INTERVIEW: Selection of next UN Secretary-General has been game-changing process, says outgoing General Assembly President

Mogens Lykketoft, President of the seventieth session of the General Assembly, gives an interview for the UN News on the Assembly’s work during its current session. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

8 September 2016 – On 15 June 2015, the United Nations General Assembly elected Mogens Lykketoft – a Danish national – to serve as the President of its seventieth session. At the time of his election, Mr. Lykketoft was the Speaker (President) of the Danish Parliament, a position he had held since 2011. Born on 9 January 1946, it was a fitting coincidence that he would turn 70 during his term as President of the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly– a personal fact he highlighted during his acceptance speech to the world body upon his election.

His tenure as President of the UN General Assembly – which ran from September 2015 – comes to an end this September 2016.

From the outset, Mr. Lykketoft strongly believed that if the UN was successful with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and getting the Climate Agreement, the whole discussion on the implementation of these and the accompanying partnership – with member states, business sector, financial institutions, civil society – that would get this started as quickly as possible, would be one of the most important things.

In addition to these, the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly set, as an important item on its agenda, the re-evaluation and re-validating of the different tools of peace and security efforts of the United Nations.

Among its highlights, the 70th Session also set what Mr. Lykketoft has described as “a unique priority to create maximum transparency and influence from the general membership on the selection of the next Secretary-General."

Based on those priorities, the UN News Centre asked Mr. Lykketoft, in an interview, to give his assessment of the UN General Assembly’s performance during his tenure as president.

Mr. Lykketoft: I think we have made good progress on the SDGs and Climate. It is very much up to the governments now, to follow the recommendations and ideas from the United Nations, in order to create the financing and the cooperation necessary in each and every country, but there is a process for this also going on in the ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) Chamber. But, on the SG (Secretary-General) selection process, what I have heard from the member states is uniform support for the way it has been performed, and a very high level of satisfaction that finally, after discussion of this during twenty years, we did it; we took the lead in the General Assembly, to get a good conversation with all the candidates: knowing better their personality, their priorities, and having – in connection with these hearings; these informal dialogues – one of the most substantial discussions about the future challenges of the United Nations that we have ever had, at least during this year and other sessions.

UN News Centre: Of course your attempt to have a transparent process has been there for the whole world to see, but then when it comes to the straw polls; would you say you are entirely happy with the way they have been conducted?

Mr. Lykketoft: Well, this has been a delicate process. We have run it in close coordination with the Security Council; the Security Council has accepted each and every step we have taken. It has also changed the balance somewhat, I think, between what is happening in the General Assembly and what is happening in the Security Council who, by the way, is a collection of fifteen members of the General Assembly. They have their Charter obligations to make proposals for the General Assembly. I think what we have done has had substantial influence also on the priorities for the candidates in the Security Council. So this has been a game-changing process; of course we don’t know the outcome, but we know that the degree of transparency for the general membership to take part has come to stay; it will not be turned backwards again.

The President of the UN General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, has hailed the level of transparency and involvement of UN member states in the selection of the next UN Secretary-General, which he said, was a unique priority for the 70th Session of the world body. In an interview with the UN News Centre, before the end of his tenure as President of the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly, Mr. Lykketoft said, "the degree of transparency for the general membership to take part has come to stay; it will not be turned backwards again."

UN News Centre: Okay, you have been the President of the 70th Session, which is still on-going – coming to an end soon – what is the significance of the fact that you have been president at the time when the UN is beginning this journey of an ambitious, transformative 2030 Agenda?

Mr. Lykketoft: I think, what was the very, very important outcome of the way we had written the Sustainable Development Goals, is that we recognise the total interdependency between the fight against hunger and inequality, the fight for education and health services for all mankind, with the urgent necessity of fighting against Climate Change and environmental degradation; that we cannot expect that we will be able to mobilise the necessary resources for all the good things – fighting hunger, and creating education and other services – if we are not very quickly dealing with Climate Change. Because Climate Change is a dire warning that if we don’t stop it, there will be hundreds and hundreds of millions of people forcibly displaced in a few decades and that will swallow up all the resources we need to make a sustainable development.

The outgoing President of the UN General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, has called on the international community to take greater responsibility and make stronger commitment to support refugees and internally displaced people- displaced both by conflict and effects of Climate Change. In an interview with the UN News Centre, just before he wraps up his presidency on 13 September 2016, Mr. Lykketoft said the world has witnessed some of the worst conflicts, creating "unprecedented humanitarian catastrophes," and hence, the need for more work to be done.

