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Updated on 4 April 2017


Section 5:   Decisions to recommend appointments of Secretaries-General


Japanese letter addresses parameters of Secretary-General appointment process


On 1 February 2017, Koro Bessho, Permanent Representative of Japan, addressed identical letters to the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council President, by which he transmitted a note on the selection process for the Secretary-General (A/71/774-S/2017/93).  Bessho stressed that the note was written in his personal capacity, based on his experience during the 2016 appointment process, especially as Council President for July.  He expressed the hope that the note “will serve as a reference for future selection processes.”  Moreover, again in his personal capacity, he included “some suggestions for future consideration”.  At Bessho’s request, his letter and the attached note were circulated as documents of both the General Assembly and the Security Council.  This is in keeping with the fact that under Article 97 of the Charter, both organs play complementary roles in the appointment process.


There is a prior precedent for a Security Council member, who presided over the Council during a month in which the appointment process was underway, to draft, in his personal capacity, a note on the appointment process.  In early November 1996, the representative of Indonesia, Nugroho Wisnumurti, submitted to the other Council members a set of guidelines he prepared to facilitate the process.  After slight amendment, the guidelines were adopted at a luncheon which he hosted on 12 November.  Subsequently, on 31 December 1996, following the recommendation and appointment of Kofi Annan, the Council President for December, F. Paolo Fulci of Italy, made the “Wisnumurti Guidelines” public with the concurrence of all Council members.  However, Fulci did not do so by publishing them as an official Council document.  Rather, signing a transmittal letter in both his national capacity and as Council President for December 1996, Fulci sent the “Wisnumurti Guidelines”, inter alia, to the General Assembly President, the Secretary-General elect, the Security Council Affairs Division of the UN Secretariat, and the UN’s Dag Hammarskjöld Library.


The Bessho letter provides a precise and useful record of the timetable for the 2016 appointment process, starting with the adoption by the General Assembly on 11 September 2015 of its resolution 69/321 (see related article on this website).  Subsequently, on 15 December 2015, the Assembly and Council Presidents sent a joint letter, addressed to all UN Permanent Representatives and Permanent Observers, which detailed the next steps in the process (A/70/623-S/2015/988 – see related article).  Then, as set out by the Assembly President in a letter of 25 February 2016, for the first time in history, from 12 April 2016 onwards, the General Assembly held hearings with each of the official candidates.


In May, the action shifted to the Security Council.  According to the Bessho letter, in another historical first, at the stakeout on 25 May, the Council presidency of Egypt announced that the Council members would meet with any candidate who so requested.  On dates given in the Enclosure to the note, these so-called “informal meetings” were held at the Permanent Missions of successive Council presidencies.  Three meetings took place in June at the French Mission, nine in July at the Japanese Mission, and one in October at the Russian Mission.  Bessho states that the meetings were held in a closed setting in order to avoid duplication with, and to differentiate them from, the informal dialogues held with the candidates in the General Assembly.  However, Council members did agree to make public the holding of each “informal meeting”.  Bessho comments that these informal meetings “were crucial, as they enabled Council members to exchange views with individual candidates and to conduct a more substantial decision-making process.”


As regards the selection procedure, Bessho considers that a key factor in 2016 was determining how the “straw polls” would be conducted.  Such polls were first introduced in 1981, during the process in which Javier Pérez de Cuéllar was eventually appointed.  The “straw polls” were devised at that time as a means for Council members to gain an informal sense of where support for various candidates lay, particularly among the permanent members.  This avoided, at an early stage in the process, the conduct of formal votes for which each negative vote might have been considered a veto.  It was believed by some that a Secretary-General appointee who emerged from a process characterized by a number of vetoes might take office in a compromised position.


As President for June 2016, France, in consultation with the other Council members, formulated guidelines for the straw polls which were then conveyed to the Assembly President in an unpublished letter dated 15 June.  Although the conduct of straw polls in 2016 would generally follow the “Wisnumurti Guidelines”, one significant change was decided.  Whereas under the “Wisnumurti Guidelines” each straw poll ballot would “contain a column listing the name of candidate or candidates”, in the 2016 process, each ballot contained the name of one candidate only.  This, according to Bessho, was to ensure “that the pattern of voting did not reveal the Council member who had cast that particular ballot.”


