The next UN secretary-general: A candidate vision cheat sheet

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 12 April 2016

Devex combed through each U.N. secretary-general candidate’s vision statement to get a better look at how each plans to address some of the important issues facing the world — and particularly the U.N. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / United Nations

The international development community is in for another first in the history of the United Nations.

The nine official candidates vying for the position of the next U.N. secretary-general will introduce themselves to the world as they present their vision for the global body and answer hot topic questions presented by member state representatives and civil society actors — an exercise never before asked of candidates in a usually closed-door process.

The informal dialogues will be broadcast on the U.N.’s Web TV beginning at 9 a.m. EST in New York, starting Tuesday April 12 and running through April 14. Each candidate is allotted a total of two hours as part of the three-day program. But with only 10 minutes for their vision statement, candidates will be challenged to make some cuts in their speeches — considering candidates’ original vision statements range from four to 20 pages long.

Devex combed through each candidate’s vision statement, published on the website of the U.N. General Assembly president, to get a better look at how each plans to address some of the important issues facing the world — and particularly the U.N.

Ahead of the dialogues, here’s what the official candidates have to say.

António Guterres, former U.N. high commissioner for refugees. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / United Nations

António Guterres

The former U.N. high commissioner for refugees focused on a wide range of issues, from mainstreaming human rights across the U.N. system to the U.N. committing to a “culture of prevention.”

But one of Guterres’ notable visions is on boosting the U.N. brand to be seen as a trustworthy body capable of providing protection to all.

“The SG must stand firmly for the reputation of the U.N. and its dedicated staff. Leading by example and imposing the highest ethical standards on everyone serving under the U.N. flag. In particular, elevating the prestige of the blue helmet, the soldier standing for peace, and eradicating, once and for all, the exploitative and abusive conduct of those U.N. agents who do not represent what the organization stands for,” he said.

The official candidate of Portugal also touched on changing attitudes within the U.N. system: making it less bureaucratic, adopting simplified processes and becoming more field oriented. He underlined the importance of addressing gaps in staffing within the U.N. system, particularly on gender and regional diversity, and placed emphasis on thoughtful senior staff selection.

Danilo Türk, former president of the Republic of Slovenia. Photo by: Devra Berkowitz / United Nations

Danilo Türk

The Slovenian diplomat and professor of international law stressed the importance of developing partnerships with member states, regional bodies, civil society actors, the private sector and academia to “achieve real results.” In the field of peacekeeping, he named working closely with the African Union as deserving of special attention.

He also identified what he thinks are the three key areas of work for the United Nations, namely maintenance of international peace and security, the catalytic role the U.N. secretary-general must play in the implementation of new global frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris agreement on climate change, and the mainstreaming of human rights in the U.N. system.

On U.N. reform, meanwhile, he underscored having gender balance as a “leading and sustained priority.”

Helen Clark, U.N. Development Program administrator. Photo by: Amanda Voisard / United Nations

Helen Clark

The former New Zealand prime minister opened her statement by promising to act honestly, listen and work with everyone and give her all to the U.N. and its member states.

She uses her vision statement to outline just how she feels the U.N. can deliver for current and future generations. She speaks of a “practical and effective” body, which she would achieve by focusing on results, delivering real transparency, investing in people and performance and championing collaboration and efficiency.

Clark didn’t shy away from stressing that the U.N. has existing weaknesses that must be recognized first.

“Over the past 70 years its ability to implement the critical mandates agreed by member states has diminished,” the statement reads. “It is important that the United Nations is transparent and frank about what it can and cannot do.”

As secretary-general, she plans to carry her commitment to create a streamlined, smart operation from UNDP, as evidenced by her multiple mentions of focusing on recruitment, investing in people, rewarding talent and expecting “the exceptional.” The current United Nations Development Program administrator closes her vision statement with a Maori proverb stressing that the most important thing in the world is people.

Igor Lukšić, former prime minister of Montenegro. Photo by: Amanda Voisard / United Nations

Igor Lukšić

The next secretary-general’s role is not to reinvent the wheel, he says, but the former prime minister of Montenegro has a list of reforms and proposed new initiatives in his vision for the U.N.

On peace and security, for example, he proposed setting up a peace operations group encompassing key under-secretary generals from various U.N. departments, such as the Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. And he suggests the U.N. Project Office on Governance be closely supervised by the secretary-general and his or her deputy.

He stressed the importance of the U.N. better communicating the 2030 agenda to all citizens, proposing to do this is by appointing new or reorienting some existing special envoys for every SDG.

On internal reforms, meanwhile, he proposed changing the U.N. Development Group to the U.N. Sustainable Development Group, to be co-chaired by the UNDP administrator and the high commissioner on human rights. The secretary-general should provide a more defined role for the U.N. deputy secretary general — while ensuring gender and geographical balance in appointment — and proposed the latter be set up office in Nairobi.

He also spoke of opening the debate on transforming the Human Rights Council to a principal body and considering a U.N. legally binding instrument on addressing violence against women.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general. Photo by: Mark Garten / United Nations

Irina Bokova

The UNESCO director-general touched on a wide array of topics, from more effective multilateralism to the sustainable development agenda. But one of the more defined items in her vision is on prevention, and she said the U.N. must “mobilize every pillar of the [system] to bring mediation and prevention to the fore of all efforts.”

