The Other 2016 Election — And Why The U.S. Should Care

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Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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While we in Washington are fixated on the upcoming presidential election, another critical election has just begun: the race for the United Nations secretary-general.

Given that the U.S. is currently the largest funder of the U.N., providing 22 percent of the organization’s budget, this election deserves our attention. The U.N. secretary-general has real power and is uniquely positioned to introduce much-needed reforms to the U.N. system. The outcome of this election will undoubtedly matter a great deal for U.S. engagement in multilateral diplomacy in the coming years, and so it is crucial that we be actively engaged in this process.

The U.N. has been responsible for major achievements over the course of the last 70 years: it advanced human rights worldwide through the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; it led the global effort to eradicate smallpox, declaring the disease’s extinction in 1980; and each year, it feeds some 100 million people in the most challenging of circumstances.

However, for all its good work, the U.N. has repeatedly come under attack as corrupt, inefficient and ineffectual.

Sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers in Central African Republic has harmed the very civilians the United Nations was meant to protect. The U.N. Human Rights Council’s unfortunate targeting of Israel has detracted from the council’s ability to credibly speak out against human rights violators and eradicate injustices. And perhaps most significantly, the U.N. has failed to prevent the deaths of nearly half a million people in Syria — and the exodus of many more.

The next secretary-general will have to approach these issues head-on if the organization is going to be capable of addressing the greatest challenges in our world.

So far, 11 candidates from different countries have thrown their hats into the ring. While the unwritten tradition of regional rotation dictates it’s Eastern Europe’s turn to have a candidate elected, others are running in the hopes that the rotation could be abandoned. Indeed, the entire selection process is currently undergoing a sea change.

The selection of the U.N. secretary-general has historically been a backroom deal among the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, referred to as the P5: the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia. This year, however, the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, has instituted a new public interview process for the candidates, substantially increasing the transparency of the selection process.

April 12 marked the beginning of these interviews, referred to as “informal dialogues,” during which the then-nine candidates presented their visions for the future of the U.N. and fielded roughly 800 questions from countries and civil society organizations. When two more candidates entered the race, a second session of informal dialogue was held on June 7. These sessions were streamed live over the Internet, allowing viewers all over the world to tune in.

While the P5 will still select and practically elect their consensus candidate for secretary-general, the informal dialogues have already made the process considerably more transparent and inclusive and have increased public scrutiny. This is a good thing.

However, despite this historic effort to open the process, the candidates have responded timidly, declining to make concrete commitments as to what they would do in office. As far as I am aware, only one of the candidates, former Serbian foreign minister and a past president of the U.N. General Assembly Vuk Jeremić, has presented a detailed platform for improving the organization.

There were some good ideas put forward in his platform. He made strong commitments on women’s rights and human rights more broadly, promising to introduce gender parity in U.N. appointments, to advocate globally for an end to gender-based violence, and to increase the budget of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights by 50 percent on a sustainable basis. He also took a tough line on U.N. reform, promising to require public financial disclosures from senior U.N. officials — something that’s currently optional — to protect whistleblowers and to increase independent oversight substantially.

I hope other topic candidates running for the position publish their own platforms soon as well, including Helen Clark, head of the United Nations Development Group; Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova; former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres; and former chief of staff to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Susana Malcorra.

Given the unprecedented challenges facing the international community, in areas ranging from climate change to counterterrorism, and the increasing need for coordinated action to address these challenges, this election should encompass a debate about the future of the U.N. And given U.S. investment in the U.N. — an investment that will continue regardless of who is elected — it is in our interest to engage all candidates in this debate and hold them to a high standard.

As a matter of principle, the U.S. should announce that it will not support any candidate who does not publish a detailed platform of their ideas and commitments — the job at hand requires nothing less.

Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is cofounder of the law firm of “Davis Goldberg & Galper PLLC”, and cofounder of the public relations firm “Trident DMG”. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).