The balloting began, under the Japanese presidency, on 21 July 2016.  Altogether, six straw polls were held, culminating in the final poll conducted on 5 October 2016.  This final poll confirmed that António Guterres had sufficient support to be unanimously recommended by the Council to the General Assembly.  By acclamation, the Council adopted a resolution to that effect the following day. 


It is interesting to compare the timespan of the straw poll process in 2016 with that of 2006, the last previously contested election.  In 2006, the first straw poll took place on 25 July, and the final poll on 2 October, with the formal adoption of a resolution occurring on 9 October.  Thus in 2006, the elapsed time between the first and last straw polls was 70 days, and in 2016, 77 days.  The entire process, from the first straw poll to the adoption of the resolution putting forward the Council’s recommendation took 77 days in 2006, and 78 days in 2016.


According to Bessho, two issues relating to the straw polls were difficult to resolve:  1)  When to introduce colour-coded ballots, which would differentiate between the permanent and elected members, while still keeping the identity of each voter confidential; and 2) Whether the Council would formally announce the results of each straw poll.


Because colour-coded ballots were used as of the fourth round of straw polls in 2006, some Council members advocated the same timing for 2016, whereas others supported introducing differentiated ballots as late in the process as possible.  In the end, colour-coded ballots were employed in 2016 only for the sixth, final ballot.


As to the issue of publicly announcing the results of each straw poll, although there was broad support on the Council for doing so, Bessho notes that consensus was not achieved on this point, either in June, when the Council President (France) wrote to the Assembly President, or when the issue was revisited in July.  This was despite appeals by the Assembly President, the press, and civil society that the Council officially announce the outcome of each round.  However, almost immediately after each straw poll, the results “were leaked in detail and were widely reported in the media.”  A similar experience occurred in 2006, according to former US Ambassador John Bolton.  He wrote that “Only two people per delegation were permitted in the room, in what turned out to be a vain attempt to keep the results of the straw poll private. . . . The actual votes appeared in the press within hours” (Surrender Is Not an Option, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2008, p. 283).


Bessho said that three main arguments were raised against the Council officially announcing the results of each straw poll.  The first was that not announcing the results would be in keeping with past practice.  The second was that the straw polls were a purely internal process, developed by the Council to assist it in reaching its official decision to recommend a candidate.  The third was that an official announcement might hurt the dignity of low-polling candidates, or candidates who had met with significant opposition. 


Bessho’s suggestions for improving the appointment process in the future can be grouped into five main areas:  1) timing of the appointment process; 2) the straw poll procedure, and alternatives to it; 3) the nomination (and withdrawal) of candidates; 4) meetings with candidates; and 5) narrowing the field of candidates.


1)  Bessho recommends that the Security Council might find it useful to decide upon basic principles and rules, and to set these in writing in a letter to the Assembly President “by the end of January of the final year of the mandate of the incumbent Secretary-General.”  The first round of votes, he proposes, should take place in June of the incumbent’s final year.  Bessho does not recommend an ideal target date for completing the appointment process.


2)  According to Bessho’s letter, “The crucial part of the selection process that needs to be reviewed is the issue of the straw polls”, both their confidentiality and their rationale.  For Bessho, the disadvantages of the straw polls outweigh their advantages.  Consequently, he proposes a return to the system of official votes conducted at private Security Council meetings.  Such votes, he recalls, were used by the Council prior to 1981.  He appears to suggest, however, that colour-coding would still be a possibility if the Council members agree to revert from straw polls to official votes.  He writes that “The introduction of ‘colour-coded’ ballots should be considered a ‘procedural matter’ in accordance with Article 27, paragraph 2, of the Charter.”  Bessho also suggests that after each round of voting, the Council members should discuss whether to proceed to the adoption of an official resolution of recommendation, with the ultimate decision being in the hands of the President. 


Should the Council decide to implement his suggestion in the future, it will be necessary for it to decide whether or not negative votes by any permanent member, in the balloting prior to the adoption of the official resolution, will be considered vetoes.  This will be a sensitive question, given the present public interest in tallying the total number of vetoes cast by each permanent member (see related article).  In this connection, it will also be recalled that the Council adopted decisions beginning in its first year of existence until 1964 without numbering them as “resolutions”, a process which was only undertaken retroactively in 1964.   


