Issue 142 - June 1 - Candidates for UNSG in 2011?

New York, June 1, 2010 - In approximately a year and a half (October 2011), UN Member States will either renew Ban Ki-moon's five-year term as Secretary-General or appoint someone new to the post.

Various scenarios of how that decision could unfold are described below, including individuals who reportedly may be potential candidates to replace Secretary-General Ban.

Potential Candidates

Three current or former heads of state - Lula da Silva of Brazil, Kevin Rudd of Australia, and Helen Clark of New Zealand - are rumored to be potential candidates for UN Secretary-General.

No head of state has ever gone on to serve as Secretary-General.

Lula da Silva

Rumors of Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's potential bid for Secretary-General of the UN were reported by several newspapers in March 2010, and observers have been debating his chances.

Reports have included the following:

  • On March 11, 2010, the Miami Herald cited the Brazilian weekly, Veja, which reported that Lula told "more than one person" that he had been "sounded out as a candidate" for Secretary-General in 2011. Veja suggested that one individual who may have encouraged him to run was Sérgio Cabral Filho, governor of Rio de Janeiro.
  • According to the Times Online on March 20, President da Silva was "considering an attempt at becoming the next UN Secretary-General."
  • Pravda indicated that he would begin to pursue the post after swearing in his successor on January 1, 2011.
  • Portuguese-language sources report that "Lula has mentioned his intention to seek the post to several close associates."
  • The editor of the Folha de São Paulo newspaper added to the speculation, telling the Times, "everyone in his inner circle is talking about this.... He wouldn't object [to the appointment]." 
  • According to Voltairnet, the President's trip to the Middle East in late 2009 "marked the opening of [da Silva's]...electoral campaign" to become UN Secretary-General, despite Brazil's claims that the trip's purpose was "positioning [Brazil] as a...peace negotiator" in the region.

The idea of Lula's candidacy reportedly was first suggested by France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, at the September 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

The presidency is reported to have denied any such plans. Although it said that the president has "high esteem" for the UN and "hopes to strengthen his capacity to resolve international conflicts," the president was "not making any move" to seek the post.

The President himself has not made any official comment on his rumored candidature.

An alternative motive for Lula's recent diplomatic initiatives could be a desire for Brazil to take its "place in the new global hierarchy," according to the Los Angeles Times. "Brazil feels like it doesn't get the respect it deserves," and under Lula, the country "has gone all out to garner attention as a serious nation."

As part of this broad goal, Brazil has a long-standing effort to gain a permanent seat on the Security Council, as well as to reform the international financial institutions. One analyst suggested, "For Lula, the Iran thing isn't important as such. He's making a broader argument that current structures of global governance are unjust, and that emerging powers should have a greater say."

The Hudson Institute and a Folha de Sao Paulo commentator agree that Brazil's mediation with Iran and other signs of larger ambition could be linked to the Security Council effort.

Of course, Lula's diplomatic efforts could work to advance more than one agenda simultaneously - they could serve as early campaign steps for the Secretary-General post while reinforcing Brazil's long-term political goals.

Many have begun to speculate on da Silva's prospects in the selection.

Some say he has little chance of replacing incumbent Ban. The president's March 2010 peace mission to the Middle East and his hosting of President Ahmadinejad of Iran in November 2009 offended several governments, notably the United States and the United Kingdom.

Opposition from the two governments, who are Permanent Members of the UN Security Council with veto power, could put an end to da Silva's rumored ambitions.

A Huffington Post columnist wrote on May 12, "President Lula's ... enthusiasm about injecting himself as a broker" between Iran and the P5 has turned the Obama administration's "enormous enthusiasm for Brazil and Lula into confusion." His involvement poses "serious dangers for his legacy."

The Wall Street Journal elaborated (March 29): "In recent months, the 64-year-old former labor leader has been condemned by anti-Castro dissidents in Havana, shunned by Israel's foreign minister in Jerusalem, blasted by a human-rights group in Geneva, and admonished by U.S. and European leaders over Brazil's support of Iran's uranium-enrichment plans.... [A] recent string of foreign-policy spinouts has raised new tensions with the U.S., and prompted soul searching in Brazil about whether its leaders are ready for global prime time."

Among Lula's positive aspects, supporters argue, are his "folksy, personal style and ability to be friends with all sides - China and the US, Iran and Israel" (Times Online). His personal qualities are said to represent a significant challenge to Ban's somewhat lackluster leadership style, as reviews have described the current Secretary-General (see UNelections Monitor Issue 106).

(NB: Lula also has been mentioned as a possible candidate to lead the World Bank.)

Kevin Rudd

Early in 2009, The Australian reported on rumors that Australia's Prime Minister Rudd was considering running for the post of Secretary-General. But its only evidence was an analysis of the country's spending. Allocations for 2010 increased in four areas:

  • Financial contributions for the UN's regular budget,
  • Promotion of the country's candidacy for the Security Council in 2013-14,
  • Aid to Africa in 2010, and
  • Nuclear disarmament, in the amount of $9.2 million over two years, which "can be quite effective [in] advancing a political or, indeed, personal agenda."

However, Action Aid Australia recently guessed at its motivation for the increased aid for Africa: "To win a seat on the UN Security Council in 2013, Australia must win support from some of the 53 member states in the African bloc. Increasing aid levels to the region is a good start to winning African support for this bid. Australia's main competitors for the seat, Finland and Luxembourg, are both generous aid donors...."

Moreover, Rudd reportedly has begun campaigning for re-election in early 2011, which casts doubt on the possibility that he aims to replace Ban Ki-moon as UN Secretary-General later that year.

As with Lula, Rudd's multiple conceivable motivations make it difficult to conclude that he intends to run for Secretary-General.