To do this, the U.N. needs to strengthen its preventive role by investing in diplomacy and reviewing the body’s approach to peacekeeping, she said.

In regards to the SDGs, the Bulgarian politician believes in focusing on least-developed countries, including small island developing states. But she noted middle-income countries should not be left behind, as they continue to need support to address inequalities and boost progress through the promotion of good governance and rule of law. And on women’s empowerment, she highlighted the importance of working with governments and civil society to address violence against women and girls.

Touching on the U.N. system, meanwhile, she said she will promote “synergy between the member states and the secretary-general in order to achieve rationalization and optimization of management, administrative costs and human resources development.”

Natalia Gherman, former deputy prime minister of Moldova. Photo by: Amanda Voisard / United Nations

Natalia Gherman

The former deputy prime minister of Moldova is banking on partnerships to get the job done at the United Nations. Gherman emphasized the importance of the U.N. engaging with regional organizations for maintenance of peace and security, for example, and working with relevant stakeholders in delivering on the promises of several global frameworks such as the 2030 agenda, the climate agreement in Paris, and the Addis Ababa action agenda.

The U.N. secretary-general candidate is also looking to advance partnerships with member states when it comes to pushing for human rights reforms and policies at the national level.

But to be a credible proponent of universal human rights, the U.N. should abide by the principle of nondiscrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion or culture in administrative decisions, as well as in its operations.

Internally, the U.N. secretary-general should implement a zero tolerance policy on mismanagement, fraud, abuse, corruption and unethical behavior, she stressed, and senior managers should be selected on basis of merit and expertise, but also ensuring gender and geographical balance.

Srgjan Kerim, former foreign minister of Macedonia. Photo by: Devra Berkowitz / United Nations

Srgjan Kerim

The former foreign minister of Macedonia’s vision for the U.N. spans 20 pages. He focuses on reforms, including of the Security Council and General Assembly, but also specific targets that he aims to implement if he secures the position.

One of his goals is implementing a more active, coherent and inclusive U.N. system. To do so, he plans to set up concrete targets and deadlines for implementing management reforms. On gender equality, he aims to have an equal distribution of men and women in managerial positions at the secretariat by the end of his five-year term as secretary-general.

Kerim also talked about effective resource management, and he plans to establish set regulations in terms of dealing with U.N. consultants, and, like Lukšić, move forward in improving the U.N.’s mobility framework.

The next secretary-general, he said, needs to be “more visible and demonstrate leadership in terms of engaging in mediation.”

Vesna Pusić, current deputy speaker of the Croatian parliament. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / United Nations

Vesna Pusić

The current deputy speaker of the Croatian parliament based her vision and policy priorities for the U.N. on her country’s experience post-Cold War. She has no illusions about the organization, and, like UNDP Administrator Clark, didn’t hold back from speaking of the body’s flaws and limitations.

“Too often, the U.N. is given an impossible mission that is then under-resourced. This was the case of the UNPROFOR mission in Bosnia, where 25,000 lightly armed blue helmets couldn’t keep peace in the midst of a war. Such missions destroy morale, cost lives and discredit the United Nations itself,” she said.

But she also talked about what the U.N. is capable of doing, and banked on those strengths to support her argument of how, despite its flaws, the U.N. continues to be an indispensable institution today.

What she aims for as the next secretary-general is to focus on enhancing the quality of the U.N.’s diplomacy, appointing personalities such as Sergio Vieira de Mello, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura, the secretary-general’s special envoy for Syria. And she hopes to see women on the list too. She also would like to strengthen the U.N.’s mediation efforts by strengthening the Department for Political Affairs, among others.

And as for handling the multiple responsibilities of a U.N. secretary-general, Pusic said she’ll conduct meetings on management and administrative issues on a daily basis when she’s in New York. To do this, she hopes to rely on a strong management team by appointing quality people in key senior positions — but she won’t hesitate in removing poor performers.

Vuk Jeremić

Vuk Jeremić served as president of the 67th session of the U.N. General Assembly. Photo by: Paulo Filgueiras / United Nations

When elected, the official candidate of Serbia plans to implement 53 specific commitments on his first day in office as U.N. secretary-general.

Among those is putting the issue of climate change at the core of the U.N.’s work, as well as in advocating for greater human rights protection. On the issue of peace and security, Jeremić proposes developing a new framework for U.N. stabilization missions, working on a five-year plan that would transition security responsibilities to the African Union and sub-regional organizations and deploy a qualified team of advisers to member states requesting assistance on counter terrorism and violent extremism measures.

The former president of the U.N. General Assembly also aims to work with the General Assembly, the Security Council and institutional donors to increase the budget of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights by 50 percent.

And in hopes of better managing emergencies and mobilizing resources for humanitarian response, he aims to appoint a high-profile emergency relief coordinator and a high-level special envoy for these purposes.

Jeremić also talked about making the U.N. more transparent, particularly on the issue of its finances; more engaged, particularly with youth, by revamping its communication strategy that includes utilization of social media; and more gender balanced by appointing “qualified women” to fill half of the under secretary-general positions.

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About the author

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Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.


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