Arora Akanksha – a 34-year-old Indian-Canadian audit coordinator at the United Nations – is one of the candidates challenging António Guterres for the position of Secretary-General, yet the incumbent’s name is the only one on the ballot.
By Sami Jaber
The selection of the United Nations’ Secretary-General (UNSG) has traditionally been a process shrouded in a veil of secrecy. In an undemocratic ceremony much akin to papal conclaves, the previous century’s superpowers would gather away from the public eye to appoint the organisation’s chief executive. While – due to their nature – little is known about these gatherings, it is accepted that they were conducted through a series of polls to encourage or discourage candidates, and that a certain rotation with regards to the appointed UNSGs’ origins was respected. Over the eight decades of its existence – and as many reform attempts – the process has remained largely unchanged. While the UN is known to most as an organisation preaching principles of good governance – central to which are concepts such as pluralist democracy as well as free and fair elections – few have called on the UN to apply these principles internally.
An attempt was made in 2015 to codify the process leading to the appointment of a new UNSG. Notably, an emphasis was placed on the “equal and fair distribution based on gender and geographical balance”. In so doing, the president of the UNGA was given a supervisory role over the selection, stressing the importance of circulating appropriate information to allow member-states to make an informed decision, and allowing candidates to self-nominate.
Yet, tellingly, this very same president of the UNGA whose powers had just been increased – Mogens Lykketoft – lamented that the new protocols were not respected, which “does not live up to the expectations of the membership and the new standard of openness and transparency”. His warning proved prescient.
Merely a year later, António Guterres was appointed to the post in a race where women and Eastern Europeans were favoured – as no woman has ever held the position and the Eastern European Group is the only one of the UN Regional Groups never to have held the office. Embodying these new principles of transparency and equality of opportunity, the only candidate to be neither a female nor Eastern European received the nomination at the end of a process as obscure as any.
A meritocratic argument is often proposed to resolve this discrepancy between the UN’s preachment and its internal practices. Thereby, proponents claim that Guterres was the most qualified candidate for the post, and thus deserved the office. However, Guterres’ 2016 victory against equally – if not more – qualified and favoured candidates is indicative of malpractice in the UNSG selection procedure.
This year again, the incumbent is poised to win an unopposed victory despite the competition. Several candidates have officially submitted their candidacies for the post through the process of self-nomination, yet none are being recognised by the organisation. Earlier this month, the UNGA held an audition with the incumbent to hear his bid, but this privilege is being refused to all other candidates. The logic presented to justify this blatant electoral manipulation is that no other candidate has presently received the backing of any of the UN’s member-states. While this may sound like an authoritative argument – especially when peddled by the world’s most senior diplomats – it is simply untrue, with no legal document stipulating this requirement for a candidacy to be official.
Of these candidates, a notable one is Arora Akanksha. The Canadian national of Indian descent is more than twice as young as the incumbent – which is reflected in her proposed course of action. Following vast experience – notably as audit coordinator at the UN – her appraisal is scalding. The organisation is not living up to its expectations due to its failure to apply its own standards internally. Often, much of the UN’s funding is allocated to the organisation’s upholding rather than to the cause it alleges to serve. According to Arora, for every US dollar the UN spends, only $0.29 is used for any given cause, with the rest serving to quench the organisation’s bureaucratic thirst for publicity above efficiency. Shockingly, this amount further falls to $0.15 when the cause in question is climate change. Despite – or perhaps in light of – her disruptive agenda which would place the wellbeing of vulnerable populations first through the promotion of innovative and modern solutions, the UN is actively stifling Arora’s campaign by denying her the right to appear on official ballots.
Whether Arora is the best candidate to the post of the UNSG is another question. For now, however, the struggle is simply about being allowed to even ask this question. Answers and considerations may appear later, but not unless her name appears on the ballot.
Undeniably, through its very institutional design, the UN’s mandate limits the potential success of any of its leaders. Upwards of 200 parties representing the full spectrum of opinions need to be brought to an agreement on a range of divisive issues with immense consequences.
The UN is also famously in servitude to its member-states, relying on them to deliberate, implement, and enforce decisions. Domestically, the organisation serves as an ideal scapegoat for politicians looking to deflect blame, and is thus further rendered illegitimate.
Such has been the case since the UN’s creation. While the political elites at its head may not be to blame for the organisation’s failures, the only way to verify this hypothesis is by changing the variable. Patriarchic and ageist prejudices have always served to justify the UNSG’s selection. After 8 decades of shortcomings, the time has come to try a different approach. It is time for the UN to practice the democracy it preaches.
For more information on Arora’s campaign and ways to challenge the status-quo, visit: aroraforsg.org