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Antonio Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal and former head of the UN refugee agency, is the unanimous choice of the UN Security Council to be the next UN Secretary General.

At a press conference on 5 October 2016, the current President of the Security Council announced that Mr Guterres was the Council’s ‘clear favourite’, after its sixth round of ‘straw poll’ voting showed him receiving 13 ‘encourage’ votes, two ‘no opinion’ votes, and no ‘discourage’ votes. He beat nine other candidates (including Bulgaria’s EU budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva who had been nominated only days earlier).

Before the end of 2016 the United Nations must select its ninth Secretary-General, to head the organisation until at least 2021. He – or she – will replace Ban Ki-moon, whose second term as Secretary-General is due to end on 31 December 2016. Despite pressure to appoint a woman, and/or someone from Eastern Europe, the candidate reportedly in the lead at the moment is António Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal.

The selection process is rather opaque. The UN Charter simply states that the Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly (GA), on the recommendation of the Security Council (SC). This is fleshed out to some extent by GA resolutions, and rules of procedure for the General Assembly and Security Council, but there have been many calls for greater transparency and inclusiveness.

The Security Council deliberates in private, first holding a series of informal ‘straw polls’ to gauge levels of support for the candidates and potentially narrow down the field, and then adopting a resolution recommending a single candidate to the General Assembly. The recommendation needs nine votes, and any of the five permanent members of the Security Council can exercise their veto. The General Assembly then formally appoints the recommended candidate, usually without debate.

Because there is no detailed job description or set of requirements for the Secretary-General – who is described in the UN Charter as the ‘chief administrative officer’ of the UN – the criteria for selection are not clear, and incumbents have varied widely in their interpretations of the role. The 2015 UN letter inviting Member States to nominate candidates does give some criteria, but these still allow considerable latitude.

A 1997 GA Resolution on selecting the Secretary-General says that ‘due regard shall continue to be given to regional rotation and shall also be given to gender equality’. Regional rotation is by no means strict, but as there has never been a Secretary-General from the Eastern Europe group of countries candidates from those countries are likely to be in a strong position. Nor has there ever been a female Secretary-General. The UK strongly supports appointing a woman, ‘if all qualifications are equal’.

Pressure for reform from some UN Member States, as well as UN working groups and reports, and civil society groups including the ‘1 for 7 billion’ campaign, have resulted in some new processes for 2016. Member States have been invited to nominate their candidates publicly, and encouraged to nominate female candidates; and the General Assembly has held public dialogues with all the candidates. But other proposals, including recommending more than one candidate to the General Assembly, limiting the Secretary-General to one term of office and introducing a clear timeline for appointment, have not been implemented.

By mid-September 2016, twelve candidates – six men and six women – had been publicly nominated by UN Member States. Eight of the twelve are from Eastern Europe. Three candidates have withdrawn from the process, and others may yet emerge. After General Assembly hearings for all the candidates and four rounds of ‘straw polls’ in the Security Council, António Guterres (Portugal) is still reportedly in the lead, although he may not have Russia’s support. Two other men, Miroslav Lajčák (Slovakia) and Vuk Jeremić (Serbia) are apparently in second place and third place respectively. Female candidates are not currently faring well.

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