Candidates for Secretary General of the UN Debate at Civic Hall

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Igor Luksic, Danilo Turk, Natalia Gherman, and Vesna Pusic answer questions in a public debate at Civic Hall. (Jessica McKenzie)

In a historic first, the candidates running to be the next secretary general of the United Nations debated publicly at an event co-hosted by New America and the Guardian at Civic Hall yesterday. The current secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, will step down at the end of the year, and in response to a push from some of the member states for greater openness and transparency, the process this year includes “informal dialogues” in front of the general assembly of the UN, as well as public debates like the one last night.

Questions had been solicited from the public in advance of the debate in a partnership with Global Citizen and Avaaz, and were put to the candidates by the moderator, the Guardian’s Mark Rice-Oxley. They included a question about how the candidates would work to meet the new sustainable development goals; how the candidates would protect UN whistleblowers; how to ensure accountability at the UN; and how the UN should respond, if at all, to the refugee crisis in Europe right now.

Four of at least eight candidates participated—Vesna Pusic, the former minister of foreign and European affairs of Croatia, Danilo Turk, the former president of Slovenia, Natalia Gherman, the former deputy prime minister of Moldova, and Igor Luksic, deputy prime minister of Montenegro.

Vesna Pusic at one point expressed surprise that so many people had become interested in the United Nations since the process of finding a new secretary general had been opened up. “I was surprised to see how many people that have nothing to do with the United Nations got interested in following the procedure, listening to the candidates,” Pusic said. “Just excited that this process now has some faces.”

All four hail from central or eastern Europe, and Rice-Oxley pointed that out, asking if they thought it was their “turn” in the rotation of regions that the UN has previously observed in the top spot. Although she said that the most qualified person should get the job, Natalia Gherman added that equitable geographic representation was important. Danilo Turk said that 10 years, 20 years ago when they elected someone first from Africa and then from Asia because those regions pushed for it, “nobody batted an eye.”

In past years the process has been so opaque as to resemble the papal conclave more than a political election, as BBC correspondent Nick Bryant observed. Although the trappings this year all signal increased transparency and a more participatory process, some worry that it’s all show and no substance. Although the public hearings are a step in the right direction, the Security Council will still meet behind closed doors to choose a candidate for the General Assembly to approve, with no imperative to heed the General Assembly’s preferences one way or another. A senior European official in Washington told Politico, “at the end of the day, the secretary-general will be chosen by U.S. and Russia and more or less [with] the acceptance of China.”

Still, Mogens Lykketoft, president of the General Assembly, remains optimistic. As he told Politico, “We don’t know what will come out of this…[If there’s] a critical mass of countries supporting one of the candidates, then I think it will be very difficult to see a Security Council coming with quite a different name.”

Closing the event last night, Thomas Weiss, a professor and a leader of the Future UN Development System project, pointed out that a candidate for secretary general has voluntarily put out an 80-page position platform for the public, another first for the UN. Praising the efforts at transparency, Weiss said: “This has already made a difference.”