Gordon Campbell on Helen Clark’s UN Secretary-General bid

Helen Clark’s informal campaign to succeed Ban Ki-Moon as UN Secretary-General is moving into a higher gear. Her June 11 interview on BBC’s Hard Talk programme has been widely seen as a bid for greater exposure, although she was tactfully modest to interviewer Tim Sebastian about her chances of winning the top UN job. To date, Clark has been more frank with the New Zealand media, which has been a useful channel for her comments out to a global audience. This recent South China Morning Post article for instance – headlined “Helen Clark, New Zealand’s former leader, sets sights on top UN job” – is comprised almost entirely of Clark’s quotes to Kiwi journalists. For example:

Earlier this week, Clark told Fairfax New Zealand media that 2016 loomed as a watershed year for women, particularly if Hillary Rodham Clinton runs for the US presidency, as is widely expected, and if a woman becomes chief of the UN.

“I think the women of the world will be screaming ‘yes’. It will be a year when a woman is making a very strong bid for the US presidency. There’s a woman at the International Monetary Fund [Christine Lagarde], a woman at the Federal Reserve [Janet Yellen], there’s a lot of last bastions being stormed by women, so the time will come when women say, ‘What about the UN’?”

Clark’s actions in her present job at UN headquarters have been linked by some observers to her ambition to succeed Ban. Currently, Clark holds down the No 3 job in the UN hierarchy, as head of the UN Development Plan. Just over a month ago, Clark’s office announced a sweeping plan to cut staff numbers at UNDP – and these plans, and the way they have been managed, have triggered a letter of protest to Ban Ki-Moon from the three organisations that represent UNDP staff. Among the contents of the letter:

The three staff federations of the United Nations Common System would like to express their deep concern as well as the disappointment of their staff around the world with regards to the severe cuts being made to posts at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

We understand that these cuts were undertaken in utmost secrecy, without due consultation, and in direct violation of the principles expressed in General Assembly Resolution 128. Furthermore, the speed at which they are being made will have a seriously deleterious impact on UNDP staff; this from an organization that claims on its website to “empower lives.” The federations are not aware of this being prompted by a financial crisis and have yet to see evidence that cutting 30 per cent of the staff will make UNDP more rather than less fit to serve its purpose.

The Inner City Press (which reports on the UN’s affairs at the organisation’s HQ in New York and in the field) has linked the cost-cutting drive to the Ban succession, as being likely to appeal to the UN’s main donor nations. The initial report (which includes the contents of Clark’s letter to UNDP staff) is here. A similar report on the UNDP layoffs from the IPS news service is available here. The IPS report puts the changes down to this:

Clark said the structural change was the brainchild of the UNDP executive board, comprising 36 member states, represented on a regional basis. Last year, the board approved “a new Strategic Plan for UNDP”, and since then the whole organisation has been making the changes necessary to fully implement that plan.

The Inner City Press report has linked the UNDP changes to Clark’s Ban succession bid:

The connection is that Helen Clark wants to replace Ban Ki-moon as Secretary General, despite the post as his successor is said to be reserved for the Eastern European group which has never held it. Clark is banking on gender trumping geography, and job cutting seems to be her campaign issue for Western, donor countries.

A follow-up article in the same publication a few days ago reported on high levels of disenchantment among UNDP staff about Clark’s leadership of the organization during this process of change.

Many respondents agreed that they support change at UNDP, but they were united in decrying the way the Administrator [Clark] and her Management Team have gone about the process…Respondents asked why no financial or cost-benefit analysis had been provided and explained to staff.

According to Inner City Press editor Matthew Russell Lee, Clark has not been available to the media to explain the rationale and timeframe for cutting up to one third of UNDP staff at its New York head office – which will have serious repercussions (in some cases, deportation) for many of those affected.