Helen Clark

Not having indicated any intention to run for UN Secretary-General, Helen Clark nevertheless has been mentioned as a strong potential candidate (and would be the first woman to serve as UN Secretary-General).

In 2006, during the process that resulted in Ban Ki-moon's appointment, Clark - the current head of the UN Development Programme and former Prime Minister of New Zealand - was mentioned on a civil society list of recommended female candidates for the high-level post. She was not an official candidate, however.

In August 2009, the Aftenposten newspaper of Norway printed a "highly confidential" critique of Ban Ki-moon from the country's UN mission (see English translation from Foreign Policy). Summarizing Member States' "increasingly negative" views of Ban and the possibility that he would be a "one-term SG," the memo suggested, "as a woman from [the same] side of the world, Clark could soon turn into a candidate for Ban's second term."

In a February 2010 interview with TVNZ (New Zealand), Clark was asked about suggestions that she run for Secretary-General in 2011. Clark responded, "I wouldn't even go down that track.... I've gone [to New York] to do a particular job at [Ban Ki-moon's] request [as UNDP administrator] and that's as far as my ambition goes."

Role of Regional Rotation

If Ban fails to be reelected in 2011, there are three general scenarios for selecting a successor, depending on how Member States choose to apply the practice of regional rotation.

Traditionally, the Secretary-General has been selected based on an informal system of regional rotation, which was reinforced in GA Resolution 51/241 of 1997. Geographic distribution of the post, to date, has taken the following order:

  • Western Europe (Trygvie Lie, Dag Hammarskjold)
  • Asia (U Thant)
  • Western Europe (Kurt Waldheim)
  • Latin America and the Caribbean (Javier Perez de Cuellar)
  • Africa (Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kofi Annan)
  • Asia (Ban Ki-moon)

Representatives from Eastern Europe have advocated for the inclusion of their regional group in the rotation for the post.

As an unwritten rule, candidates from the Permanent Five members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), are not considered for the position of Secretary-General to avoid further concentration of power within the UN.

The impact of regional rotation on a decision about renewing a sitting Secretary-General's term is not clear. Member States may wish to replace Ban Ki-moon while preserving Asia's claim to the seat, appointing another candidate from Asia. Or, they may allow the post to rotate to the next region "in line" (which would be WEOG). Finally, they may decide to disregard regional rotation altogether.

Asian Turn

First, governments from the Asian regional grouping may wish to assert the region's customary regional rotation. There is an unofficial precedent for this, established by Africa in 1996. After Boutros Boutros-Ghali's (of Egypt) single term ended in 1996, African states insisted that another candidate be selected from the African region, and Kofi Annan (of Ghana) was appointed. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China could insist on an Asian candidate.

For Clark or Rudd to be considered in this scenario, Global Memo suggests, Australia and/or New Zealand would need to make the case that that they are close to Asia geographically and have been involved successfully in the region, allowing Clark and Rudd to be considered honorary Asian candidates.


Second, governments from the Group of Western European and Other States (WEOG) may wish to assert the customary regional rotation in a different way, insisting that an Asian Secretary-General is succeeded by a WEOG Secretary-General. The last time the post was held by a national of an Asian State (U Thant of Burma/Myanmar), it then rotated to someone from Western Europe (Kurt Waldheim of Austria). France, the UK, and the US, all are permanent members of the Security Council, giving those governments great influence if they agree on the rotational preference.

Australia and New Zealand are both members of WEOG, so this scenario potentially could allow Rudd and/or Clark to be considered.

A compromise between the first and second scenario could allow Asia and WEOG to agree on candidates together, with Clark and/or Rudd emerging as a "compromise" candidate between the two regions (first suggested by The Australian).

No Rotation

The third scenario is that Member States agree to disregard the sequence established to date for regional rotation. This would open the door for Lula da Silva to be considered.

One observer (see Global Memo) has suggested that Lula could engage India and Japan to "maneuver against China [and] make a case against a second Asian term as a given."

Secretary-General Selection Process

The Secretary-General is appointed "by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council," according to Article 97 in Chapter 15 of the UN Charter. GA Resolution 11/1 of 1946 provided some additional details. Lacking more specific rules, candidate criteria, or instructions, the process has been guided by informal, closed dialogue between Member States.

Nominations: As of 2006, nominations must be made formally by a UN Member State. Previously, candidates could be considered without formal endorsement by a government.

Approval in Security Council: The Security Council meets privately to discuss candidates. The appointment decision is subject to the veto (according to UN Charter article 27 (3)), and thus a candidate must gain the support of all five Permanent Members of the Security Council.

In other words, as long as none of the Permanent Members blocks a candidate with a veto and at least four other members vote for him or her, that person may be nominated formally by the Security Council.

Single Nomination: Resolution 11/1 states that it would be "desirable" for the Council to nominate only one candidate to the Assembly for consideration, to avoid debate.

Approval in General Assembly: The final appointment of the Security Council's nominee is determined in a private meeting of the GA. Member States may raise objections to the Security Council's recommendation. In this case the likely result would be a vote by secret ballot.

In the absence of any objections, the Assembly approves the candidate by consensus or acclamation. Resolution 11/1 stipulates: "a simple majority of the members of that body present and voting is sufficient, unless the General Assembly itself decides that a two-thirds majority is called for."

Term Length: Resolution 11/1 specifies that the term of the Secretary-General is for five years, with the possibility to renew for an additional five-year term.

Calls for Selection Reforms: In the view of many governments, UN officials, and civil society groups, the current procedures are not in keeping with existing legitimate international high-level appointment procedures. Efforts to make the process more democratic, transparent and effective have been underway for several years. The UNelections Campaign has called for specific reforms to the process.