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Updated on 29 October 2017


Section 5:   Decisions to recommend appointments of Secretaries-General


ACT pushes for early action to strengthen the process of appointing Secretaries-General


On 5 October 2017, the representative of Estonia,[1] on behalf of the 25 members of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group (ACT), transmitted to the Secretary-General, as well as the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council.  Annexed to his letter was a Note which he hoped would “serve as a reference for future selection processes” of Secretaries-General (A/72/514-S/2017/846). 


The Note, entitled, “Lessons learned on the selection and appointment of the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations in 2015 and 2016”, begins by observing that prior to the most recent appointment,


“Member States, parliamentarians and civil society organizations from across the globe argued that

a process conducted in secret by the Security Council was no longer appropriate and would not

guarantee the selection of the best possible candidate.” 


After summarizing innovations in 2016 such as “declared candidatures” and “open hearings”, the Note states that ACT is “convinced that the standards achieved and the principles set out in the resolutions on the revitalization of the General Assembly should be applied and strengthened in all future selection processes.”  To this end, the Note suggests a number of proposals.


The ACT Note is the second major initiative by one or more Member States to put into writing, well in advance of the next appointment exercise, their evaluation of the 2015-2016 process and their recommendations for addressing outstanding issues.  The first such document was the letter of 1 February 2017, written in his national capacity by Koro Bessho, Permanent Representative of Japan, who served as Council President in July, one of the key months of the 2016 selection process (A/71/774-S/2017/93) (see the related article on this website).


One of the important proposals in the new ACT Note is a fairly precise “indicative timeline” for each appointment process, as follows:   


• In October of the year preceding appointment, a joint letter from the Assembly and Council Presidents encouraging the nomination of qualified candidates should be sent to all UN Member States;

• 1 April of the appointment year should be the deadline for the submission of candidatures, with the “early presentation” of candidates encouraged so as to allow sufficient time for full evaluation;

• By the end of June of the appointment year, the hearings in the Assembly with all candidates should be completed; and

• 1 October should be the deadline for the Council to make its recommendation, and for the Assembly to adopt its resolution appointing the next Secretary-General.


Bessho, in his letter, also suggested some aspects of establishing a timeline.  He recommended that the Security Council might find it useful to decide upon basic principles and rules, and to set those in writing in a letter to the Assembly President by the end of January of the appointment year.  Moreover, it is his view that “All candidatures should be submitted, in principle, before the first round of voting takes place.”  Since he proposed that the first round of votes should occur in June of the incumbent’s final year, that would be the deadline he supports for the submission of candidacies, whereas, as noted above, ACT recommends a deadline of 1 April for such submissions.  The gap in time between the Bessho and ACT timelines is narrower as concerns the hearings in the Assembly.  Bessho proposes the completion of those hearings by early June, while ACT recommends that they should finish by the end of June.  Unlike ACT, Bessho does not recommend an overall target date for completing the appointment process.


Regarding the conduct of the Assembly’s hearings, the ACT Note suggests increasing the time available to each candidate to respond to questions, and having the Assembly President play an active role as moderator, “including by seeking to avoid the duplication of questions.”  


The Note also puts forward two additional, and potentially controversial, recommendations regarding the Assembly’s role:


1)  “The ACT Group encourages the consideration of possible ways to assess the level of General Assembly support for the candidates throughout the process.”  This suggestion implies informal, or even formal, polling in the Assembly to discern those candidates with the widest standing among the UN membership as whole.  This could set the stage for a potential clash, should support build in the Security Council for candidates other than those who, through  polling in the Assembly, are seen as having the backing of a majority of Member States.  In the case of such a discrepancy, Assembly members might cite the results of their own polling process as a basis for refusing to appoint a candidate recommended by the Council.  Alternatively, should the Assembly ultimately assent to the Council’s recommendation of a candidate other than one who demonstrated majority support through an Assembly polling process, that Secretary-General would take office in a weakened position. 


2)  “The ACT Group recalls the prerogative of the General Assembly to draft the resolution for the appointment of the Secretary-General and proposes that the draft resolution be finalized at the Assembly’s earliest convenience to ensure that the process is not linked to any individual candidate.”  The draft resolution by which General Assembly, in 2016, decided to appoint António Guterres departed from previous practice in that it was submitted by the Assembly President.  Formerly, such draft resolutions had been co-sponsored by all Council members in their national capacities, or by the countries chairing each of the UN regional groups, or both (see, for example, A/ 65/L.80).  Nonetheless, the 2016 resolution submitted by the Assembly President was drafted after adoption by the Council of its recommendation, and the Assembly draft incorporated all the substantive elements contained in the Council’s resolution.  The fact that ACT is now proposing that the Assembly’s resolution be drafted prior to receiving the Council’s recommendation suggests that ACT envisages some degree of change to the contents of the Assembly resolution.


