UN post still uncertain
By Alexander Casella

Reports that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has endorsed Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai as Asia's candidate for the post of United Nations secretary general when Kofi Annan's term expires in December 2006 have been received with surprise by diplomatic milieus in New York. Most observers feel that such a move is premature and that the real campaigning for the post will only start around mid-2006.

UN secretaries general are elected for one five-year term and are generally re-elected for a second term, with the post being rotated each 10 years among the regional groups within the UN. An exception to this unwritten rule was the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was elected as a representative of the African group in 1992 but was not given a second term when the US vetoed his re-election and promoted Kofi Annan for the post. On paper Annan should have served only one term, thus completing Africa's 10-year tenure, but he was given a second term in 2002.

If the rotation principle holds - it is only a custom and is not provided for by the UN Charter - the next secretary general should be an Asian, which would require that he have the support not only of ASEAN but also of the Asian group within the UN.

According to the UN Charter, secretaries general are elected by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. In practice this means that the candidate is chosen by the Security Council, a process that is subject to the veto of any of the five permanent members.

Traditionally UN secretaries general have come from small, more or less neutral countries that are not controversial and don't have major political agendas. Several of the past secretaries general, before being elected, had some prior UN experience as ambassadors for their respective countries at the UN, as was the case of Kurt Waldheim and Javier Perez de Cuellar. This experience is of considerable relevance in ensuring that the incumbent does not harbor, or subsequently develop, a distorted view as to the nature of the post.

The UN Charter states that the secretary general is the "chief administrative officer" of the organization. His job is therefore to administer the UN Secretariat, that is to say to implement the decisions of the Security Council. Granted that the secretary general may "bring to the attention of the Security Council" matters that threaten "international peace", this is however a purely theoretical proposition, as the members are generally better informed than he is of threats to peace and security. Ultimately the secretary general has no power and has a level of authority that is inversely proportional to the importance of the issue he addresses. When the current secretary general stated that the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) was Britain's greatest gift to the world in the second half of the 20th century, the corporation rented space in the International Herald Tribune to advertise this endorsement. But when he appealed to Saddam Hussein or to the Greek Cypriots to accept his proposals, they thumbed their noses at him.

"The task of the UN secretary general," commented a government official, "is to do nothing but to do it well." Doing nothing "well" is not an easy task if taken seriously. It consists of administering the Secretariat within the narrow limits set by the various committees of the General Assembly, of building a good team, of listening to advisers but not being manipulated by them. The secretary general must not be unprincipled, but he must know how to manage his principles. Ultimately the post requires a diplomat who will not fall prey to the illusion of power, who can be decisive without being abrasive, and who will not seek in appearance refuge from substance.

The role of secretary general is thus not one for a politician, as Boutros-Ghali discovered to his chagrin. The Egyptian was an intellectual giant who did not suffer fools and made no secret of it. He played down the human cost of the siege of Sarajevo, which was front-page news, as compared with the genocide in Rwanda, which was not and which the West did not want to hear about. Ultimately he became an annoyance to the Americans, who vetoed his re-election in favor of the less abrasive Kofi Annan, whom they defined as the secretary general they could "work with".

While identifying a person with the right profile for UN secretary general is not a given, the nationality of the incumbent is a complicating factor. He cannot be a citizen of a major power, which in the case of the Asian group excludes a Chinese, a Japanese and an Indian. The same applies to countries in conflict or in a conflict area, which excludes a Sri Lankan, a Bangladeshi, a Myanmar national or a Korean. Malaysia is controversial and so is Indonesia, while the Philippines is considered too close to the US. With the countries of Indochina excluded because of their regimes, this only leaves Thailand and Singapore in the running.

Excluding front-line political figures, who might find the position too constraining, some observers believe that the ideal Asian candidate should have a profile that would correspond to Singapore's Tommy Koh, ambassador-at-large for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or Thailand's assistant private secretary to the king, Ambassador Tej Bunnag.

While there is a consensus in New York that any lobbying at this moment is premature, not to say counterproductive, the possibility should not be discounted that things might turn out differently.

Secretary General Annan had a blessed first term, but a second term that is turning into a nightmare. The mismanagement of the return of the UN to Iraq, alleged corruption in the oil-for-food program, and reported sexual harassment within the UN have coalesced in an unprecedented degree of staff antagonism toward Annan. The crisis has been compounded by what some have interpreted as an attempt by Annan to woo the John Kerry team with the hope of obtaining a third term if the Democrats had won the November US presidential election. The statement by Annan in September qualifying the Iraqi invasion as "illegal" was undoubtedly perceived by the administration of President George W Bush as a partisan one. That the former US ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, who had promoted Annan at the time of the Bill Clinton administration to the post of secretary general, was one of the main players on the Kerry foreign-policy team only fueled further suspicions in the Bush camp.

While Annan has unambiguously stated that he will finish his term, in the shadowy world of diplomatic doublespeak, the fact that the statement on Iraq was made at all raised eyebrows. Ultimately, all will depend on the Bush administration, on what the current investigation of the oil-for-food program will unearth and to what use the information will be put.

The current consensus is that Annan will finish his term, though hardly in a blaze of glory. In the remaining two years the Asian group needs to work carefully and discreetly toward identifying a candidate for the post of UN secretary general who corresponds to the profile for the job rather than to the image that has been created of it.

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Dec 1, 2004
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