By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 9 2023 – When the General Assembly elected its President for 2023-2024 last week, it continued a longstanding tradition of male dominance in the UN’s highest policy making body.
The new President for the 78th session, Ambassador Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago, a longstanding career diplomat and a former Permanent Representative, was elected June 1 “by acclamation”.
While all nine secretaries-general* (UNSGs) have been men, there have been only four women out of 78 who were elected as presidents of the General Assembly (PGAs): Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit from India (1953), Angie Brooks from Liberia (1969), Sheikha Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa from Bahrain (2006) and Maria Fernando Espinosa Garces from Ecuador (2018).
But the blame for these anomalies has to be shouldered by the UN’s 193 member states who are quick to adopt scores of resolutions on gender empowerment but fail to practice them in the highest echelons of the UN totem pole—described as a classic case of political hypocrisy—as they rarely, if ever, nominate women candidates for the presidency.
Meanwhile, as a long-practiced tradition, “elections” to some of the highest UN offices and committees are no longer voted by member states, as it was done in a distant past.
The age of competitive elections has largely come to an end—and it’s the “gentleman’s agreement” that matters (but where in the world are the ladies?)
Lou Charbonneau, UN Director of Human Rights Watch says UN votes for seats on important bodies like the Security Council and Human Rights Council often make a mockery of the word “election.” They typically have little or no competition, ensuring victory for even the least-qualified candidates.
Under an unwritten rule, the five “regional groups” at the UN take turns – on the basis of geographical rotation— and decide what offices they should claim undermining the very concept of democratic elections.
The five regional groups include the African Group; the Asia and the Pacific Group; the Eastern European Group (even though Eastern Europe has long ceased to exist after the end pf the Cold War and the dismantling of the Soviet Union); the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC); and the Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
And all these decisions are taken behind closed doors, with rare instances of member states breaking this rule – or unceremoniously jumping in, to claim a post which could result in an election by ballot, not by acclamation.
Meanwhile, there was at least one instance in recorded history when the president of the General Assembly was elected, on the luck of a draw -– following a dead heat.
With the Asian group failing to field a single candidate, the politically-memorable battle took place ahead of the 36th session of the General Assembly back in 1981 when three Asian candidates contested the presidency: Ismat Kittani of Iraq, Tommy Koh of Singapore and Kwaja Mohammed Kaiser of Bangladesh (described as the “battle of three Ks”—Kittani, Koh and Kaiser).
On the first ballot, Kittani got 64 votes; Kaiser, 46; and Koh, 40. Still, Kittani was short of a required majority — of the total number of members voting. On a second ballot, Kittani and Kaiser tied with 73 votes each (with 146 members present, and voting).
In order to break the tie, the outgoing General Assembly President – Rudiger von Wechmar of Germany– drew lots, as specified in Article 21 relating to the procedures in the election of the president (and as recorded in the Repertory of Practice of the General Assembly).
And the luck of the draw, based purely on chance, favored Kittani, in that unprecedented General Assembly election.
But according to a joke circulating at that time, it was rumored that the winner was decided by the flip of a coin — but the tossed coin apparently had two heads and no tail.
Samir Sanbar, a former UN assistant secretary-general and head of the Department of Public Information (DPI), told IPS the 1981 election brought back memories of his early years at the U.N. “when Ismat Kittani, in varied positions at the UN, was always proud of his Iraqi Kurdish heritage”.
He served as Chef de Cabinet of Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, Iraq Representative to the U.N., Director-General of Iraq Ministry of Foreign Affairs and candidate for GA President, said Sanbar, who served under five different secretaries-general during his professional career at the UN.
“When we visited Baghdad with the Secretary General, he was part of the U.N. team; Saddam Hussein, then Iraqi Deputy President requested he return home. And he did”.
“Yet his loving and beloved wife refused to go, agreeing to reside in Geneva. The tale of a coin with two heads and no tail is a reflection of Kittani’s vibrant sense of humor. And may his soul rest in peace”, said Sanbar, author of “Inside the United Nations: In a Leaderless World”
Going down memory lane, Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, who was a member of the Bangladesh Mission to the UN back in 1980, told IPS: “Coincidentally, I was in Paris on the day of the election attending, as part of the Bangladesh delegation, the first UN Conference on Least Developed Countries (LDCs) hosted by the French Government.”
