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The UN is more arcane than you think. How one diplomat is changing that.

A path to progress

Mogens Lykketoft, who took over as president of the UN General Assembly a year ago, says he was 'shocked' by the backdoor method of choosing a new secretary general.

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President of the UN General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft (r.) listens as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon address the opening of the General Assembly high-level meeting on ending AIDS on Wednesday June 8, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Bebeto Matthews/AP

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For seven decades, electing the United Nations secretary general has been a process nearly as arcane and closed as choosing the Pope.

But this year, as part of a bid to make the massive bureaucracy more accessible, aspirants to the post offered their platforms and answered audience questions at the General Assembly hall in New York.

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“That event was one remarkable piece of a new approach to electing the secretary general that really is revolutionary,” says Edward Luck, an international relations expert at Columbia University who has been closely associated with UN policymaking for more than three decades. “It’s historic change that I would not have predicted a year ago would happen.”

The United Nations – which rose from the ashes of World War II with the objective of resolving the world’s conflicts and advancing global prosperity – is being buffeted by the same winds of global change and demands for accountability and relevance affecting other institutions of collective governance, from the European Union to Washington.

And in response, the global institution reviled in some corners as “world government” and often criticized – even by supporters – as hopelessly bureaucratic and removed from people’s lives, is making strides to open up and demonstrate a new responsiveness.

The secretary-general election process that for the first time will have global public input is just one example. Millions of people were consulted in a process that last year delivered the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. And a “UN Volunteers” initiative that matches volunteers with computer and social media skills from around the world to grassroots organizations involved in UN development programs – a kind of cyber Peace Corps – is expanding.

“There really is an expectation now that the business of governance and policymaking should be carried out publicly and transparently,” Dr. Luck says. “The idea that some group of elites should go off in a corner and make all the decisions is so rejected by so many people now that the status quo just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

The Danish diplomat behind reform

The election of UN secretary general is the epitome of the closed-door, backroom selection process that now clashes with a world of expanding democracy and public participation and demands for transparency. The current officeholder, Ban Ki-moon, is just the eighth person to hold the post since 1945.

Acting more on tradition than on law or even policy, the 15-member Security Council, led by its five permanent members – the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and France – has until now horse-traded over an unofficial list of candidates before submitting one name to the General Assembly of the world’s nations to rubber stamp.

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“It’s basically been a decision made in the Security Council, mostly between the permanent members – and in fact maybe only three of them,” says Mogens Lykketoft, the president of the General Assembly and the individual many at the UN credit with almost single-handedly delivering a more open and broadly consultative election process for secretary general.

The Danish diplomat says he was “shocked” by the anachronistic “closed-door” means of selecting the UN’s leader when he took up his post a year ago. But he says he also knew that the global institution could do better.

More than anything, Mr. Lykketoft says he was inspired by the process of worldwide consultation and on-the-ground public hearings and social media discussions that the UN’s 193 member states had implemented to arrive at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“That was really the first bottom-up process in the UN, with something like 8 million people around the globe taking part in the discussions and deliberations,” he says. “That was an inspiration for me.”

The more inclusive process “no doubt” contributed to “more ambitious goals” that are more relevant to people’s lives, Lykketoft says. And that convinced him that the election of the UN leader had to change and at least start to enter the 21st century.

Lykketoft took demands for greater transparency and General Assembly involvement in the review of candidates to the Security Council. The result was a revised system that created a series of two-hour “dialogues” where General Assembly members met with each of the 12 official candidates nominated by member states.

The initiative also led to the recent “global town hall meeting” with candidates that was held in New York but televised and carried over social media platforms to a global audience estimated in the millions. 

Nothing guarantees that the Security Council will alter its closed-door practices when it settles on a candidate over the next few weeks, Lykketoft says. But he also suspects that the council – and even its big powers, the US, Russia, and China – have gotten the message that the UN must become more transparent and accountable.

“I do think that if this new process of consultation leads the members of the General Assembly to communicate the names of a few favorites who have stood out, the potential is there for the Security Council to settle on a different candidate than it would have otherwise,” Lykketoft says.

UN culture at odds with global trends

Indeed many UN officials and diplomats appear to be increasingly aware that the global institution sticks to its distant ways at its own peril. The halls at headquarters and other UN agencies were abuzz with discussions of Sarah Palin when the former US vice-presidential candidate hailed Britain’s vote to leave the European Union as “akin to our own Declaration of Independence” and added, “May UN shackles be next on the chopping block.”

But others insist there is also a groundswell of global support for new ways to make the UN more relevant and draw its work on global issues – like development, climate change, and attending to displaced populations – closer to people.

“I see every day how more people from every part of the world want to connect with UN activities and get involved in the issues it addresses,” says Richard Dictus, executive coordinator of the UN Volunteers Program based in Bonn, Germany. The organization manages 7,000 volunteers spread over 30 UN agencies, but is seeing what Mr. Dictus calls “a popular demand to engage with our world, with our United Nations” in the rapid growth of a new “online volunteers” program.

Noting that nearly 500,000 people – particularly from developing countries – have registered to share their time and expertise with UN agencies and affiliated organizations through online connections, Dictus says the program is an example of how the UN is developing new ways to connect with people around the world.

“We are all aware of the tendency we see in some places today to turn inward and move away from collective action, but we also see that so many people realize the world’s problems will only be solved by global engagement, and that’s where the UN comes in,” Dictus says.

“It’s very much an issue of global solidarity,” he says. “That’s the motivation people are feeling that I think the UN is trying to encourage.”