UN News Centre: And the situation around the world, especially the conflicts and humanitarian crises; people out there don’t see the UN as doing enough. What is your reaction to this perception?

Mr. Lykketoft: What they see is, unfortunately, right. The UN has not been equipped with the support from member states – the Security Council; the support from the major members of the Security Council – to fulfil its role as the international organisation creating peace, containing conflict … of course we are doing a lot of good things with peacekeeping operations around the world, but some of the most dominant conflicts like Syria, Yemen, South Sudan; we have not been able to … we have not had the decision – power in the UN family – to deal with it successfully, and that has created unprecedented humanitarian catastrophes and unprecedented number of refugees and internally displaced people. Of course we have not, in the General Assembly, been able to end the conflicts; that is the obligation of the Security Council, but we have of course had to deal with the humanitarian consequences of all the conflicts, and also Climate Change in Eastern Africa and Southern Africa, also creating humanitarian catastrophes.... And I think, the summit now, on the 19th of September, and the beginning of the new Session, will very much be about creating much, much stronger obligations; commitment from the international community and from the richer countries, etcetera, to support those people who are the victims of the humanitarian catastrophes; we need $20 billion more a year, to give additional support for those who are driven away from their homes by conflicts and Climate Change. That is a lot of money, but it corresponds to four days of armament spending in this world, every year. So we should be doing it. We can do it, and I hope that the meeting of the 19th of September will be an important step forward in this aspect.

UN News Centre: What should be done to make the world have more faith in the UN system, based on those things that are frustrating, like failure to end conflict, and so on?

Mr. Lykketoft: I think that we have to build on the good experiences we have; that we realised the interdependency amongst us, and amongst the challenges with the SDGs and the Climate Agreement. We have to build on the good example of the Iran Nuclear deal, which was a negotiated outcome of preventing further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We have to build on what was actually, finally or too late, written down in a Security Council resolution in December on a roadmap for peace in Syria, but actually realise also, when we talk about international terrorism; that those questions that are the common existential questions for all of us, must have a much, much higher attention than those questions that divide us because, if we don’t act like that, we will not be able to have anything like a harmonious and sustainable world for the next generation. I think the understanding of this may be increasing, given to examples of the SDGs, etcetera. But we need urgent action also when it comes to peace and security, and that is also the reason, I hope, that this process of selecting the next Secretary-General will end up giving us a very strong personality; an independent personality of moral authority, a great diplomat and politician that can actually place the United Nations in its foreseen role as the organisation freeing new generations from the scourge of war.

UN News Centre: The issue of reforming the UN system has been echoed through the 69th presidency and now the 70th; how close have you come, in your presidency – or in the 70th session – to getting to these reforms?

Mr. Lykketoft: Well, in talking about reforms, we are talking about different things. I think that it will be very much the task of the new Secretary-General also to insist on organisational changes inside the UN Secretariat structure and with the funds and programmes, so that the United Nations can be better fitted to deal with the most important issues of the future, of course, incorporated in the SDGs. So that is one thing, which also has to do with changing the budgetary processes. It is much easier to maintain old mandates – 50, 40, 30 year-old mandates – than it is to get the resources for the new important tasks to be fulfilled, for instance, by the Secretary-General. We have to change that.

But I think your question is also about the Security Council, in particular. There we have a kind of catch 22 because you can’t change the Security Council without having a two-third majority among the member states, and the ratification from the Permanent Five we have now. So that is, of course, the real explanation why this has been going on for more than twenty years without real progress. There is, also in this Session, during the work of the Ambassador of Luxembourg with the member states, a manifested will to enlarge the Council so that it will become more representative of the geopolitical reality of the 21st Century. But on the very important questions of: will there be more permanent members? What about the veto power, and so on, there has been no real progress. And I have said it consistently in these discussions, that the first necessary condition for change here is that there will be a two-third majority bringing themselves together on a specific model for this, and then there will, maybe, even then be opposition from some of the permanent members, but that may maybe overcome if two thirds of the countries come forward for compromise – a negotiated member states compromise – to a specific model for the future Security Council.

UN News Centre: How has it been for you, personally, being the GA President for the 70th Session?

Mr. Lykketoft: it has been a very challenging- a very fascinating role; I was not quite aware, when I accepted the nomination, that it was so much different from the position I had just come out of as Speaker of the Danish Parliament. As President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, you are very much involved, directly and indirectly, in appointing co-facilitators for different processes; in creating the political decisions. And that has been very, very interesting, and I think I have been able to use some of the experiences from Danish politics with many, many parties, and no party having their own majority, and that is certainly also the situation in the United Nations.


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