As noted by Bessho, under Rule 55 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure, each formal private meeting convened for the purpose of balloting would require the subsequent issuance of a communiqué.  It is his view that such communiqués should convey the results of each private vote.  (This was done in the past with regard to the outcome of voting on candidates conducted at the 613th and 3714th Council meetings, in 1953 and 1996, respectively.)  He recommends that the Council President should also make the results of each vote public.  Both measures would avoid the widespread criticism of the Council’s lack of official transparency during the straw poll process in 2016.


3)  The joint letter by the Assembly and Council Presidents left open some possibilities regarding candidacies which Bessho recommends be addressed.  It is his view that “All candidatures should be submitted, in principle, before the first round of voting takes place.”  He also contends that a Member State should be able to nominate only one candidate.  This point was left unresolved by the joint letter, which ambiguously referred to “Member States presenting candidates”.  Bessho also opines that a candidate who “loses nomination by a Member State should be automatically eliminated from the process”.  (It will be recalled that in 2016, Bulgaria nominated a second candidate without a formal withdrawal by the first, whose name continued to appear on the Council’s straw poll ballots.  This was despite the fact that the Bulgarian letter specified that the second candidate had become the Government’s “sole and unique candidate” (S/2016/829).)  Neither the joint letter nor the Bessho letter specifically addresses the provision in the “Wisnumurti Guidelines” that a Member State may nominate a candidate “other than its own national”, but this possibility seemingly is not excluded.


The joint letter did not address the withdrawal procedure, but Bessho points to “a tacit understanding” among Council members that a candidature would be withdrawn following a written notification from the candidate and the nominating State.  He points out that in fact this procedure was followed in the case of the three candidates who voluntarily withdrew in 2016.  Bessho recommends that explicit agreement on the withdrawal procedure should be reached for future appointment processes. 


4)  The meetings of candidates in the Assembly, and with Council members, have been widely viewed as successful, and Bessho recommends that such meetings continue to be part of future appointment processes.  He does, however, differ from both the joint letter, and the original understanding in the Council, by stating that such meetings should be mandatory.  He recommends that “A candidate would be eligible to receive votes in the Security Council only after he or she has gone through the processes in the General Assembly and in the Security Council, such as the informal dialogue of the General Assembly and the informal meeting of the Council”.  Nevertheless, as a practical matter, even if such dialogues were left voluntary, it is hard to imagine a serious candidate choosing to forgo them.


5)  The issue raised by the Bessho letter which did not, during the 2016 process, receive much public attention was that of narrowing the field of candidates.  Bessho notes that in all appointment processes to date, the question of withdrawing has been left to “the independent decision of each candidate”.  However, the fact that 10 candidates remained in the 2016 process irrespective of their standing, in Bessho’s view, “did not help the Security Council in its decision-making process”.  He proposes the introduction of “clear-cut mandatory conditions in order to automatically eliminate candidates who underperform”.  This could be done, he suggests, by a) allowing only candidates obtaining a minimum number of positive votes to proceed to the next round; b) disqualifying candidates with a certain number of negative votes; c) limiting the number of candidates who may be retained from one round to the next; or d) eliminating the two lowest performing candidates following each vote, so long as there are more than five candidates remaining.  Of these options, his own preference is the latter.


While there may be merit to considering a mandatory, rather than voluntary, withdrawal of low-preforming candidates, it is believed that some Council members would hesitate to prematurely eliminate a candidate who might eventually serve as a compromise nominee, in the event that higher-performing candidates remained blocked by one or more permanent members.


Left unaddressed by the Bessho letter are two questions which are likely to arise more insistently in future appointment processes:  The first is whether the Council should put forward more than one name to the General Assembly.  The second is the possibility of either the Council recommending, or the Assembly deciding upon, a single seven-year term of office.  This would differ from the current practice of the Council recommending, and the Assembly agreeing to, a renewable five-year term.  However, these questions are arguably matters of substance, and therefore would seem to lie outside the more procedural concerns covered by the Bessho letter. 


Although this is not claimed by the Bessho letter, the procedures it records as having been used in 2016 in effect override a number of the specific modalities set out in the “Wisnumurti Guidelines”.  Therefore, it would be useful for the Council ultimately to clarify the extent to which the procedures followed by the Council in 2016 have superseded the “Wisnumurti Guidelines”, or whether some of those guidelines still remain valid. 


One interesting question to reflect upon, as the Security Council moves forward to consider future alterations to its processes, is whether the informal release of the straw poll outcomes in 2016 affected voting by Council members on subsequent ballots, and thereby contributed to the final outcome.


(This update supplements pages 404 to 415 of the book.)




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