Asia, Eastern Europe Head for Showdown Over New UN Chief

UNITED NATIONS – When UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was asked recently about his likely successor when he completes his second five-year term next year, the UN chief hinted at the possibility that an Asian might take over from him.

"Yes, it is true that the secretary-general of the United Nations is elected on a [geographical] rotation basis," he said. "And I think there is a general sense amongst the [UN] membership that next time would be Asia’s turn."

Despite the fact that Annan has nearly 19 more months to go before he steps down in December 2006, the race for the secretary-general’s job is picking up steam.

Moreso because of growing demands by U.S. right-wingers who want Annan to resign now because of scandals involving fraud, mismanagement, and sexual harassment in the UN system worldwide.

If Annan relents – either on his own volition or under U.S. pressure – the Asians have already come up with two candidates who have formally declared their intention to run for the secretary-general’s office: former UN Undersecretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka and ex-Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai.

China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, recently announced its intention to back an Asian candidate for the job but didn’t name names.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said last week that China has expressed its "possible willingness" to support Dhanapala. "China has written to us saying that our candidate will be seriously considered," he told reporters in Colombo.

Asia has not had a secretary-general for nearly 34 years, since Burma’s U Thant.

But Eastern Europeans with covert backing from the United States appear poised to challenge Asian claims to the job.

U.S. President George W. Bush "might prefer Annan’s replacement to come from a region seen as more sympathetic to U.S. interests: Eastern Europe," according to Newsweek magazine.

One possible candidate is the current president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, whose five-year term as head of state ends in October.

"Kwasniewski is a White House favorite for supporting the Iraq invasion with Polish troops and for his domestic free market policies," the magazine said.

In a newspaper interview in Warsaw Friday, Kwasniewski admitted that he would be willing to run for office as an Eastern European candidate if the United Nations undergoes far-reaching changes.

"Then it would be an interesting challenge. But if the United Nations functions as it does now, I am completely unsuitable for such a role," he was quoted as saying.

UN diplomats say Eastern Europe as a regional group does not exist anymore – except at the United Nations.

The 22 countries of the former Eastern Europe, which range from Bulgaria and Georgia to Slovenia and Ukraine, have been virtually absorbed either by the revamped European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

"There is no reason for an Eastern European group to exist at the United Nations," says one long-standing Third World diplomat. "They should join the Western European group where they rightfully belong. The Eastern Europeans were an appendage of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War – and now they are an appendage of Western Europe," he said.

Ramesh Thakur, a senior vice-rector at the Tokyo-based UN University (UNU), said that under a long-standing convention, it is Asia’s turn to have the next secretary-general.

"Eastern Europeans claim they have never had a secretary-general, so they should get priority. But Europeans have had three compared to one for the other continents," he said.

Since the inception of the United Nations nearly 60 years ago, the post of secretary-general has been held by Trygve Lie of Norway (1946-1953); Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden (1953-1961); U Thant of Burma (1961-1971); Kurt Waldheim of Austria (1972-1981); Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru (1982-1991); and Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt (1992-1996). Annan, who is from Ghana, has served since January 1997.

Thakur said that East Europeans, who have been more eager to join the EU and NATO, can lay their claims within European groupings for a tilt at the secretary-general’s post after the next one, he added.

"Asians, who account for 60 percent of the world’s population, would be disenchanted if denied the top UN post," Thakur told IPS.

If Asians cannot agree on a candidate, or propose a weak one, they will have only themselves to blame, Thakur said. They should look at who will be good for the United Nations and for Asia – not who will be good for their bilateral relations.

Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, said she believes that Eastern Europe should be integrated into a unified European group.

"Eliminating the Eastern European claim will be important partly to move forward the UN efforts at recalibrating regional groups to reflect geographic realities rather than Cold War-shaped political formulations," she said.

Norman Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Public Accuracy, said right-wingers in the United States want to oust Annan because he opposed the war against Iraq.

"When Kofi Annan pointed out that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was a violation of the UN charter, he was merely stating a fact. But the Bush administration strongly prefers for such facts to remain unstated," Solomon said.

"The selection of the next secretary-general will indicate the extent to which the Bush administration has succeeded or failed at dominating the United Nations where it counts most," he added.

Bush wants Annan’s successor to be "a reliable servant of the U.S. government," according to Solomon.

"Installing a UN secretary-general with such a bias would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. If such an installation becomes a reality, it will fundamentally alter the secretary-general’s role and shatter the remaining credibility of the United Nations as a global institution that represents law and reason instead of economic blackmail and brute military power," he said.

Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.