Security Council Discord Expected Over Annan's Successor

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - The search for a successor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is giving rise to differences within the Security Council, with Russia and China backing the customary procedure of rotating the post among the world's regions, while the U.S. questions the need to do so.

Annan's second five-year term only ends in December, but the U.S. would like the decision on the next secretary-general to be settled by mid-year - before the world body gets caught up in September's annual General Assembly session, and to avoid a rushed transition.

The choice of the body's eighth secretary-general is considered particularly crucial at a time the U.N. is trying to reform itself after having its reputation battered over the oil-for-food and other scandals.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton made clear last week that the U.S. was looking for "the best-qualified individual" for the world's top diplomatic job, irrespective of origin.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, he acknowledged that the "conventional wisdom" at the U.N. was that it was Asia's turn to fill the post, but said the U.S. had for decades not recognized the principle of geographic rotation.

Bolton's British counterpart, Emyr Jones Parry, is also on the record as saying: "We are looking for the best person capable of meeting the demands of the job, including the capability to lead the reform of the U.N."

Following Bolton's remarks, China and Russia were quick to reiterate their views that the next secretary-general should, indeed, be an Asian.

As permanent members of the council along with the U.S., Britain and France, Russia and China have the power to veto any candidate of whom they don't approve. The Security Council nominates a new secretary-general, and once it agrees on a candidate the name is submitted to the 191-member General Assembly for endorsement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a press briefing in Beijing that Asia had not held the post for 34 years, a reference to U. Thant of Burma, who was secretary-general from 1961-1971.

The view was echoed by Russia's U.N. ambassador Andrei Denisov, who said it was Asia's turn. "We prefer to follow the traditional way of tackling the issue."

Denisov also said there was no hurry, as starting discussions on the matter now would further delay efforts to reform the U.N.

China and Russia both called for Asian nations to reach consensus on a candidate.

So far, Asians have failed to get behind a single nominee. Among those who have either voiced interest in the post or seen their names come up are South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki-moon; former U.N. undersecretary-general for disarmament Jayantha Dhanapala, a Sri Lankan; deputy Thai prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai; and East Timorese foreign minister Jose Ramos-Horta.

Why Asia?

In fact, the top U.N. post has not strictly followed any kind of rotation. Since 1945, secretary-generals have come, in consecutive order, from Europe, Europe, Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Africa.

The five unofficial regional groups at the U.N. are Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Western Europe and Others (WEOG), the group including the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Of the five, only Eastern Europe has never filled the secretary-general post, a fact pointed out again by Bolton last week.

"If you talk about rotation among geographical groups, it would seem before you get a second Asian secretary-general, maybe somebody from Eastern or Central Europe ought to have a chance," he said.

That view is not shared by others, including diplomats from the developing world, who argue that in the post-Cold War era, the rationale for distinguishing between Western Europe and the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe has fallen away.

"Three of the six secretary-generals to date have been European, and only one Asian, despite Asia accounting for 60 percent of the world's population," Ramesh Thakur, senior vice rector of the U.N. University in Tokyo, wrote in an op-ed last week.

"Can countries claim to be Eastern European for this purpose while also clamoring for membership of the European Union?"

Two names from Eastern Europe that have come up frequently as possible candidates are both close allies of the U.S. and supported the war in Iraq -- the former Polish president, Alexsander Kwasniewski, and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

Russian envoy Denisov said he had not heard any "practical proposals" from eastern Europe.

Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Thomas Pickering has also argued against regional rotation in selecting a new secretary-general.

In an article published by the U.N. Association of the U.S. late last year, he said giving geographical regions "turns" had overly politicized the process, both inside countries and within regions.

One possible way around the problem, Pickering said, would be for the Security Council to open up the process, perhaps by forming a nominating committee comprising former presidents from all regions or other notable figures with reputations for integrity, to put forward names for the council to consider.

Meanwhile, some women's groups are pushing for a female secretary-general for the first time, a drive that could boost the Latvian president.

The campaign is being led by Equality Now, a New York-based international organization, which has released a list of 18 women it said were among many suitable candidates.

Representing all five U.N. regional groups, the women included Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader under house arrest in Burma; and number of current and former U.N. officials such as U.N. Population Fund head Thoraya Obaid (Saudi Arabia) and High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour (Canada).

"Every year the General Assembly adopts a resolution ... calling for the achievement of gender balance in the staffing of the [U.N.] secretariat," the group said in a statement, adding that the election of a new secretary-general provided an opportunity to implement commitments made in past U.N. conferences on women.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow