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7 questions we want the candidates for U.N. secretary-general to answer

Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Administrator of UNDP, addresses Member States regarding her candidacy for U.N. Secretary-General. (UN Photo)

By Tom Murphy and Lisa Nikolau, Humanosphere reporters

Yesterday wrapped up the first-ever public questioning of the candidates vying for the post as the next head of the United Nations. The once completely opaque process is changing thanks to public campaigns and pressure from member countries. Declared candidates fielded questions from members of the U.N. General Assembly over the past three days.

Given the fact that the U.N. is taking steps to open up, we thought it might be worth sharing a few of the questions we’d like to see the next U.N. secretary-general answer. Weigh in with your questions in the comments.

What will you do to stop the problem of sexual abuse among peacekeeping units?

There is a pretty major problem with the U.N.’s peacekeeping missions, especially in the Central African Republic. Allegations of sexual abuse and rape keep coming up, and it is hard to tell whether any sort of changes are actually going to stop future attacks. The peacekeeping body in the U.N. reports directly to the secretary-general, meaning there is actually an opportunity to do something about the problem.

The good news is that countries sending the peacekeepers are beginning to take legal action against individuals who commit such abuses, notably France and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. People rely on the support provided by peacekeeping units, especially when they are displaced from their homes or are vulnerable. The rampant abuses are particularly egregious given the reason peacekeepers are deployed to a country in the first place. They need to stop and the new secretary-general better have a plan to put into action Day 1.

What will you do to pressure governments, in the developed and developing worlds, to address climate change?

The global movement to combat and adapt to climate change has already gained traction under the current secretary-general, who launched “Caring for Climate,” Sustainable Energy for All, the Zero Hunger Challenge and other initiatives. It’s more critical now than ever, though, to have international cooperation and help move developing countries toward a low-carbon economy.

One of the most striking challenges at the 2015 Climate Change Conference was the difficulty ensuring full participation from governments in different economic stages and with varying agendas. As we move forward in this ongoing effort, we will need an extraordinarily efficient, strategic leader to coordinate change on a global scale.

Should the decision for the next UNSG continue to be determined by the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members? If the selection process does not change, can you act with independence from the Security Council governments?

Former Undersecretary-General for Special Political Affairs Brian Urquhart, one of the early employees in the body, wrote in his memoir nearly 30 years ago that the process of selecting the secretary-general is meant to pick “a candidate who will not exert any troubling degree of leadership, commitment, originality or independence.”

That is done through the process where the five permanent members of the Security Council winnow down and present a candidate for the General Assembly to ratify. It is an undemocratic process that, as Urquhart and others argue, makes the secretary-general beholden to the few powerful countries, not all the member states.

The hearings three months before the Security Council meets is a possible end-around the traditional process. It is possible that the majority of countries will endorse a candidate and compel the Security Council to follow their lead.

Should the next secretary-general be a woman?

There is also a campaign under way for the appointment of the first-ever woman to lead the U.N. Half of the eight declared candidates are women. They notably include UNESCO head Irina Bokova of Bulgaria and former New Zealand Prime Minister and current UNDP head Helen Clark. Bokova is believed to have an edge above the pack because of the informal rotation of leadership landing on Eastern Europe for this term, but the potential for Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to join the fray could bring in some heavy-hitters to the discussion.

Chances are looking pretty good that a woman will assume the top post, but men like former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres of Portugal may make it an interesting race. If the process is changing this year, it might make sense to see the historic election of a woman this year.

What will you do to reduce gender discrimination and violence in developing countries?

Gender inequalities and violence against women are still deeply rooted issues in every society. In many developing countries, resources to combat these trends are still relatively scarce. World-over, women are denied access to basic education and health care, are underrepresented in political processes, and are frequent victims of violence and discrimination in the workplace and at home.

Building off of U.N. Women, the UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign and other initiatives that reach areas of the developing world, the U.N. needs to continue to combat the systems of gender discrimination, forced and child marriage, female genital mutilation, and all forms of violence against women and girls.

Do you think the EU-Turkey deal is in the best interest of migrants and refugees trying to enter Europe?

This is a more pointed way to ask about the Syrian refugee crisis. It is also one of the most significant policies enacted by Europe to stem the flow of people trying reach Europe. It matters for a lot of reasons, but notable is the fact that the U.N.’s refugee body pulled out of some of its support work in Greece because the agreement turns camps processing people for asylum into detainment and return facilities – fundamentally in opposition with what the organization is tasked to do.

Policies like this are where the U.N. can have some sway, or at least public input. As a major convener, the U.N. can and should participate in the ongoing meetings and negotiations to both deal with the problems in Syria and the refugees displaced by the civil war. It is not likely to be a situation that will improve by the time the new secretary-general steps in at the start of 2017.

Is the U.N. responsible for the cholera outbreak in Haiti? What will you do to ensure the victims get justice and that cholera is eliminated from the island?

This one is kind of simple. U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal brought cholera to Haiti, the mission disposed of its waste into a river used by hundreds of thousands of people, cholera spread downstream and caused what might be the first ever outbreak in the country’s history. When faced with the responsibility of causing more than 9,000 people to die, the current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hid behind immunity to avoid any responsibility.

Ongoing court cases and pressure from activists mean the problem is not going away. That and the fact that cholera remains in the country and keeps killing Haitians. It is the responsibility of the U.N. to end the outbreak entirely and take responsibility for what was done under its watch.


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