15 APRIL 2012


As the legendary Juan Somavia prepares to leave the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva, a heated competition to replace him is already underway. Although that organisation is part of the U.N. Galaxy, it has existed well before the U.N. was established. Its selection process is slightly more complicated. It has three tiers: representation of Employees; Employers; and governments. The Chilean intellectual/diplomat/communicator managed to work effectively at all levels for an unprecedented three term period after arranging an initial election. His reputation, nationality and contacts facilitated a smooth, though at times controversial, management. His impact was such that very few would recall the name of his predecessor. He and his many friends and admirers should be proud of his impressive international service, whether at ILO or, before that, as a very distinguished Permanent Representative of Chile in New York.

These are changing times. Diplomats and senior government officials are less discreet about their quest for international posts. Several have been openly pursuing them for years. So do governments, most of whom no more hide behind a fig leaf of seeking the most professionally qualified to pushing the most politically convenient -- the only limitation is what the rest of the international community will be able to accept.

Looking at the field of potential candidates, it is obvious that another Latin American would not be feasible, particularly that the newly-elected head of another major agency, FAO in Rome came from Brazil; also, another Chilean, Michel Bachelet had been appointed at USG level as head of UN Women (though her performance thus far is still open to question). An Asian would be unlikely, again because another one of the Big Four, The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva itself is Chinese (while the U.N. Secretary General is Asian).

UNESCO is headed by a capable Eastern European from Bulgaria (Ms. Irina Bokova), while the UN Regional European Office in Geneva is led by the formidable Eurasian, Under-Secretary General Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and the other European office in Vienna is headed by a Russian, Ambassador Yuri Fedetov. Germany already has UNEP and USG/Disarmament in New York. Italy has UNRWA. France will certainly be very interested in a senior posting next door. It once had the post of UNESCO Director General (Rene Mehu assisted brilliantly by Mehdi Elmendjra) and the post of Director General in Geneva. But it has now established a fixed claim on the U.N. Peacekeeping most senior post and pushed for appointments (however fictitious or merely symbolic) of anxious Quai d'Orsay diplomats that new claims would require a very convincing campaign. Africa would be in a likely position, having given up FAO, if its officials reduce their internal squabbles and focus on presenting one of their several qualified candidates.

The Arab world is glaringly unrepresented at the current U.N. system. However given the tragic status of the once touted Arab Spring, agreement on a candidate seems unlikely; unless countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council produce a candidate who would accept a substantial salary cut to reside by the Swiss Alps. Perhaps a Francophone North African Arab supported by France would have the best chance, or an African Francophone (but not the boring Mr. Ping again!). Otherwise, if it puts its house in order and does its homework properly, the prospects of France heading ILO could become a welcome reality. What would strengthen its hand is the fact that after a long administration by a Director General from Developing countries, it is now the turn for someone from an industrialized one. And if France could not produce a predominant one early enough, perhaps their neighbours across the Channel would come in around bell time. After all, there was a time when the U.K.'s Wilfred Jenks actually ran that place by the Lake effectively for over two decades.