TOPICS : Asians divided over top UN job

With growing new support for an Asian as the next secretary-general of the UN, there is a possibility of new candidates joining the race — perhaps from India, Indonesia, East Timor or Japan.

The 114-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the largest single coalition, has joined the 54-member Asian Group and the 53-member African Group in declaring its public support for an Asian as the new chief. The three declared Asian candidates so far are: former Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka; Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai; and South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon. Even though South Korea is part of the Asian Group, the NAM decision rules out support for the South Korean candidate because Seoul is not a member of NAM.

Meanwhile, the election of the new secretary-general may also be indirectly linked to an even more frantic race for another coveted prize at the UN: a permanent seat on the 15-member Security Council. Currently, India, Japan, Germany and Brazil have been relentlessly knocking at the Security Council door for new permanent seats. But those four new seats seem so elusive — primarily because of the division among the members — that the proposal for expansion of Security Council has hit a dead-end.

Publicly, the Japanese have said they are not interested in the job despite the fact that three powerful groups at the United Nations have endorsed Asia’s regional claim to the job. Unless the veto-powered US keeps pushing for an Eastern Europe, the next secretary-general should be from Asia, was also the claim endorsed by the veto-wielding Chinese representatives.

According to a time-honoured tradition — but not reflected in the UN charter — the job of secretary-general should not be held by any of the world’s major political or economic powers, thereby ruling out countries such as the US, Japan, China, Germany, France, Russia and Britain. As a result, former incumbents have come from Norway (Trygve Lie), Sweden (Dag Hammarskjold), Myanmar (U Thant), Austria (Kurt Waldheim), Peru (Javier Perez de Cuellar), Egypt (Boutros Boutros-Ghali) and Ghana (Annan). But that tradition can be broken because it is not cast in stone. Japan, which is the second largest contributor to the UN’s regular budget, accounting for about 20 per cent of the funds, has been aggressive in demanding high-level jobs in a donor-driven world body.

So far, India has not publicly committed itself to any of the three declared Asian candidates. In its quest for a permanent seat in the Security Council, India’s major problem is to secure a two-thirds majority in the 191-member General Assembly. But the unknown factor is the Chinese veto. Although China has continuously reaffirmed its support for an Asian as the next UN chief, it may have second thoughts about an Indian secretary-general, particularly at a time when US is strengthening its relationship with India as a political and military counterweight to China. — IPS