The Next United Nations Secretary General Town Hall Debate

By Tim Olschewski, Associate at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

In 2016, the UN is searching for a successor to Ban Ki-Moon as the next Secretary General. Over the years, several initiatives have urged reforms regarding the UN Secretary General election process. In this spirit, the President of the General Assembly together with Al-Jazeera organized a town hall debate with the candidates on 12 July.

While Srgjan Kerim (Macedonia) and Mirsoslav Lajčák (Slovakia) could not attend, 10 candidates answered questions from Member States and Civil Society in two rounds with five candidates each. In the first, Natalia Gherman (Moldova), Vuk Jeremić (Serbia), Susana Malcorra (Argentina), António Guterres (Portugal) and Vesna Pusić (Croatia) laid out the reasons why they are best qualified for the job. In addition to general questions such as what kind of leadership is needed and which reform steps the UN should take, they also had to assess the situation in South Sudan and whether the International Criminal Court is discriminating against African countries. Unsurprisingly, the answers did not differ much. Pusić, for example, spoke about peace, development and human rights as her basic principles while Guterres wanted “to help reduce human suffering.” Malcorra mentioned that the UN requires a Secretary General with courage to lead and listen in order to take the UN to the “next level,” although what this “next level” might be remained vague.

Jeremić focused on reforms because “we live in an era of transformation,” where most of the challenges we face are of a global nature, and Gherman demanded “a better life for everybody,” reducing terrorism and ensuring human dignity. Due to these interchangeable answers, the applause of the audience depended on how the candidates performed and with which turn of phrase they explained their values and ideas. Here, Guterres and Pusić, clearly won the contest. Pusić, in particular, made a mark on the audience with her statement that “it is not enough to have a female Secretary General; it has to be a feminist.”

The second round included Irina Bokova (Bulgaria), Igor Lukšić (Montenegro), Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica), Danilo Turk (Slovenia) and Helen Clark (New Zealand). This session involved less generalities and one issue, in particular, where the candidates revealed different opinions: owning up to their mistakes.

Only Figueres raised her hand in support of the UN apologizing to Haiti for the import of cholera by peacekeeping forces in 2009. She also promised, in the case of her election, that the UN would help to eradicate that illness from Haiti. Helen Clark (UNDP Administrator during the incident), who also had to answer this specific question, noted that this case had been brought to court and one should not predetermine its outcome. Although, she admitted that the UN missed the chance to treat the cholera outbreak sufficiently. None of the other candidates chose to speak out on the issue. Figueres’ courage combined with the silence of the others made her the clear winner of this group according to the audience.

Even though Guterres and Figueres were the top performers in this debate, they have a huge shortcoming, in that they are not from Eastern Europe. If the Member States stick to regional rotation, as per tradition, the race remains open, especially considering the fact that the Member States, rather than the audience, have the final say and their choice will not necessarily be influenced by rhetoric or leadership skills.

The process itself is a milestone in the history of the United Nations and a win for Civil Society participation at this stage of individual candidate hustings and town hall hearings. There is a slightly better chance that in the next five years, even more transparent and democratic elections will take place, which is to be hoped for in this fragile but indispensable United Nations.

More information on the Civil Society campaign for the next United Nations Secretary General can be found at and the United Nations process for selecting the next Untied Nations Secretary General can be found at

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