TONY KEVIN. Kevin Rudd and the UN

Aug 9, 2016

An exceptionally difficult UN Secretary-General selection process is set to continue

On 29 July, Malcolm Turnbull controversially announced that the Australian Government will not nominate Kevin Rudd for the UN Secretary-General position. Here in Australia, the focus of discussion on the Rudd candidacy has been on domestic political issues of precedent and loyalty to Team Australia.

Only Carl Ungerer and Geoff Raby, both strong Rudd supporters (see Farmer and Ungerer references below), touch on more basic questions of what outcome might now be best for the UN system, in an increasingly multipolar world that is impatient to break out of old power structures and private deals among the UN Security Council (UNSC) Permanent Members. This note seeks to further inform that discussion.

Ungerer’s opinion (admittedly, he has a horse in – or no longer in – this race) is that the present field of declared contenders (eleven at last count) ‘looks decidedly second-rate’. He says there is a very good chance that Rudd would have won on merit and would have reformed the UN, if Turnbull had backed him. Raby says Rudd could yet become ‘the compromise candidate of choice’, if the present process of informal straw polling in the UNSC (see below) continues ‘beyond September’.

Under the Charter, the Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council, usually for ten- year terms.  The present term of Ban Ki-moon (Korea) is 2006-2016. His predecessors were: Kofi Annan (Ghana), 1997 -2006; Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt), 1992 -1996; Javier Pèrez de Cuèllar (Peru), 1982 – 1991; Kurt Waldheim (Austria), 1972 – 1981; U Thant (Burma, now Myanmar), 1961 – 1971; Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), 1953 – 1961; and Trygve Lie (Norway), 1946 – 1952.

The personal qualities looked for in a Secretary- General have included: acceptability to all five Permanent Members of the UNSC, each of whom has a right of veto; strict adherence to the UN Charter and UNSC rules and protocols ; personal humility, and respect for the prerogatives of UN General Assembly (UNGA) member governments, and for the UNGA and UNSC conventions and protocols that have grown up over the UN’s  seventy years of existence; outstanding gifts as a patient mediator and negotiator in delicate conflict situations; and a strong personal vision of what UNGA and UNSC are trying to achieve.

This is a much tougher job description than that of running a UN operational agency or program, because it involves wearingly delicate diplomacy between the UNSC Permanent Members whose views are often in fundamental conflict, and between the UNSC and the UNGA. Within the UNSC, Russia and China, separately or jointly, often have quite different views on international conflict issues than the three western Permanent Members US, UK and France. Russia and China these days generally like to adhere strictly to national sovereignty, and to the letter of the UN Charter and UNSC decision rules. The three western Permanent Members have a more ambiguous record of circumventing the UN  rulebook when it suits them, resorting instead to ‘ coalitions of the willing’ as fig-leafs for unilateral actions they may wish to take that contradict the letter of the Charter and/or the UNSC regime. Examples since 1991 have been many.

The Secretary- General (SG) has the thankless task of steering a course between the three Western Permanent Members who want a compliant UN, the Russians and/or Chinese  who tend to take UN rules and protocols more literally, and the General Assembly which often has quite different priorities altogether. He or she must be the servant of several masters.

Ramesh Thakur’s book review is worth quoting here:

‘ … a sobering conclusion: the very skills and character traits needed for the world’s top diplomatic office will ensure the best candidates are vetoed.

Article 99 of the Charter confers on the SG a broad authority and considerable discretion, requiring the exercise of political judgement, tact and integrity. If the Security Council is divided, the SG cannot be an alternate locus of international diplomacy. If it is united, he cannot be an alternative focus of international dissent. His exercise of international leadership is subject to the systemic constraints of the prevailing world order whose bedrock organising principle is state sovereignty. He must play a political role that respects the pivotal place of the Security Council, while mindful of the political temper in the General Assembly, which is the truer barometer of international sentiment … The most important requirement for the SG is to exercise the skills of soft leadership: the elusive ability to make others connect emotionally and intellectually to a larger cause that transcends their immediate self-interest.’

Most SGs to date have been low-key and self-effacing, in some cases almost to the point of invisibility. The strongest SGs were Dag Hammarskjold ( killed  in a mysterious plane crash) and Kofi Annan who had a strong personal vision of the UN’s 2000 millennium development goals and of its ‘responsibility to
protect’  citizens abused by their own governments, and great gifts as a communicator.

Selecting a new Secretary- General is always difficult and tortuous. In the end, a candidate will be found who is thought to be the least offensive to all the veto-wielding Permanent Members, especially to the US and Russia (or USSR before 1991). China now joins them as a stubborn defender of its views.

