Time for Transparency in the Machinery of Global Rights

The Secretary General of the United Nations is technically, according to the mundane words of the UN Charter, the organization’s chief administrative officer. But this job, which has been described as equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO, is a prized post, one whose mandate encompasses the promotion of the institution’s three main pillars—peace and security, development, and human rights—as well as administering all of the UN’s programs and agencies. The current occupant, Ban Ki-moon of the Republic of Korea, will end his two-term, ten-year tenure on December 31.

Competition for the appointment is highly political, and the selection process has long been criticized for its lack of transparency and inclusivity (for instance, all of the eight former and current secretary generals have been men). According to Article 97 of the UN Charter, the leading candidate is to be “appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Yet the Council’s deliberations are held behind closed doors, with any decision subject to veto by the five permanent members—the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom. Until recently, there was not even a formal list of selection criteria for the post.

This year has seen notable improvements to the process. Longstanding dissatisfaction with previous appointments led to a global civil society campaign known as “1 for 7 billion,” whose call for a more “open, transparent, and merit-based selection process” helped push the passage last year of General Assembly resolution 69/321. The resolution led to a series of voluntary “informal dialogues” with candidates (three were held this April and June), while also inviting “vision statements” from each of them. Steps have also been taken to enhance civil society participation, including by allowing people from around the world to submit questions to the candidates and hosting, for the first time, a globally televised and webcast townhall meeting featuring questions from diplomats and the public at large.

At present, of the 12 final candidates (six men, six women), 11 participated in the informal dialogues and all but two in the July townhall.

However, there is a long way to go. The Security Council has organized two straw-polls so far and both times the candidate who emerged was the same man: Antonio Guterres, Portugal’s former prime minister, who also served at the European Commission and as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But the council has chosen not the release the results of the polls, even to the other 178 members of the UN—they emerged only as a result of member states leaking them to the media. The president of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, who led the push for transparency in this year’s selection process, has urged the council to formally release the results, but to no avail. Guterres’s success in the straw polls still does not mean he will be the next secretary general—the ultimate decision will once again come down to haggling between the permanent five members of the Security Council, who may choose to ignore all of the assembly’s efforts for a transparent process.

Just as civil society groups have been supporting the General Assembly’s drive for more openness in the selection of the next secretary general, they have also sought to increase the transparency and inclusivity of appointments to other key human rights posts as well.

Last September, for instance, saw the launch of GQUAL, a global campaign for gender parity on international tribunals and other monitoring bodies, with the support of over 600 figures from civil society, academia and government. And this July the election of a new executive secretary for the beleaguered Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was preceded for the first time by a public presentation by five of the six candidates that was webcast live in English and Spanish.

Backed by the Open Society Justice Initiative, together with the Due Process of Law Foundation and the Center for Justice and International Law, the event continued an effort begun last year to shed more light on the process of appointing the members of the Inter-American rights bodies. That included convening an indepedent panel of experts, endorsed by more than 70 human rights groups, nongovernmental groups, universities, and legal clinics throughout the Americas, which assessed the 11 candidates then standing for election to the two bodies. The panel also made recommendations for reform, including supporting the setting up of formal screening committees at both the national level and within the Organization of American States. 

Meanwhile, a coalition of civil society groups is taking a similar approach to the UN committees that oversee the implementation of international human rights treaties (including the Human Rights Committee, which oversees implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). As with the UN Secretary General, the selection of members of these bodies has been characterized by opaque government horse-trading, with little input from other stakeholders on the quality of candidates. In 2012, civil society groups supported the creation of the so-called Addis Ababa guidelines [PDF], which set standards for the independence and impartiality of treaty body members. Now, a new website UNTBelections.org has been set up to publicize candidates’ answers to questions about their skills and experience. The website promises to be an important resource for future treaty body elections (three of which are already set for next year).

Ultimately, the strength of these human rights institutions depends on the character, quality, and inclusiveness of their leadership—their legitimacy requires a selection process that is recognized as legitimate by the people of the world. For too long, elections to key judicial and political posts have taken place in the shadows; it’s time to turn on the lights.

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