One aspect of the Assembly’s customary resolution is that it has confirmed the usual provision in the Council’s resolutions that a Secretary-General should be appointed for a term of five years.  For the Assembly to draft its own resolution prior to receiving the Council’s recommendation opens the possibility of changing this term of office.  In fact, later in the Note, ACT states that it “would like to continue the discussion and see an informed decision taken within the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the Work of the General Assembly by all States on the term of office of the Secretary-General, including the proposal to establish a single, non-renewable term for future Secretaries-General.”  This sentence in the ACT Note suggests an evolution in the group’s position on term lengths.  At a panel discussion on the “Process of selection and appointment of the next Secretary-General” convened by ACT on 30 June 2015, the representative of Estonia stated that at that point in time, ACT had not taken a position on the length of the term of office. 


As to the qualifications for the office, the ACT Note states that


“In identifying the best candidate for appointment, personal qualification is the most important

criterion for appointment, while due regard should be given to fair geographical distribution through

rotation and to gender balance.”


It is noteworthy that the ACT Note places “geographical distribution” before “gender balance”, since during the 2015-2016 appointment process, “gender balance” was generally given priority.  General Assembly resolution 69/321, adopted in September 2015, stressed “the need to ensure equal and fair distribution based on gender and geographical balance”.  The priority given to gender balance was even more marked in the joint letter of December 2015 from the Assembly and Council Presidents to all UN Member States (S/2015/988). That letter spoke of the “need to guarantee equal opportunities for women and men”, and then encouraged Member States “to consider presenting women, as well as men, candidates for the position of Secretary-General”.  The letter gave far less emphasis to geographical balance.  In it, the two Presidents merely “note the regional diversity in the selection of previous Secretaries-General”.  The principle of geographical distribution played no real role in the 2016 appointment process,[2] and some have questioned whether it ever again will.  In this context, discouraged countries from Eastern Europe, the only region which has never produced a Secretary-General, may wonder whether this reordering of the two considerations in the ACT Note offers at least a slight hope that a candidate from their region might have a chance of succeeding in a future election. 


The ACT Note promotes a considerable role for civil society in future appointment processes.  It welcomes “the value added by various stakeholders, including civil society, in searching for suitable candidates on their own initiative, as an input for consideration by Member States.”  Moreover, the Note encourages civil society to “continue its efforts towards ensuring that the best possible candidate will be appointed, for example by looking into the practice of existing panels of highly regarded individuals who review candidates and their qualifications for similar senior positions, in order to assist Member States in their assessments.”  ACT further calls for ensuring that civil society can continue to actively participate in the informal dialogues and meetings with the candidates, and encourages candidates to interact with civil society organizations.


On the subject of the interaction between the Security Council and the General Assembly over the appointment, ACT believes that it “needs to be improved to live up to the expectations of the membership and the new standard of openness and transparency.”  In that regard, the Note “encourages the Security Council to review its working methods, building on the discussions held among Council members during the latest selection process.”  


There is one point made in the ACT Note which is possibly misleading, and that is its statement that “The ACT Group recalls the collective responsibility of the Security Council to reach consensus on a recommendation to the General Assembly for the appointment of the Secretary-General” (our emphasis).  While reaching consensus on a single candidate is of course highly desirable politically, and gives each new Secretary-General an optimal start in the office, it is not a legal requirement of the selection process.  It is not stipulated in Article 97 of the UN Charter which sets out, in minimalistic terms, the requirement that the Secretary-General “shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”  Nor is consensus required under Rule 48 of the Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure, the only Rule relating to the appointment process.  By longstanding practice, the Council has decided its recommendation in the format of a resolution.  That being the case, it is the Charter’s Article 27(3) provisions with regard to voting on substantive matters which apply to the Council’s decision, that is, the recommendation can be adopted by a minimum of nine affirmative votes, provided no veto is cast. 


