The unraveling of the UNWTO secretary-general confirmation

Zurab Pololikashvili, the new UNWTO secretary-general, and Zimbabwe Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi at the UNWTO 22nd General Assembly in Chengdu, China. Photo by: Christian del Rosario

CHENGDU, China — Zurab Pololikashvili is the new secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, but his appointment is tinged with questions of foul play, a potentially flawed election process, and a strong-arm effort to demand consensus over a ballot vote.

The UNWTO executive council elected candidate Pololikashvili as their next secretary-general in Madrid in May, but the path to confirming the Georgian ambassador to Spain as the global tourism body’s new leader has been anything but smooth.

Doubts compounded by months of rumors of bribery and misconduct spilled over into the first day of the UNWTO 22nd General Assembly in Chengdu, China, where attendees buzzed about the potential delay of a vote altogether. Stolen side conversations continued into Thursday, when Pololikashvili was confirmed in a tension-filled ballroom — seemingly despite ongoing concern and by ignoring voting protocol.

Immediately following Pololikashvili’s nomination in May, rumors began to swirl that there was foul play involved, stemming from Pololikashvili’s decision to invite UNWTO executive council members to a Real Madrid game during ongoing council meetings that month, as well as his lack of appearances at press conferences and international events while campaigning, a source close to the matter told Devex.

Zimbabwe’s Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi — who had won the first round of executive council votes before being overtaken by the Georgian candidate in the final round — led the charge in casting doubt on the nature of Pololikashvili’s election, publishing an open letter and urging fellow member countries to ask their own questions.

The 35 members of the executive council, together with Mzembi, disappeared for hours on Tuesday evening in order to settle the matter — and attendees pressed their translation earpieces a little harder to their ears during the assembly the following morning to hear whether the controversy had been resolved.

Indeed, Secretary-General Taleb Rifai announced that it had, and also declared the creation of a working group to be led by Mzembi in order to consider rethinking many of the rules and regulations attached to elections at UNWTO in the future.

But as for the latest election process, it is “crystal clear that the process was impeccable, correct, clean, and transparent,” the outgoing U.N. World Tourism Organization secretary-general said later during a press conference.

The respected leaders’ words may not have been enough to quell already formed doubts about what went on behind the scenes; when it came time to ask for objections to the nomination of Pololikashvili during Thursday’s assembly, it was the Gambia Tourism Minister Amat AK Bah who raised his hand. He suggested taking the matter to a ballot vote, as is customary when at least one member state requests it, which would then require a two-thirds majority vote in favor of Pololikashvili, rather than the customary process of being voted in by acclamation.

Mzembi seconded the movement to consider a ballot vote in order to strengthen Pololikashvili’s candidacy, he later told Devex, and during the assembly alluded to a “settlement” that had been decided in the executive council meeting the previous day. In response, a visibly rattled Secretary-General Rifai vehemently denied the existence of a settlement and again defended the rigor of the election process.

“I hope that that decision [to vote] is based on nothing more than wanting to exercise your rights and not any other reason that may connect this to any kind of doubts about how the candidate was chosen,” Rifai said.

Still, instead of proceeding to a vote, member countries were allowed to continue to weigh in.

The ballot vote and count could have been held twice in the hour and a half of deliberation that followed, where 35 delegations waved their country name cards to make a speech, express platitudes to Rifai, and declare their alignment with consensus rather than ballot vote. The speeches soon intertwined the reputation of UNWTO with the manner of vote, with the majority of speakers asking the Gambia — and once Gambia tourism minister Amat AK Bah withdrew his vote request, then Zimbabwe followed suit — to withdraw the request for a ballot vote to avoid “embarrassment” and to “respect the integrity” of the organization.

There was a lack of acknowledgment that a ballot vote, although a first for UNWTO, is an acceptable way to reach a conclusion to a disputed issue, and that a vote by acclamation and the “consensus” — a word repeated countless times during the hour of deliberation — it might create doesn’t alone define the U.N. agency as a reputable organization.

Later, Secretary-General Rifai told Devex that Gambia’s Bah didn’t formally ask for a ballot vote; he was simply posing a question about what would happen if he did make the request. But Devex confirmed with Bah that he had indeed wanted a vote, and had made the request according to established processes and to act as a voice for the “silent majority” in the room who wished for one.

But established process was not followed, Sierra Leone Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs Sidie Yahya Tunis told Devex, which “made me believe also that Walter may be right,” he said of Mzembi’s allegations of foul play. “In my opinion, there was no need for debate. The minute Gambia asked for a vote, we should’ve gone straight to a vote.”

Nonetheless, the final time Vice Minister of Tourism for Colombia Sandra Howard Taylor called for any objections to electing by consensus, neither Bah nor Mzembi raised their hands — both having “read the room” and decided it would be unwise to push for a vote when so many had voiced favor for consensus, they later told Devex. Zimbabwe’s Mzembi, in a final speech, promised to be the first to congratulate Pololikashvili upon his confirmation.

And indeed, Mzembi followed Zurab to the stage when he was officially confirmed by consensus and named UNWTO’s secretary-general for 2018-2021, engaging in an uncomfortable handshake and hug for the cameras. He recommitted his support for Pololikashvili in a short speech, adding that he doesn’t “want to go down in history as the candidate who spoiled things for the generous people of the People’s Republic of China,” UNWTO’s 22nd assembly host.

Now, Mzembi said, he will drop his allegations and focus instead on priorities for his working group — the first being to professionalize the election process of secretary-general by bringing in an outside panel of experts for interviews. Secondly, he’d like to ensure that decisions made by executive council members, each of whom represent five countries, are consulting the countries they represent, something he feels has not been done to this point.

Though the members of the working group have yet to be announced, more than 15 countries have already volunteered to join him in these tasks, he said.  

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.