In today’s more multipolar world, many in the UNGA yearn for a greater voice in the choice of SG; and they would want him or her to see their duty as more to the general UNGA membership than to the Security Council Permanent Members. Climate change is now an issue of increasing concern.

It was decided to make this year’s SG selection process more transparent. There were twelve declared contenders including five women. Because it was thought by convention to be ‘East Europe’s turn’ for a tilt at the job, eight of these contenders were from East Europe: from Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Macedonia , Montenegro, Serbia and Moldova. The first four are now full NATO members. Macedonia and Montenegro are on the NATO Membership Action Plan. Moldova and Serbia are on the NATO Partnership for Peace program.

Perversely, this seems so far to have weakened all the East European candidates, creating the possibility of some being regarded as more ‘pro-Russian’ or more ‘anti-Russian’, in the present strained climate of NATO-Russian relations. Having Ukraine currently on the UNSC probably has not helped.

There have so far been two ‘straw polls’ taken by secret ballot on 21 July and 5 August, among the fifteen present members of the Security Council: the five Permanent Members, and ten non-permanent members who are currently Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

We know through the efficient UN grapevine the numbers who voted ‘encourage’- ‘discourage’ – ‘no opinion’ in these two straw polls so far. The Croatian candidate, Vesna Pusic, withdrew after being heavily discouraged in the first poll, at 2-11-2. Every one of the other seven East European candidates went backwards in the second round: the strongest remaining contenders are the former Serbian Foreign Minister (2007-2012) Vuk Jeremic at 8-4-3; the former President of Slovenia (2007-2012) Danilo Turk, at 7-5-3; and the Bulgarian Irina Bokova, the well-regarded Director-General of UNESCO since 2009, at 7-7-1.

The strongest contender so far, on the basis of these two polls, is former Prime Minister of Portugal (1995-2002) Antonio Guterres, who now leads at 11-2-2. But who gave the two ‘discourage’ and the two ‘no opinion’ votes?

An interesting candidate who has not yet given up is the well-regarded and gutsy Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica), who as Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010-2016) was a key architect of the successful climate agreement achieved in Paris in 2015,after the debacle of Copenhagen. She polled 5-8-2. She said two days ago on Twitter, ‘Second straw poll. Not what we expected but looking forward to further engagement.’

For my money, either of the two women with strong UN performance credentials – Bokova and Figueres – could still be attractive contenders.   Helen Clark of NZ is still polling 6-8-1 and so cannot yet be ruled out either. But I bear in mind Thakur’s pessimistic view above.

Speculating on which candidates might currently have Russian support, one could guess Jeremic and Bokova. One might guess NATO-oriented members would support Guterres or the Slovenian, Danilo Turk. Guterres in particular might be seen by NATO members as the safest pair of hands currently on offer.

It is possible that this may not be resolved in a hurry. Large national interests are involved for the US, Russia and China: the next ten years of a UN secretary-generalship. They will each want to try to make a ‘least bad’ choice.

According to Raby and Ungerer, Hillary Clinton is said to be impressed by Rudd. The US election is on 8 November. If the Security Council straw polling has not generated a decisively supported SG contender by end-September, and if she is well ahead of Trump in polling by then, she could then begin to swing US weight behind Rudd. It is then possible that Russia and China could accept her US support for Rudd as a ‘compromise candidate’. In this still hypothetical situation, Turnbull’s decision on 29 July not to support Rudd might be seen by the ‘Big Three’ as unimportant.

Clinton would expect Rudd to be highly attentive to US wishes, as the US under Clinton (if she is elected) resumes a strong ‘liberal hawk’ US-exceptionalist world profile. If Clinton were to veto candidates likely to be more attentive to the views of the UNGA – which could include all three remaining strong female candidates Bokova, Clark , or Figueres – Rudd could just possibly slide through despite Russian  and Chinese lack of enthusiasm for him, as did Kurt  Waldheim and other unimpressive but ‘safe’ occupants.

My feeling is that this contest is far from over yet.


My thanks to Professor Ramesh Thakur, ANU Canberra for helpful guidance with my research for this article. All views and predictions expressed are my own.

Tony Kevin was a former Ambassador to Cambodia and Poland.


Richard Farmer, ‘Kevin Rudd’s next move for the UN’, The Saturday Paper, 6 August 2016

Ramesh Thakur, ‘Refusal to nominate Rudd betrays Turnbull’s weakness’, Japan Times, 2 August 2016

Ramesh Thakur , ‘International organisation, law and ethics’, Book review, International Affairs , 90:6, 2014, pages 1458-1460, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London.  (No URL reference)

Carl Ungerer, ‘ Not backing Rudd for the UN was churlish partisan politics. He could have been a contender’, The Guardian, 1 August 2016

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