It is also in the context of Article 27(3) that ACT’s recommendation on discouraging the use of colour-coded ballots during straw polls should be considered.  The Note sets out ACT’s belief that “the use of colour-coded ballots during straw polling should be discouraged and the equal rights and role of all Council members in the process should be upheld.”  Realistically, the outsized influence the permanent members have over the appointment process because of the veto is not something which the elimination of colour-coded ballots will be able to adjust.  However, in the Council members’ own discussion in 2016, it was felt by many that postponing the use of colour-coded ballots was helpful in gauging generally the depth of support for each candidate, putting aside until later a consideration of the potential for the casting of one or more vetoes.  Bessho takes a different approach from ACT, in that he calls for the elimination of the straw polls altogether, in favour of a return to the system of official votes conducted at private Council meetings, as was done prior to 1981.  However, he leaves open the possibility that the use in official voting of colour-coded ballots could be considered by the Council. 


The ACT Note and the Bessho letter agree on the need for regular public updates by the Council on developments in its nominating process.  For ACT, this could be accomplished by “regular public briefings by the Security Council”.  Bessho also recommends that the Council President should make the results of each vote public.  Moreover, one aspect of his advocacy of a return to a system of official votes in private meetings is that this could give written form to such updates through the official communiqués which the Council, under Rule 55 of its Provisional Rules of Procedure, is required to issue after each formal private meeting.  Both the ACT and Bessho proposals reflect widespread dissatisfaction over the fact that in 2016, the Council was not able to reach consensus among its members to officially announce the results of each straw poll.  This situation was made more unsatisfactory by the fact that almost immediately after each straw poll, the results were, as described by Bessho, “leaked in detail and were widely reported in the media.” 


The ACT Group believes that all of the provisions in its Note “should apply in the event that an incumbent Secretary-General seeks or is proposed for reappointment.”  ACT also believes that the oath of office of the Secretary-General should be updated.  That oath, as delivered by the present Secretary-General on 12 December 2016, has been as follows:


“I, António Guterres, solemnly swear to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions

entrusted to me as Secretary-General of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate

my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions

in regard to the performance of my duties from any Government or other authority external to the Organization.”  (A/71/PV.60)


One of the possible goals of ACT in wanting to update the oath of office might be to make more emphatic the Secretary-General’s independence in selecting senior officials.  In this connection, the ACT Note states that


“In line with the provisions of the Charter and the oath taken by the Secretary- General, the ACT Group

believes that the Secretary-General should exercise complete independence in the selection of senior

officials, with due regard to geographical and gender balance.  Recalling General Assembly resolution

70/305, the appointment process of the executive heads and the Senior Management Group of the

Organization should be inclusive and transparent and there should not be a monopoly on senior posts

by nationals of any State or group of States.  In that regard, the ACT Group proposes that the principles

governing the appointment of executive heads and the Senior Management Group of the organization

be formally established.”


These proposed reforms are aimed at ending the alleged promises by some candidates to accord high-level posts in the UN system to the nationals of key Council members in return for their electoral support.  At the ACT meeting convened on 30 June 2017, Mary Robinson of The Elders spoke reprovingly of this “unseemly practice”.  


Three proposals were made in the Bessho letter that were not addressed in the ACT Note:  1) that a Member State should be allowed to nominate only one candidate; 2) that there should be an agreed procedure by which a submitted candidacy would be withdrawn; and 3) that “clear-cut mandatory conditions” should be introduced “in order to automatically eliminate candidates who underperform” in Council balloting. 


Left unaddressed in either the ACT Note or the Bessho letter is the charged question of whether, as advocated by some, the Council should put forward more than one name to the General Assembly. 


While the Security Council is not likely to engage in detailed consideration of its practices until closer to the next appointment process, the process is already under discussion among members of the Assembly.  The ACT Note makes clear the group is actively promoting such consideration when it affirms that “negotiations on outstanding issues” with regard to Assembly’s role in the process “must be carried through without delay in the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the Work of the General Assembly, notwithstanding the actual selection cycle.” (our emphasis)


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


[1] Estonia, with Costa Rica, co-chairs ACT’s sub-group on appointing the Secretary-General.

[2] Of the nine Secretaries-General to date, António Guterres (Portugal) is the fourth Secretary-General from Western Europe, after Trygve Lie (Norway), Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), and Kurt Waldheim (Austria).  Two Secretaries-General, U Thant (Burma) and Ban Ki-moon (Republic of Korea), have come from the Asia-Pacific region.  Two incumbents have come from Africa, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) and Kofi Annan (Ghana).  One Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru), has come from Latin America and the Caribbean.


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