You are here: Gro Harlem Brundtland urges reform to "secretive" UN Secretary-General selection process

This speech was delivered by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and Deputy Chair of The Elders, at UNA-UK's commemoration of the United Nations' 70th anniversary at London's Guildhall on Friday 9 October 2015.

Thank you very much Natalie. And I would like to congratulate UNA-UK for the excellent work it has been doing over the past year on the 1 for 7 Billion campaign. We at The Elders have been working together to reform the process for selecting the next UN Secretary-General. I would like to start by talking about this issue, and the need to modernise the UN Security Council.

The biggest problem with the selection of the Secretary-General is that it has remained a highly secretive process. The selection has been made behind closed doors in the Security Council, with little indication of how the decisions are actually made. The five permanent members, including the UK of course, have the right to veto any candidate, and have overwhelming control over the process.

Despite the fact that some very good Secretaries-General have been selected in the past, the process is designed to encourage the lowest common denominator candidate to be chosen. This cannot be acceptable when we are choosing such an important position – the Secretary-General is seen as a representative of all the world’s people, and this must be reflected in the way the selection is made.

The Elders therefore want to change the way that the selection is organised. This means increasing transparency, so that there is a clear timetable for the selection process. And so that countries outside the Security Council have the opportunity to scrutinise candidates and hold hearings with them. Candidates should be encouraged to put forward platforms, where they outline their priorities for the UN, so that everyone can get a sense of what they would do if they got the job. We also believe that instead of the Security Council nominating one candidate and asking the General Assembly to rubber-stamp the decision, it should put forward multiple candidates, to give the rest of the world a real choice.

Finally, it is important to change the process to increase the independence of the Secretary-General. Currently, the Secretary-General can be elected to two five year terms. The downside of this practice is that Secretaries-General can feel constrained in their first five years, because they cannot afford to upset the permanent members when running for re-election. In future, Secretaries-General should instead serve a single, longer term of around seven years. This would give them the time to implement their priorities within the UN and free them from electoral concerns.

So that is one way in which the UN needs to be modernised. But The Elders also believe that the Security Council needs to take in more members if it is to remain relevant to the world over the coming decades. The five permanent members now – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – still represent the post-war settlement from 1945. Seventy years on, they do not represent the realities of today’s world. The Council cannot remain a credible force for preventing conflict if it is unable to include the most powerful and influential countries within it. Asia, Africa and Latin America must all be better represented and encouraged to feel that they have a real role to play in preserving peace and security in their regions.

Negotiations over expanding the Security Council to take in new permanent members have been going on for over 20 years, and only limited progress has been made in that time. Any agreement has to be approved by a two-thirds vote in the UN General Assembly, and then ratified by all five of the current permanent members. Neither of these requirements has proven easy to achieve. 

Given this deadlock, The Elders have put forward a compromise proposal, which would create a new category of ‘semi-permanent’ Security Council membership. This would allow new countries to be elected for a term of around seven years. They could be indefinitely re-elected so long as the General Assembly agreed to keep renewing their term on the Council.

This formula would allow countries like India and Brazil to take a much bigger role in promoting international peace and security. At the same time, it would remind the new countries that their membership is a privilege, one that has to be continuously earned through maintaining the confidence of the rest of the world. I believe that this would help significantly to ensure that they used their new position of influence responsibly.

And it would also be a way of ensuring the long-term viability of the United Nations, by making sure that the most powerful countries remain within the UN system. 

Photo: Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, speaking at London's Guildhall. Copyright: UNA-UK