Bangladesh was so confident of winning that Ambassador Kaiser’s election team had arranged for bottles of champagne for the victory celebration.
“Delegates comforted us by saying that Bangladesh did not lose face as the vote ended in a tie. So, it was a bad luck for Ambassador Kaiser, not a defeat. Losing by vote would have been worse and a clear verdict against his candidacy,” he added.
Setting the record straight, Ambassador Chowdhury said there was a fourth “K” who was also a candidate in that election– Abdul Halim Khaddam, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Syria.
So, there were really four “Ks” – Kaiser, Kittani, Koh and Khaddam, not 3 “Ks”—reflecting the multiplicity of candidates.
According to the Rules Procedure, the two candidates getting the highest votes in the first ballot were eligible for a second and subsequent ballots till the winner emerged. So, Koh and Khaddam were dropped from the second ballot.
That ballot produced the tie between Kaiser and Kittani, said Ambassador Chowdhury,
the first UN Under-Secretary-General from Bangladesh and High Representative of the UN.
Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 70s, when UN member states competed either for the presidency of the General Assembly, membership in the Security Council, or for various UN bodies, the voting was largely undermined by offers of luxury cruises in Europe—and with promises of increased economic aid to the world’s poorer nations tied to votes at the UN.
In a bygone era, voting was by a rare show of hands, particularly in committee rooms. But in later years, a more sophisticated electronic board, high up in the General Assembly Hall, tallied the votes or in the case of elections to the Security Council or the International Court of Justice, the voting was by secret ballot.
In one of the hard-fought elections many moons ago, there were rumors that an oil-soaked Middle Eastern country was doling out high-end, Swiss-made wrist watches and also stocks in the former Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), one of the world’s largest oil companies, to UN diplomats as a trade-off for their votes.
So, when hands, both from right-handed and left-handed delegates, went up at voting time in the Committee room, the largest number of hands raised in favor of the oil-blessed candidate sported Swiss watches.
As anecdotes go, it symbolized the corruption that prevailed in voting in inter-governmental organizations, including the United Nations — perhaps much like most national elections in authoritarian regimes.
Just ahead of an election for membership in the Security Council, one Western European country offered free Mediterranean luxury cruises in return for votes while another country dished out — openly in the General Assembly hall— boxes of gift-wrapped expensive Swiss chocolates.
So, it wasn’t surprising that the Ambassador of a middle-income developing country, who kept losing successive elections, jokingly told his Foreign Ministry officials: “Let’s stop running for elections until we can practice the fine art of stuffing ballot boxes — as we do back home.”
Fathulla Jameel, a former UN Ambassador and later Foreign Minister of the Maldives, recounted a story of how his resource-poor island nation, categorized by the UN as a Small Island Developing State (SID), would appeal to some of the richer nations to help fund the country’s infrastructure projects.
At least one rich Asian country, a traditional donor, was the first to respond – and magnanimously too, he said. The project would be fully funded —free, gratis and for nothing.
But there was a catch: “If there is a vote at the UN, and it is not of any national interest to your country”, said the donor country’s foreign ministry, “we would like to get your vote.”
The offer was a clever political payback. Development aid with no visible strings attached.
Footnote: *The nine all-male Secretaries-General over the last 78 years include Trygve Lie from Norway, 1946-1952; Dag Hammarskjöld from Sweden, 1953-1961; U Thant from Burma (now Myanmar), 1961-1971; Kurt Waldheim from Austria, 1972-1981; Javier Perez de Cuellar from Peru, 1982-1991; Boutros Boutros-Ghali, from Egypt, 1992-1996; Kofi A. Annan, from Ghana, 1997-2006; Ban Ki-moon, from the Republic of Korea, 2007-2016 and António Guterres, from Portugal, 2017-present.
This article contains excerpts from a recently-released book on the United Nations—largely a collection of political anecdotes. Titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” the book is available on Amazon. The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/
IPS UN Bureau Report