New Zealand has a direct interest in another upcoming UN vote, apart from the process to choose Ban’s successor. On October 14, the UN General Assembly will conduct a vote on which nations will be granted temporary membership of the Security Council in 2015/2016. Spain and Turkey are the other contenders for the two available seats in the bloc to which New Zealand belongs. On his recent US visit, New Zealand Prime Minister lobbied on behalf of New Zealand’s campaign for one of those posts. Yet, as I pointed out last September, in a column about Key’s previous visit to New York:

One of the weirder aspects of this campaign has gone virtually unreported. Namely – how come our rivals for this seat are Turkey and Spain? The reason is because New Zealand is counted, for UN electoral purposes, as part of the WEOG [Western European and Others] bloc of nations, along with Canada and Australia and (with provisos) the United States and Israel as well. It is our colonial and immigration history – and not our current aspirations – that define our UN identity. Geography is not the prime determinant. If it was, we would be contesting the Asia-Pacific seat, against Fiji and Malaysia.

You would think that if Key really wanted to see reform at the UN that furthers New Zealand’s independent interests, he might have used his speech to press for our inclusion in the Asia-Pacific bloc where we repeatedly say our trade and diplomatic future belongs, and not in the Western European bloc where Foreign Minister Murray McCully has been busily downgrading our diplomatic representation.

Is New Zealand still in the running? It certainly hasn’t helped our case that Australia has just completed a turn in the WEOG role on the Security Council. Spain, meanwhile, has looked like the first place finisher ever since serious campaigning began in early 2014.

Reports say Spanish-speaking countries [led by Argentina] will back Spain. Thus, Spain appears as the likely first-place finisher. That leaves Turkey to compete with New Zealand for the second seat…

As the above link makes clear, Turkey has been campaigning hard since April 2014, and has recently stepped up its spending among African countries and its diplomatic contacts with Pacific nations. In 2009, which was the last time it tried for a temporary seat on the Security Council, Turkey was a clear winner over its two rivals at the time, Austria and Iceland. Signing up support beforehand could be a crucial factor in a successful bid.

This time,…During the voting, rather than verbal pledges, winning signatures under mutual support agreements from more and more member countries will increase the chances of victory, although nothing can be assumed as guaranteed, according to Turkish officials.

Clearly, New Zealand could well be this year’s Iceland, and appears the outsider in this contest. So far, the Key government has been refusing to reveal how much it has been spending on the SC bid.

Clark will presumably be citing our “honorary European” WEOG credentials to claim that she – and not someone actually from Eastern Europe, whose “turn” it is to be Secretary-General – should get the nod to succeed Ban. Once again, Murray McCully’s misguided and mismanaged drive to reduce our diplomatic representation in Europe will not be helping Clark’s bid to succeed Ban.

So who are Clark’s main rivals? Four years ago in a Werewolf article about the UN Secretary-General succession contest I suggested Slovenia’s Danilo Turk as the contender most likely to succeed. In January of this year, Slovenia formally announced Turk’s candidacy for Ban’s job.

There are other strong candidates from Eastern Europe. As the Economist recently pointed out (in an article about the Ban succession that did not mention Clark) Slovakia has put forward two leading candidates, Jan Kulbis and Miloslav Lajkac. If however, the UN is dead set on appointing a woman to the top job, there is a woman from Eastern Europe who – like Clark – heads a top United Nations agency. UNESCO chief Irina Bokova was formally nominated by Bulgaria last month as its contender to succeed Ban.

Unfortunately for the Bulgarians, It should be noted that Bokova has had more than one battle with the United States over UNESCO’s recognition of Palestine, which eventually led to the US withdrawing its funding entirely from UNESCO in 2012. Bokova got into further strife with the US this year after UNESCO acceded to Arab League objections and cancelled an exhibition in Paris about the historical links between the Jewish people and the Middle East. As a result, her candidacy may not even get off the ground, given that the Americans could exercise a veto, and push her off the short list. Ironically…like Clark, Bokova has also overseen severe staff cuts at her UN agency, in the wake of the US funding exit from UNESCO

Fairly or otherwise, the success or otherwise of New Zealand’s Security Council bid in October will impact on Clark’s succession bid. Her track record at UNDP will also be a factor. In the interests of transparency – which would be re-assuring in the light of her ambition to lead the UN – Clark needs to be more forthcoming about (a) why UNDP staff in New York need to be cut by a third without adequate consultation (b) what the cost benefit rationale for the cuts may be and (c) whether these actions really are unrelated to her bid to succeed Ban Ki-Moon as Secretary-General.