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Selecting the next Secretary General of the United Nations: why you should watch the public hearings

This year, the politics of selecting the next UN Secretary General have become something of an event. At least, as much as UN politics can become eventful outside some weird dictator giving an even weirder speech to the UN General Assembly.

I’ve spent this afternoon – morning New York time – watching the first ever public hearings of candidates for the post of the next Secretary General who will start her or his job in 2017.

Over at UN Dispatch, Mark L. Goldberg has already done a good job describing why this public process is quite radical (in UN terms). He is also doing a nice job covering the hearings and some of the social media reactions today, and I recommend reading that.

Instead of doing the same, let me  make some remarks that go beyond the hearings themselves and ask why you should actually watch these hearings. The fact is that the public interest seemed pretty low:

I started to watch the stream on the UN Youtube channels, and there were hardly more than 20-50 people at the same time on this stream (see screenshots below). There were probably more people on the official UN Web TV channel – but how many of these will have been diplomats, in New York and elsewhere, professionally following this?


Under the hashtag #UNSGcandidates there was some coverage going on of these hearings, but this is hardly going to become a trending topic, I guess. And most covering the hearings seemed rather close to UN matters.

So, overall, this process may be more transparent than ever before, but it’s nothing close to a political nomination hearing in a national or even the European Parliament. This is mostly because the two hearings I’ve watched so far – Montengro’s Foreign Minister Luksic and UNESCO Director-General Bokova – were hard to follow.

Unless you are a vivid observer of UN politics, you will hardly understand what debates and issues the questions and answers refer to. All the UN speak, the arcane reports referred to, the multiple acronyms, the mentioning of conferences, processes, reforms that hardly matter in public discourses outside the walls of UN buildings. So the substance is either quite abstract (supporting peace, culture and human rights)  or very detailed, discussing minor issues, or issues that are hardly relevant to the selection of the person.

Then, why would you watch all this, unless you are a diplomat, a UN and global issues journalist, or a political scientist like me studying budgeting in the United Nations system?

For me, the first answer to this question is something I’ve realised thanks to my  UN-focused research in recent months:

In our own national, European or otherwise regional media bubbles, both traditional and social media bubbles, we tend to become obsessed with 2-3 very specific topics that dominate public debates. Studying UN affairs has forced me, in the last months, to open my eyes to the things that go on outside my bubble(s) and in various corners of the world. There is a danger that you just get into another bubble – the UN bubble – but if you really listen, you can see beyond the UN speak. A lot is between the lines, and so few citizens without professional interest will spend time listening to such hearings that are even more boring than most national political discussions.

And yet, listening to the questions that member states and member state groups asked the candidates today, I realise again what issues matter in other parts of the world, what political obsessions certain countries have or what topics they prefer (not) to throw into the ring.

Just like any other UN process, these hearings and the overall selection process for the next Secretary General is fundamentally about 193 countries (and more would-be and should-be states), dozens of regional, (geo)political groups, ideological partnerships and so on trying to balance out their individual obsessions into some kind of collective decisions.

The fun about the selection of the UN Secretary-General by the UN Security Council and then the election of her or him by the General Assembly is that, in the end, this represents some kind of compromise between the most complex set of interests and obsessions that one can imagine. With all ideologies, all history and all possible conflicts that exist in this world become mixed together in one building, in one room, during such a process. The pseudo-transparency of the process – ‘pseudo-‘ because in the end deals will still be made behind closed doors – allows anyone interested to watch this complexity and absurdity unfold in real time, and that’s worth to watch.

At the end of the year, the global media will cover all this from the end of the process. Everything will seem, somehow, logical, rational, somehow predictable. But it’s not.

Spending some hours watching the hearings today – similar to my other professional hobby in the past year: watching UN budget debates – I see again how absurd the functioning of the United Nations, and it becomes more absurd theater when you follow it live.

The transparency of the hearing process thus does what newly acquired transparency always does: it reveals the absurdities of what was going on behind closed doors before, and it gives you a sense of how much more absurdity there is that you don’t even get to see. There is a beauty in this, and thus it’s worth spending some time just watching these hearings.

The hearings are also chance to get to know the future Secretary General in advance, because previously these persons were hardly know. You can get a glimpse at how she (and I hope it will be a she!) might be in the many meetings that we will never see, how she might react when decisions are taken that send peacekeeping missions into conflict zones or how she might be able to moderate between completely opposite views on climate change, ending global pandemics or fighting poverty.

Ultimately, however, this is a process that will decide about a position of global power, and it should be as transparent as possible. And that’s the real reason why one should watch this: Because even if the next UN Secretary General will not be the most powerful person in the world, she  will be amidst the most powerful players on the globe. Holding her to account as early as possible is important for that she acts in the general interest – especially as it is the most difficult job in the world to understand what this global general interest is.



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