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Kevin '17 and the race to be the next UN Secretary-General

Kevin '17 and the race to be the next UN Secretary-General
Published 10 Feb 2015 

In April last year, the Saturday Paper ran a story suggesting Kevin Rudd was looking to take on the world's most impossible job: UN Secretary-General. Nick Bryant quickly poured cold water on the idea, writing that 'the problem with this narrative is that it overlooks some nettlesome details.' Rudd's name, nevertheless, continues to circulate. He has taken up positions at the Asia Society and the International Peace Institute, both of which are based in New York. Many commentators take this is evidence of a discreet campaign.

However, the mechanics that govern the election of the next Secretary-General are still against Kevin '17.

Firstly, a candidate must be seen as P-5 'compatible'. The inevitable result of all P-5 consultations is a watered down compromise. In the case of the selection of the Secretary-General, this invariably results in the position going to the lowest common denominator. Secondly, the Secretary-General race is played out on a merry-go-round which shifts between the UN's five regional electoral groups. It is widely accepted that the next Secretary-General will be Eastern European. Thirdly, the successful candidate must be proficient in French. Fourthly, candidates require the support of their own country. During the last electoral race, South Korea allowed then-foreign minister Ban-Ki Moon to make ministerial visits to all fifteen members of the Security Council.

Based on these criteria, Kevin Rudd faces an uphill battle. However, if a suitable Eastern European candidate cannot be elected, then the field will open to candidates from all regional groupings. In that event, Rudd could emerge as a compromise candidate. Such a scenario has occurred previously when Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru was elected after a deadlocked Security Council failed to endorse Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania for the position. [fold]

If the field were to open up, Rudd would then come up against the likes of Helen Clark of New Zealand, Romano Prodi of Italy, José Manuel Barroso of Portugal and Dilma Roussef of Brazil. In a contest with Helen Clark, Rudd would struggle. Clark currently heads the UN Development Programme, she has the support of New Zealand and she would be the long overdue female Secretary-General that many have been advocating.

Yet in spite of the speculation around compromise candidates, a deadlock is still unlikely. In all likelihood a suitable Eastern European candidate will be found.

At this early stage, the front-runner is Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian diplomat and the current Director-General of UNESCO. She has received the nomination of Bulgaria, she is US and Russia 'compatible', speaks French and is UN literate. Other possible candidates include Vuk Jeremi? of Serbia, Miroslav Laj?ák and Jan Kubis of Slovakia, and Danilo Turk of Slovenia.

In the shadow of these typical UN machinations is an NGO-inspired campaign called '1 for 7 billion'. The campaign's message is: the impossible job of UN Secretary-General requires an exceptional leader, but 'the selection process is secretive and outdated. Just five countries hold sway over a decision that affects us all.' If member-states sign on to the campaign, there could at least be a more concerted public debate around the election of the next Secretary-General.

The modern UN is the ultimate bureaucracy. As chief administrative officer, the Secretary-General needs to be capable of managing the organisation's complex administrative arrangements. The Secretary-General should be UN literate and ideally have experience in the field as well as headquarters. For these reasons the Secretary-General should be drawn from inside the organisation – like Kofi Annan. Internal candidates know 'the system', they know its weaknesses, and they are better positioned to navigate the organisation's political idiosyncrasies. To cut a long story short, the next Secretary-General needs to possess the qualities of statesperson, administrator, innovator, reformer, and savvy political operator all in one.

Whether Kevin Rudd is that person remains to be seen.

Photo by Flickr user UN Geneva.

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