Those of us who believe in
international law, human rights and liberal democracy often have mixed
feelings about the United Nations. On the one hand, its ideals are
unquestionably noble, and most of its critics – such as US ambassador
John Bolton – are the sort of people one would be afraid to be alone
with in a dark alley.

On the other hand, the UN frequently
exasperates even its firmest friends with its interminable woolliness,
its mind-boggling bureaucracy, and its cosying up to dictators of all
stripes. These features are all on display with the current procedure
to select a new secretary-general.

As this morning’s Australianreports,
there are so far four declared candidates to replace Kofi Annan, whose
term expires at the end of the year. All four are from Asia; I won’t
bother listing the names, since it’s unlikely most readers will have
ever heard of them. A straw poll
of the Security Council on Monday, where the 15 member nations chose
between “encourage”, “discourage” and “no opinion” on each candidate,
was indecisive, although the results were not officially released.

This sort of touchy-feely closed-door process is fairly typical of the UN, as is the “unwritten rule of regional rotation” that says the new secretary-general has to be Asian. But most interesting is The Australian‘s claim that a likely candidate, albeit undeclared, is former Singaporean prime minister Goh Chok Tong.

At
a time when both the UN and the whole fabric of international law face
some fairly severe threats, surely the UN should be looking for a
leader who embodies the ideals of freedom and democracy, not another
authoritarian. Yet if Goh does become a candidate, it will put the UN’s
chief critics in something of a dilemma.

When they attack the UN
for being too friendly to dictatorships, it’s usually a quite different
sort that they have in mind. Singapore’s brand of authoritarianism is
popular in right-wing circles in the west, and Goh may well be a
secretary-general they would feel comfortable with.
Which of course might have something to do with his barrow being pushed by The Australian.

Peter Fray

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