WASHINGTON, Dec. 29 (UPI) -- By this time next year Kofi Annan will be packing his bags ready to hand over the United Nations to a new Secretary General, but choosing the seventh U.N. head since the world body's inception in 1945 may not follow the usual formula, and could produce a surprise.
Although Annan does not leave office until Jan 2007, behind the scenes the campaign for the succession is getting into gear, and diplomats in the glass tower on the East River expect the appointment to be sewn up well ahead of time, probably by next summer. Some years ago, former longtime Under-Secretary-General Brian Urquart, the sage of U.N. internal deliberations who had a hand in selecting the first appointee, called choosing the world's number one international diplomat the most labyrinthine process imaginable, shrouded in big power secrecy, and it hasn't changed much since.
The U.N. Charter calls on the General Assembly representing the 191 member countries to appoint the Secretary General, and it started off that way. Today, the process of selection reflects where the real power lies in the world body. The decision has been wrestled away from the General Assembly by the Security Council. Its five permanent , veto-wielding members - the United States, China, Russia, France, and Britain - prefer the secrecy of council deliberations to the transparency of General Assembly deliberations.
Following pro-forma consultations with the other 10 non-permanent council members, their nomination is then submitted to the General Assembly for approval. Routinely, the big powers settle for a candidate from a third-tier country with limited international standing to challenge their decision-making prerogatives in the Security Council. To date, the General Assembly has never rejected the Security Council's choice for the top job.
If the choice follows the time honored regional rotation the next Secretary General will come from Asia. So the conventional wisdom is that the front runners are, typically, Sri Lankan diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, a former U.N. Under-Secretary General for Disarmament, and Thailand's Foreign Minister, Harvard-trained lawyer Surakiart Sathirathai.
Of the two, the Sri Lankan is thought to have an edge because Beijing is said to be amenable to his candidacy, Russia is said to support it and -- having done Washington's bidding at the 1995 conference indefinitely extending the nuclear nonproliferation treaty -- he is expected to gain U.S. support, as well. Sathirathai, who was in New York campaigning for the post in the spring, claims to have the backing of more than a hundred nations. But, he is said to have lost points by pushing his candidacy too aggressively.
There are a couple of reasons why the conventional wisdom could be wrong this time. For one thing there is not much enthusiasm for either Asian candidate, though both are highly respected. One of Kofi Annan's special advisors, who is helping to set the course for the Secretary General's post-UN future, told United Press International many feel that neither man has a high enough international profile and enough prestige in the world community to run the United Nations in this crucial stage when it is adapting to structural reforms, battling with the damage to its reputation from the Oil for Food scandal, and still recovering from the bruising internal battles over the Iraq war.
A second factor is a recent signal from Washington that it does not regard the traditional regional rule as set in granite. This came in the form of a remark by John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who said he didn't believe "the next Secretary-General belongs to any particular region."
A new development is the recent resignation of the U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette, a Canadian. The appointment of Frechette's successor early next year is likely to be a determining factor in the subsequent choice of a new Secretary-General. This week the names of two prominent Indian diplomats, former foreign minister Jaswant Singh, and Kanwal Sibal, India's current ambassador to Moscow, were being mentioned for the post. Analysts said the appointment of a distinguished Indian official to the U.N.'s number two slot would recognize India's emerging regional importance and growing international standing. It was also possible that either man would have China's support in light of the growing rapport between New Delhi and Beijing.
The appointment of what Annan's advisor called "a significant Asian" as Deputy Secretary-General would block another Asian from getting the top job. African candidates would automatically be excluded because the United Nations has had two successive Secretaries-General from that continent -- Kofi Annan and Boutros-Boutros Ghali before him. So by elimination, the field is open to other aspiring candidates from Europe or Latin America.
The United States seems to favor outgoing Polish President Aleksander Kwasnewski, a staunch friend of the Bush administration. Kwasnewski, observers say, is the front runner in a strong campaign by Eastern European countries to claim the post in recognition of their emergence as democracies from Soviet domination; but it's considered highly unlikely that Moscow will accept a Pole in the key international post of Secretary-General. Another possible European could be this year's president of the U.N. General Assembly Jan Eliasson, a lanky, unflappable Swedish diplomat, who gets full marks for his role in helping to cobble together a last-minute compromise solution in the extremely difficult U.N. budget talks last week. But, with Sweden already having fielded a Secretary-General (Dag Hammarskjold) in the 1960s, his chances seem remote.
There seems no longer to be a Bill Clinton factor to give the equation some extra dazzle. Last year, close aides and acquaintances of the former U.S. president were saying that Clinton was interested in taking over at the United Nations. When Annan appointed him U.N. Special Envoy for Tsunami Relief earlier this year, with a suite of offices in the New York headquarters building, some saw it as a possible prelude to the full appointment, which was said to have broad Third World following. But Washington sources said a number of circumstances mitigated against his reported aspirations, including questions about his health, the fact that he would not be able to campaign for his wife Sen. Hillary Clinton if she were to run for president in 2008, possible opposition of some major nations reluctant to see the United Nations under American control -- to say nothing of possible opposition from the Bush administration. "Yet," comments Annan's advisor, "President Clinton remains the most formidable candidate to spearhead UN reform. Few have the political clout to lead the charge through the thicket of political intransigence and bureaucratic inertia."