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Who will be the next UN Secretary-General?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-02

It would unkind to be sceptical about all the diplomatic delight expressed this week by Asean leaders over a consensus candidate from Thailand for the post of United Nations Secretary-General when the job opens up next year. Asean's nominee, Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, is well regarded for his acumen on finance and energy, his former portfolios.

But his nomination is not going to automatically translate into possession of the US$250,000-a-year job currently held by Mr Kofi A. Annan of Ghana. That's because, Asean's unity on a candidate aside, only one country can effectively push through an electable candidate - the United States. And Mr Sathirathai has scarcely figured on Washington's radar, or on those of the other four members of the UN Security Council who can veto any nomination - Britain, China, France and Russia.

Typically, candidates whose nominations are announced far in advance of the election in the Council fail to win the prize. The late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, nominally a citizen of Iran, is a case in point. A former UN Higher Commissioner for Refugees, he was considered a shoo-in for the secretary-general's job back in the 1980s. He lobbied hard for it. Celebratory soirees were thrown for him. But at the last minute, China decided to veto his candidacy. Mr Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru - a widely ridiculed figure at the UN - got the job, and went on to confirm his poor credentials during his tenure. Prince Sadruddin, whom I knew well personally, was a broken man after his public humiliation.

In another, more recent episode involving the UN Development Programme - which dispenses some US$1 billion annually in technical aid to poor countries - the European Union had unanimously nominated Mr Poul Nielson, Denmark's Minister of Development Aid, for the agency's top job. But then US Vice President Al Gore drove through the nomination of a close friend, Mr Mark Malloch Brown of Britain. Mr Malloch Brown, who is not quite 50 yet, is now mentioned as a successor to Mr James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, when the latter's second five-year term expires next year.

Mr Malloch Brown has also figured in the speculation for the UN secretary-general's job. Since he has cultivated strong relationships with key officials in the Bush administration - in addition to his continuing friendships in the Democratic Party - many diplomats view Mr Malloch Brown as a viable candidate to succeed Mr Annan, who's also his friend.

Friendships, not necessarily professional qualifications, usually influence who gets the UN's top job. For example, Mr Annan's predecessor, the irascible Mr Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, alienated many top officials in the Clinton government. Mr Annan - mainly through his closest advisor, Under Secretary General Shashi Tharoor, an Indian national - made it a point to develop close friendships in Washington. Mr Boutros-Ghali failed to win a second five-year term, and Mr Annan got the job. He's now into his second term.

He's also known to privately favour the 47-year-old Mr Tharoor - a best-selling novelist in his own right who formerly worked for the UN in Singapore - to become the next secretary-general. At the UN, in fact, Mr Tharoor is known as Mr Annan's alter ego. He's also a familiar fixture at both Republican and Democratic events, and he's close to the top diplomats of the Security Council's permanent members.

What may work against Mr Tharoor is the fact that he's an Indian. Candidates from big countries ordinarily don't get the top UN job. Besides, India's rival, Pakistan, may oppose his candidacy. However, because Pakistan is considered a client state of the US, Washington, regardless of who the next US president is - Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democrat, or the Republican incumbent, Mr George W. Bush of Texas - would presumably deal with any potential opposition from Islamabad.

Like Mr Tharoor, another high UN official has long been mentioned as a candidate for secretary-general. He's Mr Anwarul Karim Chowdhury of Bangladesh, currently the Under Secretary-General for the Least Developed States. He was reportedly Asia's choice when Mr Annan sought a second term in 2000; but in a private deal, Mr Chowdhury pledged his support to Mr Annan in exchange for reassurance that the popular Ghanaian - who subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize - would not seek a third term.

Singapore's former envoy to the UN, Mr Kishore Mahbubani, may also have been a victim of the early-name-floating syndrome regarding the secretary-general's job. Now dean of the newly established Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, he was widely regarded in New York's powerful - and gossipy - media circles as a leading candidate.

There was little doubt that he possessed superior intellectual and diplomatic abilities, which he displayed when Singapore was elected to the Security Council for a two-year term during Mr Mahbubani's tenure as his country's ambassador to the UN. And there are many seasoned diplomats in New York who believe that, regardless of Asean's endorsement of Mr Sathirathai, Mr Mahbubani may still prevail.

Singaporean candidates, in fact, have been mentioned for many years in the secretary-general stakes. For example, Ambassador Tommy Koh - who was credited with making the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro a success by getting world leaders to endorse the interlinked concepts of environmental protection, economic security and social justice - was expected to replace Mr Boutros-Ghali. But in a widely hailed demonstration of loyalty to Mr Boutros--Ghali, Mr Koh reportedly declined to challenge the Egyptian.

And more recently, the name of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's name had also cropped up at the 59th General Assembly currently in session in New York.

But why are only Asian names being bruited about for the secretary-general's job? That's because, traditionally at least, the job supposedly rotates between regions. There's nothing in the UN Charter that requires such rotation, of course. Indeed, three Europeans have held the job since the UN was created in 1945; two Africans - Mr Annan and Mr Boutros-Ghali (because Egypt is nominally considered part of the African continent) - but only one Asian, Mr U Thant of Burma, and one Latin American, Mr Perez de Cuellar, have been secretaries-general.

In fact, the Asean candidate's success is by no means assured. The Eastern Europeans are increasingly clamouring for the secretary-general's job. And so is the influential women's lobby in the US and Europe. Its candidate is Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland, a Norwegian physician who formerly headed the World Health Organisation in Geneva, and before that the Brundtland Commission, which led to the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil.

Still another woman whose candidacy is being increasingly promoted is another Singaporean, Mrs Noeleen Heyzer. She's currently the executive director of the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem), where she's energised a moribund institution.

There's also Dr Nafis Sadik of Pakistan, formerly head of the UN Population Fund, who has a formidable reputation for being a fundraiser - something that the financially strapped UN could use at this juncture.

There are many well-placed US officials who feel that Senator Hillary Clinton, the former US First Lady, would be an ideal secretary-general, especially in view of her involvement with children's and women's issues. The name of her husband, former US president Bill Clinton, has also cropped up, as has that of current US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. But they are all Americans, who may not be acceptable to the other Security Council permanent members.

It's becoming what high rollers call a crapshoot. Anyone can win in the end. My own guess this early in the game? Mr Kishore Mahbubani in the fifth round of voting in the Security Council. In the end, politics at the UN is like politics everywhere else: it's a matter of how likeable a candidate is and how much good will he or she generates. Mr Mahbubani made a lot of friends for Singapore while he was at the UN, and those friendships are likely to endure. He also happens to be extremely qualified for the job.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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