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New Zealand's Helen Clark launches local bid for top UN job
Diplomatic Pouch / August 6, 2016

By Larry Luxner

Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand who’s headed the United Nations Development Program since April 2009, wants a promotion: she hopes to become the first woman to head the UN in the organization’s 71-year history.

But Clark, 66, is no longer the front-runner among a dozen candidates vying to replace UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when his term expires on Dec. 31.

In an unofficial straw poll conducted July 21, Clark placed sixth out of 12. At the head of the pact was Portugal’s António Guterres, who served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015. Next on the list was former Slovenian President Danilo Türk, followed by Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova — the current director-general of UNESCO — and two ex-foreign ministers from the former Yugoslavia: Serbia’s Vuk Jeremić and Macedonia’s Srgjan Kerim.

If the list seems top-heavy with Eastern Europeans, that’s because of an informal rotation process that has never produced a SG from that region. In addition, all eight current and former UN chiefs have been men. Several factors appear to be working in Clark’s favor, though others — including geography — might work against her. A formal vote to choose the UN’s ninth SG will take place during the UN General Assembly in mid-September.

Clark spoke July 13 at the Center for International & Strategic Studies, a Washington-based think tank. In introducing her, CSIS President John Hamre noted that ever since 1945, the United States has championed the UN as central to its interests.

“But recently, we’ve become a bit disenchanted as a nation, and I think that’s a mistake,” he said. “What distinguished the first and second half of the 20th century was that we had a set of international institutions to deal with transnational problems that we could not resolve ourselves. Americans have forgotten this, and it’s a part of our obligation to bring back this consciousness of the very important role the UN plays to make it a safer and better world. That’s really what’s at stake now when we look at the next leader of the UN.”

Following in Ban Ki-Moon’s footsteps, Clark selected CSIS for her first speech in Washington since launching her campaign to become the next SG. The politician noted that before she became UNDP’s administrator just over seven years ago, she spent nine years as New Zealand’s prime minister.

“That was the culmination of a 27-year parliamentary career. I don’t think I ever lost a vote in parliament,” Clark said. “When you operate in a situation of considerable complexity, you act to bring people together on issues. And being New Zealand’s leader of the Asia-Pacific — a huge and diverse region — these are important skills to have.”

Clark now hopes to take those skills up to the 38th floor of UN headquarters, from where, as secretary-general, she would oversee a staff of roughly 44,000 and an annual budget of $5.4 billion. “I’m very honored to have the full and official support of the New Zealand government,” she said. “Bear in mind that this is the government that defeated my government.”

Clark conceded that the 193-member world body “must step up its performance.”

“I worry for its future,” she said of the UN. “There is a real risk it could drift to the periphery at a very time when we the people need to have confidence in the UN’s capacity to resolve the world’s many problems and not be a bystander. It needs someone of global standing. The secretary-general must also understand and have empathy for the world’s many small states which look to the UN to protect their rights and interests — and that comes rather naturally to me.”

Clark said that under her stewardship, the UNDP “is now ranked as the most transparent, able organization of its kind in the world, even more transparent than USAID. This was a huge change from the past, when it was a typical multilateral, inward-looking organization.”

Recalling her work in development issues — including those relating to climate change — Clark said: “I don’t think any other candidate could match the engagement I’ve had in Africa, which constitutes about half the Security Council’s business.”

If chosen for the job, which she called “an enormous soft-power position,” Clark said her top two priorities would be strengthening the UN’s peacekeeping role around the world, and seeing the SG’s office take the lead on development and environmental issues.

“It’s important that the secretary-general takes fiscal responsibility to drive through the changes needed,” she said. “The reorganization I led at UNDP reduced our administrative costs and increased funds for development.”

Clark praised President Obama for encouraging more UN member states to contribute funds to peacekeeping. She also praised the “long-term friendship” between her country and the United States.

“There were roughly half a dozen countries in the 20th century which managed to maintain continuous democratic governments. One was yours, and one was mine,” she said. “I know from my grandparents were forever grateful for the decision Franklin D. Roosevelt took during World War II. The fall of Singapore in January 1942 left the South Pacific exposed, and FDR pledged that the U.S. would come to New Zealand’s defense.”

That feeling of gratitude is mutual, Clark told her audience at CSIS.

“New Zealand was an early mover in dispatching special forces to Afghanistan after 9/11. As UNDP administrator, I’ve been supportive of U.S. contributions to our work, and its willingness to see New Zealand as a competitor,” she said. “Should I be selected as the next UN secretary-general, I will bring with me a legacy of friendship with the United States and an understanding of the vital role the U.S. plays.”

Clark said she would absolutely not tolerate sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers — a reference to recurring scandals that have plagued the “blue helmets” in conflict zones ranging from Haiti to the Congo. She added, however, that “peacekeepers need to be supported in the field” with both financial and strategic resources.

“We need to look for new ways to strengthen its preventive capacity, including the use of better early-warning systems,” she said. “We should draw on the presence the UNDP has had in 168 countries around the world. We need to use the extensive presence we have and build close partnerships with others in a position to help defuse conflicts.”

Clark added: “We have to keep at this work of addressing the root causes of what undermines societies — or we face the grim consequences, which are sadly today’s status quo: forced displacement and war.”

John Key, New Zealand’s current prime minister, says his predecessor is not out of the running yet, despite her failure to make the cut in the July 21 straw poll.

“What you’ve got at the moment is these pretty raw and blunt tactical voting strategies playing out,” Key told an Auckland TV station July 25, referring to efforts to ensure that the winner would be from Eastern Europe. “I think Helen always knew it was going to be tough. It is tough, but I wouldn’t write her off yet.”

Whoever becomes the next UN secretary-general will have to face the perennial issue of who has veto power at the 15-member UN Security Council — a privilege now enjoyed only by the council’s five permanent members: China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States. Over time, other countries have protested the inherent unfairness of this system, with pressure mounting to include emerging powers such as Brazil and India, as well as economically powerful nations like Germany and Japan.

“Changing the composition of the UN Security Council is just about as difficult as changing the U.S. constitution,” Clark conceded. “I think it’s critical that the Security Council reflects the world as it is today, rather than as it was in 1945. This really is a pressing issue, and I encourage diplomats to address it.”

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