Letter From America – Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: August 10, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016

With the gladiatorial clashes of the Labour leadership election and the circus of the Republican and Democratic elections, the election for the Secretary General of the United Nations, has been overlooked, though it has almost as many candidates as for the Republican nomination, albeit of a generally higher calibre.

In its own way, the UN’s relevance was reflected in the other contests. It was Blair and Bush’s inability to get UN endorsement for the Iraq War that made it an act of illegal aggression, and their failure to bully Hans Blix, the UN’s inspector for Iraqi WMDs, into perjuring himself was what convinced most of the Security Council not to support Blair-Bush bellicosity.

The Labour Party putschists tended to support the war, as did Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, of course, but less so Trump – most of the Republicans tacitly or vociferously supported the war while Trump has on occasion demurred. But then both Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are of the archaic left that sees respect for the UN and international law as bedrock principles for foreign relations rather than occasional expedient excuses.

The UN Secretary General’s race also raised other issues that appeared in both the Democratic and Labour contests. Many wish and hope that a woman will head the UN. I have to confess that my experience of the UK’s first woman prime minister, and the USA’s first female secretary of state at work ensures that I do not confuse a double-X chromosome with feminism or the milk of human kindness. Certainly, in the case of Clinton there was nothing in her personal or political treatment of other women to suggest her professed feminism was anything but a burning ambition for one woman only.

But then I noted that the gang that used to wield women-only shortlists to ensure that locally popular lefties did not become prospective Labour parliamentary candidates were happy to dispense with such formalistic feminism when the opportunity came to run a woman for Labour leader this time.

In the case of the UN Secretary Generalship, two separate modes of bean-counting are involved, the idea that it is Eastern Europe’s turn and that it is time for a woman. Indeed, there are three modes, if you include previous Chinese pledges not to oppose third world
candidates. If there is an insidious cancer in the UN, it is the rotation system that has built up over the years. There are calendars with rotation systems indicating decades in advance which regional group will hold which position and which country within the group will get it. That is, for example, why we have the absurdity, indeed obscenity, of a Saudi membership of the Human Rights Council and its subcommittee choosing special human rights observers and a rabid pro-Settler Israeli ambassador chairing the UN’s legal committee!

In the UN’s idiosyncratic geography, Western Europe includes Israel, New Zealand, Canada and Australia – but not Cyprus, which is in Asia! The Eastern Europe group is a Cold War hangover –  most of its members are, or want to be in the EU and proximity to Moscow means that they have crossed Putin’s people in some way – or, almost as bad for getting Western votes, he might support them!

And then there is the political irrelevance of regional rotation. The Chinese insisted on a Third World candidate to replace Kurt Waldheim and so we had Pérez de Cuéllar from the Latin American and Caribbean group. I would modestly suggest that the Swedish Dag Hammarskjöld was a better representative for developing countries than he ever was.

This year, the President of the General Assembly, an annually rotating office, Danish this year, arranged very transparent hustings, with SG candidates addressing meetings of diplomats, NGOs and media to showcase their qualifications. It is a big step forward for show business, but the actual selection is  still firmly by the Security Council, as if it were the PLP or the DNC that decided the leadership or Presidential candidate selection regardless of the voting among members and supporters.

The first straw poll of the Council members in July was a surprise for some pundits. Antonio Guterres, former Portuguese PM and male, emerged ahead of the field with Danilo Turk, former Slovenian President, a close second. The woman who emerged best in the debates, Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, came way down the list, perhaps because her big thing has been Climate Change – to which the Council diplomats only pay lip service even if it is perhaps the most crucially relevant aspect of the UN for the future of the world!

To be recursive, we can perhaps applaud that neither Trump nor Clinton are in position to impose their candidate in an election which might determine whether the UN has a future worth talking about.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune’s UN correspondent