U.N. Looking Ahead to the Days...


That tongue-in-cheek ad isn’t likely to appear in the help-wanted sections of the world’s major newspapers any time soon, but it does serve to illustrate a point.

The United Nations is looking for a new secretary general to replace Peruvian diplomat Javier Perez de Cuellar, whose term expires in December, 1991. And by all indications, filling the top U.N. post will not be easy.

To begin with, not just any bureaucrat will do. Although technically the secretary-general is responsible for managing the U.N.'s 14,000-person staff and for administering its $1-billion annual budget, his primary role is as an international statesman.

There also is the delicate problem of just who would be acceptable from a diplomatic standpoint. The U.N.'s first secretary general, Trygve Lie, was a Norwegian, which ought to have made him sufficiently inoffensive. But his reappointment was blocked by the Soviet Union.


Dag Hammarskjold, an unknown diplomat from neutral Sweden, was expected to prove innocuous enough, but he, too, eventually ran afoul of Moscow. When he died, in a plane crash, he was replaced by U Thant of Burma, who was appropriately more cautious. But Thant got into trouble for his role in the 1956 Suez Crisis.

For the next 10 years, the U.N. was run by another European “neutral"--Austria’s Kurt Waldheim, who later was accused of having lied about his Nazi past.

In 1980, Peru’s Perez de Cuellar became the first Latin American to hold the job. Now, as his second term draws to a close, he plans to retire, and the lobbying for possible successors is already under way.

Under the U.N. Charter, the five permanent members of the Security Council hold veto power over the appointment--an arrangement that critics contend has excluded activists and insured a succession of safe, neutral bureaucrats. Here’s a rundown on the competition:


* Delegates from the 51 African countries that are U.N. members already are demanding that after 45 years’ tenure by three Europeans, an Asian and a Latin American, it’s time that the post finally goes to one of their number.

African candidates haven’t fared well in the past for two reasons: That continent’s longstanding divisions--between English and French-speaking countries as well as between Arab North and black Sub-Saharan Africa--have prevented the region from exercising any real clout.

And Western enthusiasm for African leadership has been soured by the performance of Senegal’s Amadou M’Bou as director of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Both the United States and Britain have quit UNESCO to protest politicization.

If Africa’s time has come, however, there is no shortage of candidates.

Two Nigerians are in the running--Maj. Gen. Joseph Garba, the popular president of the 1989-90 U.N. General Assembly, and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. The tall, handsome Garba gained respect by deftly averting a showdown this year when the United States and the Arab countries clashed over Arab demands for a special General Assembly session to condemn Israel for human rights violations in the occupied territories. The United States threatened to withhold overdue membership assessments if such a session were called. Garba persuaded both sides to back off.

Another African contender is former Tanzanian Foreign Minister Salim Salim. The United States vetoed Salim’s candidacy against Waldheim, partly because the Tanzanian took part in a Third World “victory dance” in the General Assembly hall to celebrate China’s return to the U.N. in 1971. Time may have eased Washington’s resentment--although the U.S. ambassador who opposed China’s return was George Bush--but the affable and witty Salim could have difficulty extricating himself from his present post, that of secretary general of the Organization of African Unity.

A fourth African candidate, Olara Otunnu of Uganda, holds good credentials as president of the International Peace Academy, a New York foundation that is associated with the U.N. But at 39, Otunnu may be too young for the U.N. job. And he is on the outs with the current Ugandan government.

* Other delegates say the new secretary general should, for the first time, be a woman, symbolizing the post-Cold War society. Norway’s multi-talented premier, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a physician and a mother of four, leads the list of women candidates.


“If there’s no unity on an African candidate, the Security Council will look elsewhere,” a U.S. diplomat said recently. “In that case, Mrs. Bruntland is very likely to be chosen.” Regional considerations aside, Brundtland would seem to have it all. An effective speaker, with a firm grasp of world affairs, she served as Norway’s minister of the environment before taking over the government in 1986. Well-acquainted with the Third World, she chaired the commission that is laying the groundwork for the next world environmental conference in Stockholm next year, where the role of developing nations will be emphasized.

Bruntland already has turned down invitations to be director of two specialized U.N. agencies--the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization--and a Norwegian diplomat says she “won’t campaign” for the secretary general’s job. But he says she probably wouldn’t turn it down, either. “As long as she thinks she may still have a leadership role in Norwegian politics, she would want to stay home--although I think it would be hard to refuse the secretary generalship.”

* Also finding backing among major Western industrialized countries is another Scandinavian--this time a Finn named Martti Ahtassari, who headed the Namibia peacekeeping operation. In a sure sign of its support, France has invited him to Paris to learn French.

The industrialized countries regard him as competent and incorruptible, but he’s not likely to win much support among Third World governments, even though he won the respect of African diplomats during the long Namibian independence process. That makes his prospects unclear at best.